On my 11th birthday I gave myself a precious gift: I sneaked in some late-night TV time. Wrapped in a blanket in the messy, improvisational way of children, I sat with my knees tucked under my chin determined to watch “Monday Night Football.”
I wasn’t even that into football, but the chance to steal a little taste of what I thought looked like adulthood was too good for me to pass up. I didn’t know any better, and how I wish I had. Because that was the night, on what at first seemed an innocuous play and another quarterback sack for Lawrence Taylor, when the Washington Redskins’ quarterback, Joe Theismann, had his lower leg snapped in two.
I don’t know whether I decided that night that sports and birthdays don’t mix or it was decided for me. But on the 33 birthdays that have come and gone since then, I avoid sports.
That is, with one exception. Tennis. Watching tennis has tended to soothe rather than agitate me. Tennis has bridged the gap between that young version of myself and whatever stage of life I’m at now. And so, as my wife ran yet another weekend race in Central Park and our daughters did the millions of things that they tend to do on a Sunday morning, I spent the first daylight hours of my birthday under the spell, for one last time, of the 2018 tennis season.
For many fans, tennis withdrawal begins just after the U.S. Open concludes. But then there are some like yours truly who waited out the last flickering lights of the last Davis Cup match before those pangs truly begin. Winter is coming. The cold is already here in the Northeast. I’m lucky to sneak in an hour or two of indoor court time to slake the old tennis thirst in me, but the tour has shut up shop.
The old guard of the men’s tour once again split the biggest prizes in the game among themselves. Including the 2004 season, 60 Grand Slam tournaments have been played. Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic have won 50 of those. You read that right: 50. For two seasons running, all of the Grand Slams have been won by these three players.
When Roger Federer won the first Grand Slam of 2018, the Australian Open, and Rafa Nadal won the second, the French Open, it seemed to me like we were well on our way to seeing more of Federer and Nadal dominate. In 2017, Djokovic had mysteriously fallen apart, and the first half of this year bore all the signs of a continuation of his wane. I missed him. The ruthless, millimetric precision of his game is something you appreciate most after it has been gone for a while.
It wasn’t gone for long. For most of the second half of 2018, the stage lights fixed themselves back on the 31-year-old Serb. Djokovic seemed not only unbeatable but practically unplayable. He won his fourth Wimbledon title; he followed up by winning the prestigious warm-up to the U.S. Open in Cincinnati, the U.S. Open after that and then one of the biggest prizes of the fall, the Shanghai Masters, where he audaciously lost neither a set nor a service game.
The year had one more twist: youth. Brave, resilient youth. In the finals of big tournaments, no less. I was excited to catch a glimpse of it.
Only two tournaments remained: In Paris, Djokovic lost in the final to 22-year-old Karen Khachanov of Russia. In straight sets. And at the Nitto ATP Finals in London this past Sunday, Djokovic squared off against 21-year-old Alexander Zverev — and lost, again in straight sets.
The temptation is strong to embrace these results as signs of some long-awaited sea change. Are these results the dawn of a new age for the talented young players to challenge for Grand Slam titles?
I’m not buying it. I’m buying it a little. No, I’m not buying it. O.K., maybe this time. Who knows? But it has been so long since a young player has turned a major victory into the fuel for a sustained run in major tournaments. Haven’t we heard the enthused prophesies bestowed now on Zverev and (somewhat now) on Khachanov before?
Still, now on the other side of 30 and carrying the mileage of a long season in his head and body, an in-form Djokovic couldn’t beat back the surging tide of talented youth. (The only other loss for Djokovic after his Wimbledon resurgence was in Toronto against 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece.)
Tsitsipas, Khachanov and Zverev are different types of players cut from a similar physical mold: Tsitsipas is 6-foot-4, while Khachanov and Zverev are both 6-foot-6. Professional men’s tennis players may not be better these days, but they certainly are bigger. And in each of their matches against Djokovic, especially the final two against Khachanov and Zverev, the young players brought a physicality to their matches that sufficed when and how experience could not.
Maybe this is where the reign of Roger, Rafa and Novak is now heading: Maybe now, after a decade of seeing a few players win just about every important tournament, these upstart post-Grand Slam uprisings are the first step to whatever it is in tennis that’s coming next.
None of the “young guns” have made a dent in a Grand Slam tournament yet, and seven players in the year-end top 10 are over 30. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect the next big thing in tennis to emerge at the majors anymore. Boris Becker winning Wimbledon at 17. Michael Chang winning the French Open at 17. Back then most tournaments were five-set contests. Now the five-set matches on the A.T.P. Tour are mostly at the Slams.
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That recent Sunday in November, I took some time for myself on my birthday and watched as Zverev collapsed to the floor in joy and relief after defeating Djokovic in the Nitto final. I started to think about how, once again, the reflex would immediately be to hail the future as having arrived. We’ve heard it again and again: The future is here; the future is now.
And yet, when the lights have gotten hottest and the matches have grown to their longest, the same players have been standing there in the end. I saw it on Djokovic’s face as, unimpressed with waiting at the net for Zverev to rise to his feet and meet him at the net for the post-match handshake, he crossed over to Zverev’s side of the court, looking down at him with a wry and friendly smile on his face but with another expression in his eyes.
I don’t quite have the words for it, but come January in Melbourne, we’ll know what it meant.