Tennis legend Roger Federer wasn’t his usual self as he bowed out of the Shanghai Masters quarter-finals.
Over the last couple of years in men’s Grand Slam tennis, save Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the results have been as inconsistent as ever.
Players ranked three and four in the world have been regularly shot down in the first week (see Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev and Marin Cilic at Wimbledon this year, and at the US Open last year), and finalists of the previous slam have lost in the opening rounds (Dominic Thiem, also at this year’s Wimbledon, Kevin Anderson at the Australian Open, and Milos Raonic at the 2016 US Open).
Additionally, those who have been reasonably inactive in recent months, or even years, are suddenly playing like top-ten players and taking down big names – Ernests Gulbis, Gael Monfils, Raonic and Kei Nishikori have all made the second week of this year’s Wimbledon, leaving high-seeded opponents scratching their heads.
Pundits are scratching their heads, too at why the seedings don’t seem to add up to the results.
It’s a far cry from the past ten years, when the ‘big four’ and the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Tomas Berdych, Raonic (who was extremely consistent between 2010 and 2016), David Ferrer and, for a few years, Stan Wawrinka regularly got through the first week, leaving the less consistent players bereft of any opportunity to show their talents in the later stages of a slam.
Often the eight quarter-finalists were almost a perfect sequence of seeds 1-8 – at the 2015 Australian Open, seven of the top eight seeds were quarter-finalists.
So, what has happened to result in this free for all?
Firstly, the combination of the tour length, the slowing of the courts, and the long clay-court season have left the younger generation simply unable to play their best tennis week-in week-out.
Additionally, the sheer number of quality players in the top 25 is astounding. Solid and seasoned campaigners like Kevin Anderson and Sam Querrey have, after years of being ranked in the 30s and further down, taken their games to another level. Anderson made the US Open Final in 2017, and Querrey the semis at Wimbledon and the quarters at the US Open last year.
Add to that the almost non-stop production line of talented base-liners from France and Spain, such as Pablo Carreno Busta (a US Open semi-finalist last year) and Lucas Pouille (who made two quarters in 2016), and a lot of regular changes in the top 20 rankings.
Players who happen to be ranked and seeded three through eight by the time a slam has arrived are not players who’ve occupied that spot for long. Therefore, nobody can be certain that they can stand up in best-of-five tennis like the seeds of the past.
Purists of the game may suggest this generation lacks the work ethic and mental strength of the past ones, bemoaning that the likes of Dimitrov, Zverev and Nick Kyrgios will never win a Grand Slam. However, this situation opens the door for just about any player in the top 25, or any player good enough to be there.
If they have a ‘hot’ week at a slam, they could find themselves in the final 16, with higher seeds knocked out by themselves or others. This will be emphasised when all four Majors reduce their seeded players from 32 to 16 in 2019.
When Federer and Nadal leave the game, or truly decline, the state of men’s tennis will be fascinating. For around 15 years, we’ve had five players sharing the bulk of the slams – we could soon reach a point where there are new winners every year.