In the normal world, tennis fans would’ve been preparing for the start of the 2020 French Open this week.
Remember Neill Blomkamp? I do, sometimes.
He debuted with District 9 in 2009 – produced and championed by Peter Jackson – that blew everyone away, garnered Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay Oscar nominations, and had critics and the like tripping over themselves to anoint him as the next big thing.
He followed it up with Elysium and Chappie – two well-intentioned but misguided and ultimately lacking efforts that had him plummet down the totem pole of relevance.
The new car smell had washed off. It echoes the mountain top to base camp slide of Duncan Jones (Moon to Source Code to Warcraft to… Mute) or Donnie Darko’s Richard Kelly who has pretty much vanished off the face of the earth.
Let’s call it the ‘illusion of the next’.
Now the analogy might not be quite one to one, but the illusion of the next trend has been playing out on the WTA tour for the last half decade. Much like Blompkamp, Jones or Kelly, players such as – deep breath – Ash Barty, Naomi Osaka, Sloane Stephens, Simona Halep, Madison Keys, Garbine Muguruza, Jeļena Ostapenko, Bianca Andrescu, and now Sofia Kenin and Coco Gauff have all, at one time or another – or in the midst of – been dubbed ‘the next big thing’.
Hell, there were a bunch of articles written up the moment Gauff beat Osaka early in this year’s Australian Open. And when Osaka beat Serena Williams in the 2018 US Open final. One begets the other, begets the other. Caught up in the maelstrom of reactionary takes instead of checking the form lines over the last few years which paints a much more accurate and interesting picture.
We’ve been so used to dominance of an athlete that the moment a young star breaks through with a major title, or rocket up the rankings, we’re salivating over whether they’ll be the one to dominate the sport for the next decade. Like Serena Williams, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal do. Like Steffi Graf, Chris Evert, Pete Sampras, Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova before. Unparalleled and unquestionably the player(s).
There was an innate understanding between fans and players that to win a major or be world number one, you would have to go through them.
For context, we’ve had ten winners of the past twelve majors over the last three years since Serena last won a major at the 2017 Australian Open. I had completely forgotten Bianca Andreescu and Jelena Ostapenko’s victories at the 2019 US Open and 2017 French Open, respectively. At the start of the decade, Caroline Wozniacki was world number one. Since then we’ve had ten new top ranked players.
On the men’s side, there’s been four – Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Andy Murray in that weird parallel timeline after he had won Wimbledon for the second time.
It speaks to an uncertain but exciting future of women’s tennis. This constellation of stars who’ve already proven themselves on the biggest stages vying for dominance in ever shifting field. Sure, it was heartbreaking that Barty wasn’t able to triumph in her hometown major – falling to Kenin in straight sets – but at least she was there at the pointy end.
The same goes for Halep – eviscerating all before her until she ran into the stubborn will of Muguruza – whose game scoured away all of Halep’s momentum. We’re witness to a revolving door of players scrambling to get purchase atop the mountain.
Contrast that to the perennial bridesmaids that are all the players not named Nadal, Djokovic or Federer on the men’s side. Cursed with being born in the wrong era, taking honourable fourth round or quarter final exits.
Barty’s loss in the semi-final hurts particularly. Like Osaka, she’s moved from a nation’s hope to expectation. While she had some shaky moments along her run, she was on the whole, a class above. It wasn’t charmed or from out of left field. This wasn’t a tournament where belief in something one could only dream of beforehand was materialising, impossibly, as time went on.
We expect to see her as a mainstay, to be constantly contending. To rack up major wins over the course of her career. The thing is, everyone else is bunched up with her. It’s truly an open-ended question to predict which of the dozen or so players can be the first to reach double digit major wins, or even five majors for that matter.
The endless jostling will give us matchups in the second week of the slams that would look like those crazy ‘what if?’ bets we all wish we had the guts to lay money down on.
As the decade begins I say, embrace the chaos to come. Not enough for you? How about increasing the matches for women at Majors from three sets to five? It might give us a clearer picture of who can last at the top, or it could throw more variables into the equation.
Sure, it’ll wreak havoc with schedules but I have complete faith in the tournament organisers to come up with a solution that works for everyone.
For most of the players in the mix, youth is very much on their side. Their primes not even reached yet, and the illusion of the next will continue propping up players who come roaring into the pros like a shooting star. Time is not an enemy for them, but the view at the top has become more crowded than ever.