After the Australian Tennis Open (ATO), it’s worth reflecting on the comparative states of the men’s and women’s games.
When the youngest male left in the draw – 20-year-old Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas – knocked out the oldest – Swiss maestro Roger Federer (37) – pundits declared the long-awaited “changing of the guard” in men’s tennis was under way: on a clear day you could see the end of the era dominated by the big three – Novak Djokovic, Federer and Rafael Nadal.
The pundits were probably grateful that nothing ages as fast as the news or, as the old journalistic maxim has it, “today’s front page is tomorrow’s fish and chip paper”. In the semi-finals, Nadal trounced Tsitsipas and Djokovic disposed of 24-year-old Frenchman Lucas Pouille with equal nonchalance to set up what was billed as a repeat of their epic 2012 ATO showdown, the longest-ever grand slam final.
That didn’t eventuate, either, as Djokovic humbled the Spaniard with a display that prompted this extraordinary admission from a TV commentator: “I’m out of superlatives.” Needless to say, he wasn’t. Just as arsonists never run out of matches, sports commentators always have hyperbole to spare. His co-commentator produced this cautionary example of the perils of striving to invest sport with vast significance: “[Djokovic’s] greatness, as always with these champions, is in his uniqueness. And that, tonight, was unique.”
A regular complaint about women’s tennis is that they get equal pay for unequal work in that men play best of five sets, women best of three. It landed with some force in 2012 when the Djokovic-Nadal final lasted five hours 53 minutes, whereas the women’s decider between Victoria Azarenka and Maria Sharapova was all over in 82 minutes. Azarenka, the winner, pocketed US$34,900 for every minute she spent on court compared with Djokovic’s US$8340. There were no grounds for complaint this year: the men’s semi-finals and final proceeded with unseemly haste to straight-sets outcomes with the three losers winning a combined total of 18 games.
In fact, the giddy excitement that greeted Tsitsipas’ victory over Federer followed by the emphatic return to business as usual underlined the predictability of men’s tennis as a result of the big three’s dominance. Of the 57 grand slam finals beginning with the 2005 ATO, the big three won 48. To look at it another way, only five other men have won a grand slam title in that time. In contrast, 22 women have won grand slams since January 2005.
Djokovic and Nadal are great players and we should never tire of watching the greats. Yet it can’t be denied that familiarity breeds, if not contempt, then a certain sense of resignation. We watch out of obligation rather than anticipation.
Anyone who had to force themselves to sit through the wildly compelling women’s final between Japan’s Naomi Osaka and Czech Petra Kvitová is dangerously jaded. Kvitová isn’t a new sensation: she won the first of her two Wimbledon titles – and went to No 2 in the world rankings – in 2011. But getting to this final was something of a second coming given that she suffered serious tendon and nerve injuries to her left hand – she is a left-hander – in a late-2016 knife attack during a home invasion.
Osaka is the new sensation. Indeed, she could be a poster girl for new sensations. She’s exotic, having a Haitian father and a Japanese mother whose parents strongly disapproved of their daughter’s choice of husband. She’s a rare talent, the winner of the last two grand slams and the youngest ever woman to be ranked world No 1. And she’s a character, simultaneously shy and quirky. After winning at Indian Wells last year, she began her victory speech with, “Um, hello … I’m Naom … oh, never mind.”
And right now, she’s the hottest ticket in the game.
This article was first published in the February 9, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.