Last Sunday, Rafael Nadal won yet another clay-court title to complete a seemingly faultless run-up to the French Open. A defeat to Dominic Thiem is the only red mark on the surface this year, as was the case in 2017.
To put his success into context, this month he broke John McEnroe’s 34-year-old record, winning 50 straight sets on one surface. Rather than basking in the glory, Nadal responded to praise by simply stating, “It’s over, let’s not talk about it any more and let’s continue on what we have ahead.” It is perhaps this drive and determination that has allowed him to dominate so much on one given surface over the past decade, holding a 92 per cent win record over 400 matches.
This recent supremacy (that has removed any form of healthy competition) however is one that has found particular prominence in the past two years, as he has swept past everyone in pursuit of yet more titles. The French Open last year, for example, was one where, not only did he fail to lose a single set over the fortnight, but one where he wasn’t even taken past 6-4 in any match.
This dominance however is one that has slowly been ruining the spectacle of the sport’s most prominent tournaments, particularly when you add Roger Federer into the equation, who similarly went through Wimbledon last year without dropping a set. While there is something beautiful about watching the sport’s best playing at this level so late on in their careers, tennis has been lacking real competition ever since Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray stepped off their prime.
The sport hit its peak five years ago, as the so called “Fab Four” produced some of the finest grand slams of all time. What is needed now is for the next generation to step up in an attempt to create some healthier competition. Alexander Zverev provides hope for a necessary change in the eyes of many. A stellar campaign on the clay this year to back up his good work of 2017 has allowed him to be considered as the leader of this next generation with a “1000” rated title on the surface in each year. Yet at just 21 he is still plagued by the inconsistencies that take years to perfect.
This is perhaps where the issue lies; the highest ranked player outside of Nadal and Federer is at such a premature stage of his career that the burden is too much. With former grand slam winners of a more mature age: Marin Cilic, Stanislas Wawrinka, Djokovic and Murray being plagued by injuries and inconsistencies, too much pressure has been put on the younger generation to compete with the greats.
This has facilitated a lack of competition in the sport and this will continue for the short-term. Nadal is going into this French Open hitting his prime once again, and the chances of him dropping a set, let alone a match are slim to none. Expect yet another one-sided, unspectacular tournament.