It’s a complete guessing game, but it’s still fun to discuss: Will the legacies of the four most prominent and successful tennis players of today — and maybe ever — be affected by the coronavirus-interrupted 2020 season?
And how will Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — known as the Big Three of the men’s game — along with Serena Williams, fare whenever they do return to competition? (Federer is out until 2021 after twice needing arthroscopic knee surgery.)
Call them the Big Four. They rule their sport, on and off the court, and have done so to such an extent that no matter how many wins and losses might come the rest of the way, their places in history are secure. Williams owns 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the most in the professional era. Federer has a men’s-record 20, Nadal 19 and Djokovic 17; no other man has more than 14.
They drive interest among tennis fans and non-fans, alike.
Let’s be honest: What happens with them matters more than with other players, particularly when Williams is trying to equal Margaret Court’s all-era mark of 24 majors, and when Nadal and Djokovic are closing in on Federer.
Also intriguing: Their ages. Federer and Williams turn 39 soon; Nadal is 34, Djokovic 33.
“It could be like, ‘Huh, I really enjoy spending time at home.’ They’re not in the rat race. There’s no momentum. So emotionally and mentally, they could think, ‘Ugh, do I really want to do this again? Do I really want to start up with training? Can I really, 100%, be focused?’” said Chris Evert, an 18-time major champion. “Or, on the other side of the coin, they could have a sense of urgency and think, ‘OK, I really need to appreciate my tennis for another year or so and I need to achieve my goals now. I’m not getting any younger.'”
Wimbledon should have been happening right now but was called off for the first time since 1945 because of the COVID-19 outbreak. Sanctioned tennis has been suspended since March and, as of now, is scheduled to resume in August; the U.S. Open begins the last day of that month. The French Open, postponed in May, is now slated to start Sept. 27, two weeks after the U.S. Open ends.
“It’s much easier to (get) a body ready (that is) 21 years old, than a body that is 34 years old. That is 100 percent. But at the same time, a 34-year-old body and mind have much more experience than a body and mind of 21 years old. So I don’t know what’s going to happen,” Nadal said.
“In general terms, it’s better for a young guy, because all this period of time that we lost, a young guy has plenty of time to recover. An older guy, in terms of ‘timing,’” Nadal said, using his fingers to signal quotation marks, “we lost the same amount of time, (but) in terms of perspective, it’s different. Because losing a year at 34 or 36 or 33, is not the same as losing a year at 20, when you have all your career in front of you.”
Perhaps Nadal skips the hard courts of New York, where he’s the defending champion, to be better rested and prepared for the red clay of Paris, where he could match Federer’s 20 Slam triumphs with No. 13 at Roland Garros. Maybe Djokovic opts to go to the U.S. Open after sounding negative about it, figuring an absent Nadal ups his own chances.
Federer’s best shot to add to his total probably would be at Wimbledon, where he’s won eight times. Hard to say how many more attempts he’ll get.
Williams, meanwhile, made it to the finals at four of the past seven Grand Slam tournaments, going 0-4. And even if she surprisingly bowed out in the third round at the Australian Open in January, there’s little reason to believe she couldn’t make another run, especially at the U.S. Open, where she is a six-time champion and was the runner-up in 2018 and 2019.
As for the prolonged break, Williams said: “I felt like my body needed it, even though I didn’t want it. And now I’m feeling better than ever. I’m feeling more relaxed, more fit. Now I’m just like: Now I can go out and play real tennis.”
Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press. Write him at hfendrich(at)ap.org or http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich
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