As we push onto 2010, all manner of news organizations are feeling the need to sum up the decade that was.  Of course, there is an arbitrariness to picking years that end in nice round numbers like 0.  Not everything fits nicely in a decade.  Players like Stefan Edberg had the good years span across a decade boundary, thus having his good Wimbledon years in the late 1980s, but having his good US Open years in the early 1990s.  Some players, like Sampras have careers that mostly fit within a decade (1990 through 2002).

In any case, with men’s tennis taking a break, perhaps a decade long retrospective is good.

In the year 2000, the “Federer generation” began to make news and it happened at the US Open.  Intriguingly enough, although Roger Federer would become the best of his generation, he was something of a late bloomer.  Others of his generation would make a splash early on.

The first signs of the changing of the guards was the 2000 US Open when Marat Safin beat Sampras in straight sets. Up to 2000, Sampras had had a gaudy 13-2 record.  His only losses came to Stefan Edberg in 1992 US Open (a four set loss) and to Andre Agassi in the 1995 Australian Open (also a four set loss).  Indeed, the US Open would be a showcase for the Federer generation.

In 2001, Pete Sampras would again make the finals, but instead of playing the rangy, powerful Russian, Sampras played Lleyton Hewitt, who played like Agassi, but had the intensity of Connors.  This, too, was a straight set loss.  It was only in 2002 when Sampras finally met someone of his generation, namely, Agassi, that he finally won the US Open, his final Slam.  In 2003, Andy Roddick beat Juan Carlos Ferrero for his first and only major.  Both Andy Roddick and Juan Carlos Ferrero are part of the Federer generation (which also includes Safin, Nalbandian, and Hewitt).

The beginning of the “naught”ies, that is the years following 2000 do not mark a clean break.  Indeed, the greatest American generation of players, which roughly started in 1990, were still having an impact.  During the 1980s, there were questions of American tennis.  Who would replace McEnroe and Connors?  Connors started playing well in 1974 and continued to play top tennis until 1983 though his career lasted nearly a decade longer.  Connors competitive fire, the desire to play tennis, far exceeded the quality of his results.  Players began to hit harder and steadier and move quicker.

Still, Connors was a bit lucky.  Because he was perhaps the hardest hitter of his generation (the 1970s) and because the modern power game didn’t really start to take grip until the 1990s, Connors was able to play through the transitional players who were learning to hit with Becker-like pace, but weren’t quite there yet.  That is, he played players where his flat style bothered them.

McEnroe, too, had his best years in the late 1970s to the early 1980s.  Though he would never reach the heights of those years, he was still someone to be feared, especially at Wimbledon and occasionally at the US Open.  McEnroe’s career might have had a nice hurrah had he beaten Agassi or Sampras in the semis of Wimbledon or the US Open respectively (both in the early 1990s).

Thus, as McEnroe and Connors both managed the occasional spark of brilliance long past the heights of their career, extending up to about 1990, they were soon replaced by the Bollettieri generation.  Although Bollettieri’s students were already making noise in the early 1980s, with two players, Jimmy Arias and Aaron Krickstein, it was Andre Agassi that became the iconic Bollettieri player: big forehand, so-so serve, not much of a volleyer.

The Americans of this generation included: Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, Todd Martin, MaliVai Washington, and David Wheaton.  Although not all of these players trained at Bollettieri’s, the Bollettieri influence was undeniable.  These players played against each other.

The class of that field was Pete Sampras and then Andre Agassi.  Agassi, in particular, due to the ups and downs of his personal and professional career, had various times where he was simply not winning, and therefore, not putting his body through the wear and tear that a player like Sampras went through.

Indeed, other than Sampras, who, it should be noted, made 3 US Open finals in a row starting in 2000, and this, during a period of time when most felt Sampras had long past his prime.  However, post 2000 really was Agassi’s period.  With Sampras on the decline, and Agassi having rediscovered tennis, Andre had some of the best years of his careers in the early part of the decade, admittedly, in the friendly confines of Australia.

Perhaps it was the rust that other players had, or the time zone differences, or the heat.  The Australian Open was the one tournament were relative nobodies made it to the finals, often losing to Andre Agassi.

Let’s take a look at the Australian Open finals starting in 2000.

  • 2000 Agassi d Kafelnikov
  • 2001 Agassi d. Clement
  • 2002 Johansson d. Safin
  • 2003 Agassi d. Schuttler

In particular, Clement, Johansson, and Schuttler would never reach another Slam final again.  Indeed, if you look at Agassi’s career starting in 1999, you see that he won 5 of his 8 Slams during that period.  In 1999, he won the French and the US Open.  In 2000, 2001, 2003, he won the Australian Open.  He reached the finals of the US Open in 2002 and 2005.  Although everyone remembers Agassi way back in the late 1980s with the neon clothing, the “image is everything” ads, and the hair that Agassi now says was fake, Agassi’s primary success could arguably be placed in the 2000’s esp. if we cheat a little and take 1999 too.

Agassi was the first player to take advantage of the Sampras void.  Although Sampras played dominating tennis throughout the 1990s, it was mostly at the Slams, and mostly Wimbledon.  For as much as Sampras gets the GOAT label attributed to him, he didn’t play the kind of dominating tennis that Borg, Connors, or McEnroe played.  Sampras never won more than 2 majors in any year, and would have inexplicable lossses to nobodies at lesser tournaments, presumably to save his body for the majors.

Let’s take a look at the French Open.  The French is a strange beast.  Long seen as the “other” tournament, the French inspired players who mastered its gritty surface but struggled on other surfaces.  Thus, the history of tennis prior to the 1970s was really about grass-court tennis, dominated by the Australians and Americans.  Those players occasionally did well enough to win the French too.

During the 1980s, the clay court circuit would often feature dominating performances by the likes of Alberto Mancini and Thomas Muster, players that would do well in Monte Carlo and Rome and Hamburg, but then fizzle to bigger names in the French.  The 1980s had finalists that were recognizable.  Lendl and Wilander were great clay courters that nonetheless could play hard courts too and be relevant on many surfaces.  Those who primarily excelled on clay never managed to punch through at the French.

However, as the 1990s were moving along, the clay court specialists became even stronger, reinforcing the idea that clay court tennis is its own separate game.  These specialists were generally Spaniards or Argentines.  In 1998, Carlos Moya would defeat fellow Spaniard, Alex Corretja, for his one and only Slam.  I 2000, Gustavo Kuerten would win the 2nd of his 3 French Opens over Magnus Norman.  The following year, Kuerten would beat Corretja.  Neither Kuerten nor Corretja ever reached the finals of a Slam other than the French.

Let’s look at 2002-2005 French Open finals

  • 2002 Costa d. Ferrero
  • 2003 Ferrero d. Verkerk
  • 2004 Gaudio d. Coria
  • 2005 Nadal d. Puerta

Ferrero could be seen as a very good player and Nadal became a true champion, but Costa, Gaudio, Coria, and Verkerk? Coria was the number 3 seed, but could almost be considered a 1-hit wonder, a player that peaked for a year, and had maybe 2 other good years, but was otherwise irrelevant.  These years had to be seen as a bit of a low in tennis, where the best of the best were not contending.

Indeed, once Sampras started fading in the early part of 2000, there was a vacuum left.  This was particularly noticeable between November 2000 to February of 2004 when the following players were number 1: Marat Safin, Gustavo Kuerten, Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi, Juan Carlos Ferrero, and Andy Roddick.

Indeed, the lack of a dominant player was noticeable starting in 1996-1999 when Thomas Muster, Marcelo Rios, Carlos Moya, Yevgeny Kafelnikov, and Patrick Rafter would all spend time at number 1.  Admittedly, Sampras had a 102 week period during this time where he was number 1.

Then, came 2004.

Between 2004-2007, Roger Federer became the most dominant player the game has seen.  During this period, he won 11 Slams in 16 attempts.  In the other 5 Slams, he was a finalist twice, a semifinalist twice, and lost in the 3rd round to Gustavo Kuerten at the French.  During this period, he achieved the Small Slam three times: 2004, 2006, and 2007.  No other pro in the Open era has achieved it more than once.  Connors won 3 of 4 in 1974 (he was banned from the French Open) and Wilander won 3 of 4 in 1988 (Wilander never made the finals of Wimbledon).  Rod Laver, of course, won the Grand Slam in 1969.  He won in 1962 as well, but that was pre-Open era, when the best competition were playing pro tennis and banned from these tournaments.

In the latter half of the decade, a new group of players were starting to rise to challenge the Federer generation.  In 2005, Rafael Nadal won the first of 4 consecutive French Open finals.  In 2006, Andy Murray served notice by beating Roger Federer in the 2nd round of Cincinnati.  Roger Federer lost 5 times in 2006.  The other 4 losses?  Rafael Nadal.  (In Rome, Monte Carlo, French Open, and Dubai). Andy Murray would start to gain more attention in 2008 when he reached number 4.

In 2007, Novak Djokovic would reach the semifinals of 3 of 4 Slams, and in one, the US Open, he would make the finals, losing to Roger Federer.  Djokovic would become a solid number 3.  In 2008, Juan Martin del Potro would come out of nowhere to beat Andy Roddick and eventually reach the top 10.

The generation that followed Federer would include: Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Juan Martin del Potro, and other players like Marin Cilic, Tomas Berdych, Sam Querrey.  Because these players made strides in the middle of the decade, they are likely to have buzz in 2010 onwards.  Perhaps their success highlight the folly of breaking achievements into decades.

If Sampras’s record 14th Slam win defined the highlight of the 1990s (but stretched in 2002), then clearly, Federer’s 15 Slams with a career Slam defines the 2000s.  Few expected the challenge to Sampras to come so soon after Sampras had achieved the record.  Federer began the assault in 2004 and by 2009 had reached that record, while Sampras achieved the record over a 13 year period (1990 US Open to 2002 US Open).

Now that 2010 is mere weeks away, what will the next decade of tennis bring?