Nadal and Federer are two of the most decorated male tennis players ever, boasting twenty Grand Slams each over the course of nearly two decadesBrett Marlow/Flickr

Are you Federer or Nadal? It’s the most frequent tennis question asked by the keenest fans and even by those who don’t know their forehands from their backhands. Soon, however, and at long last, this constant debate will cease.

Rafael Nadal, winner of thirteen Roland Garros titles, failed to claim the French Open in June for the first time since 2016. In the tournament’s aftermath, the 35 year-old Spaniard missed Wimbledon and the Olympics before announcing that he will not compete for the rest of the year to recover from a foot injury. Nadal is showing signs of age.

Likewise, Roger Federer, now 40, has also pulled out of the rest of this year’s tour to have knee surgery, which will sideline him for a number of months. It is very likely that, if Federer recovers at all, the next year he plays will be his last, a farewell tour for his adoring fans. While neither is in their heyday anymore, both Federer and Nadal embodied tennis’s appeal to casual fans, inspired millions to take up tennis, and have been extremely strong adverts for the men’s game: their absence is the game’s loss.

The fading of male tennis’s inspiring figures is not just confined to the sport’s most popular duo. Andy Murray, receiver of much (arguably unrequited) love from British fans, will soon be a name of the past, as a hip injury has forced his absence over large periods of the past few seasons. On his Wimbledon return, he barely made it to the third round, while also losing to Stephanos Tsitstipas in the US Open’s first round last month (30/08). For all his hostile demeanour, Murray has contributed lots to the game, notably firing up fans to fever pitch and presenting a likeable fish-out-of-water personality to spectators – his response to “How do you eat your strawberries?” with the candid line of “With my fingers” made thousands laugh in adoration.

“Djokovic has little hope of generating the same appeal as Federer or Nadal”

Some might say this is too negative a stance and that tennis has as much inspiration on the court as ever in the form of Novak Djokovic, perhaps the best player of all time at the height of his ability. Djokovic’s greatness is undeniable. He is currently attempting to win his 21st Grand Slam title with this year’s US Open, which would make him the outright most successful men’s tennis player ever. He has already broken the record for most consecutive weeks spent as world number one, which currently stands at 337 (09/09).

However, Djokovic has never had the same draw as Federer or Nadal. Although his style of tennis is obviously successful, it has frequently been described as machine-like, a far cry from the elegance of Federer’s one-handed backhand. What’s more, Djokovic’s persona off the court has been polarising. Amid tennis’s forced coronavirus off-season, Djokovic raised eyebrows by stating he was “opposed to vaccination,” and in June last year defied health warnings to organise the ill-fated Adria Tour which saw several invited players, himself included, contract the virus before the tournament was abandoned in disgrace.

“If the youth do not develop into exciting, successful and, importantly, enduring adverts for the game, the future of men’s tennis is lamentable”

On the flip side, tennis fans might be urged to have faith in youth. After all, six of the current ATP Top 10 are 25 or younger, giving them time to grow into the sizable shoes of their predecessors. But they have a long way to go, as none of these six players have a Grand Slam title to their name. In comparison, Federer won his first at 21, while Nadal at just 19.

The current world number two, Daniil Medvedev, embodies the new, less appealing face of tennis. At 25 and still without a Grand Slam, despite his ranking, Medvedev is known more for his unattractive attitude than his game, which opponent Tsitsipas once described as “so boring.” Last month (21/08), he drew headlines for having a shouting match with an umpire and kicking a camera at the Southern Open in Cincinnati. He has frequently drawn anger from crowds for his on-court antics, including giving an audience the middle finger in 2019, and his irritable attitude is what he’s increasingly known for.

Moreover, Medvedev’s tennis is incredibly low-risk, focusing on minimising errors, and therefore not very exciting. As this kind of player changes the sport’s horizon, the armchair fan changes channel, uninspired and without an endearing player to cheer on. If the youth do not develop into exciting, successful and, importantly, enduring adverts for the game, the future of men’s tennis is concerning.


Mountain View

“Now is the time to unite the men’s and women’s tennis tours”

Meanwhile, the declining excitement in the men’s game is made more apparent by the current state of the women’s. As Serena Williams’s monopoly fades, the field becomes more exciting, as Japan’s Naomi Osaka and Australia’s Ash Barty lead the charge. But they are by no means the only ones. The last eight Grand Slam titles have been won by seven different women, highlighting the game’s unpredictability and excitement. Only one of them, Simona Halep, was over 25. Barty, current world number one, is soft-spoken, amenable and, unlike the current men’s number one, draws love from crowds.

Off the court, Osaka has raised public awareness of the mental health challenges faced by sportspeople, winning widespread support and praise as a result. In addition, many women’s Grand Slam tournaments have recently produced surprise success stories that stage an appeal to fans, notably Iga Swiatek’s victory at last year’s French Open aged just 19 and ranked 54th in the world.

So whilst the men’s game declines, as the great inspirers of Nadal and Federer are lost and its players become less endearing, armchair fans should not turn off the TV. The women’s game certainly offers its share of excitement and unpredictability, while the current crop of young male players may in time rise to the standards of today’s legends. But what’s here today will soon be gone tomorrow, leaving a lamentable void in the tennis world.