Competitive Balance

Wimbledon 2018, Competitive Balance, and the Bright Future for (American) Men's Tennis

Tennis is one of my biggest passions. I played all four years in high school and I still love to play and watch. Right now, my third favorite pro tournament of the year is going on: Wimbledon (if you're curious, the U.S. Open and Australian Open are my top two because hard court play is much more entertaining to watch). I love Wimbledon because it's fascinating to watch the pros fly around on the age old grass courts in their traditional whites. It reminds me of watching tennis early on summer mornings with my dad when I was a kid. 

Watching Wimbledon also reminds me of a conversation my dad and I have had many times, regarding how American men have, quite frankly, sucked at tennis for a long time. I must exaggerate the "men" part of that sentence, since American women have dominated, or have at least been very successful, in recent years (with Serena Williams being the ultimate tennis GOAT). However, their male American counterparts haven't won a grand slam since Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003. 


Yes, it's been 15 years since an American man won a grand slam. In addition, the U.S. has not even had a male player reach the finals of a grand slam since Wimbledon 2009. That's crazy to think about. 

Even more bizarre is the juxtaposition of how good U.S. men's tennis was prior to 2003. An American man won at least one grand slam every year between 1989 and 2003. During those 14 years, the U.S. won half of all the grand slams, 28 of 56. This was thanks to a trio of legendary American players, Pete Sampras (who won 14 slams), Andre Agassi (who won 8), and Jim Courier (who won 4). Two other Americans, Roddick and Michael Chang each had one as well.  

So what happened? Why has the U.S. not had a male champion in 15 years? The answer is simple. There is a lack of competitive balance in tennis. It's not just the U.S. Nor is it even that there hasn't been a true American male tennis star since Agassi. John Isner, Sam Querrey, and Jack Sock are just a few U.S. players who have cracked the top 15 ATP world rankings in recent years. Each of them are great players and have won several titles, just not majors. Isner is even renowned for having the fastest serve on the tour, averaging 135 mph. However, none of them have really gotten anywhere near actually winning a major. 

So what is this competitive balance thing? It's how even the playing field is in any sport. It's how much of a chance any team, or player, has to win their respective championship each year. For example, there is great competitive balance in the NFL, not including the New England Patriots. A different football team wins the Super Bowl every year. Contrast that with the NBA, which has horrible competitive balance. The Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers have gone head-to-head in four straight championships. There is an even bigger lack of competitive balance in professional men's tennis. 

Since Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003, men's tennis has been absolutely dominated by "the big four." These four players- Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokivic, and Andy Murray- have combined to win 51 of the last 58 grand slams. Let that register in your head for a minute. Four players have combined to win 88 percent of slams in the past 15 years. Only one in twelve grand slams since 2003 has been won by someone outside of the big four. That's insane. That's a lack of competitive balance. 

You could even make an argument that it should be the big three, not the big four. Murray is always included in this group by tennis snobs; however, he realistically shouldn't be. He has only won three majors. The others have all won many more. Federer, the GOAT, has 20. Nadal, who owns the French Open, has 17. Djokivic, the defensive master, has 12. So if you don't include Murray, the big three, as it were, have won 48 of the past 58 slams, still a ridiculously high 83 percent.

Please don't think I hate the big four. I don't. Djokivic is by far my favorite player. I love the way he plays and I try to model my own game after his. I also love watching Federer and Nadal play, frankly because they're just so damn good. However, much like basketball fans getting tired of watching the Warriors beat the Cavs in the finals every year, I am tired of only seeing one of the big four on the podium.

This year is looking to be no different. Federer and Nadal have already won the Australian Open and French Open. Federer is the clear favorite to win Wimbledon, which would be his ninth time to do so. Not quite as dominant as Nadal's 11 wins at Roland Garros (the French Open), but still an incredible feat. It isn't a given that Federer will win the tournament, but his biggest challengers are the main other members of the big four, Djokivic and Nadal. Although, perhaps, Alexander Zverev might present a challenge as well.

Zverev is currently ranked third in the world in the ATP rankings. He is the first German man to realistically have a chance at winning a major since Boris Becker won the Australian Open in 1996. As I speak, he is playing American Taylor Fritz in the second round of Wimbledon. This is the best match I've watched so far this tourney. Both players are dominating with their powerful first serves, playing solid defense with long rallies, and are painting the lines with their ferocious forehands. Zverev is clearly the better player, but Fritz is easily holding is own and I think he will shoot into the top of the rankings in the next year or so. 

This match gives me hope. Not just because Fritz is an American, although I always root for my countrymen; rather, because both Fritz and Zverev are very young in tennis standards. Zverev has shot to the the top of the rankings after a big year in 2017, and he is barely 21 years old. He currently sits behind only Federer (age 36) and Nadal (age 32). These are legends, players who have dominated the sport since Zverev was in kindergarten and he's right there, breathing down their necks, itching for his first major title.

Fritz, although he is much farther down in the rankings (currently at 68), is bursting into the pro tennis scene with enthusiasm. He is just 20 years old, only two months older than me, and is giving it his all against the number three player in the world on perhaps the biggest stage in the world. 

It's not right that the big four have dominated the sport for so long. It's not right that Federer is still the favorite at 36. It's not right that a young player hasn't won a major in years. None of these things are good for the tennis world. But this match, with the American whose not even of the legal drinking age yet winning, is good for the tennis world. It's great. It's entertaining. More than that though, it brings much needed hope.

Will Fritz surpass Sock, Querrey, and Isner as the next great American male tennis star? Will Zverev claim his first grand slam? Only time will tell. But for the first time, in a long time, there is a lot of hope for young men's tennis players, including the Americans.