The equal prize money debate refuses to go away. When you have one of the top 3 male players continuing to raise the issue, it’s not going to disappear quietly. Andy Murray is right to say that men’s tennis is a different sport to the women’s game. But his call for either the women to play best-of-five sets at Slams or men to play best-of-three is reactionary and not thought-out. Women’s matches would go on forever if it went to best-of-five, and I do not mean that in a derogatory manner. They just would. This would have severe consequences for any scheduling of Slams. We’d certainly be looking at Slams over 17 or 18 days in my opinion. As for the men slugging it out over three sets; well then we would see some new faces in the final four I guess. Only Djokovic really comes out of the traps hard at all times in the early rounds. Nadal and Murray would be up against it from the off.
And whilst we cannot hide from the fact that currently the women’s game rides the coat-tails of the men’s in terms of ticket income, sponsorship etc., this does not mean it will always be like that. Men’s tennis has been blessed for five years now. Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have been total box office, guaranteeing bums/asses on seats wherever they go around the world. Only Serena Williams really commands the same attention on the women’s side. Sharapova did one time over but I’m afraid her noise put paid to a lot of her admirers. Victoria Azarenka should also have that box office appeal but, as much as I like her, again her noise turns people away. But this will not always be the case. The new generation coming through have learned not to scream and grunt and this will help the women’s game. Incidentally, how fitting that it was Monica Seles who presented the trophies to Serena and Azarenka – I’m sure she was proud of that noisy final! Looking at the players coming through, I have a sneaking suspicion that the women will more than hold their own against the men in the next five years. There is not an awful lot coming through on the men’s side but the women will be fine.
The US Open continues to get scheduling so badly wrong that it’s almost incomprehensible. During the first week, you don’t really have to check the schedule for Arthur Ashe Court. They don’t look for potentially good matches. They just rotate Serena, Venus, Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and inexplicably Caroline Wozniacki. Wimbledon put Andy Murray out on Court 1 for his third round match this summer. Serena Williams has not played on anything other than Arthur Ashe Stadium in the last six years. I can’t access the schedules from before that date, it may stretch even further. From somebody who has sat through a night session involving Serena and Novak Djokovic dropping a total of four games between them, I can’t fathom how this is attractive day in, day out. And the fact that the defending men’s champion had to wait until last thing on Day 3 to begin his campaign is rotten, rotten to the very core. And a 5pm Monday start benefits who exactly? The West coast who are still at work? Sleeping Europe where the finalists were always likely to hail from? I would implore the USTA to sort it out but they are well past caring about fans or players.
Tennis is becoming more and more of a veterans sport. Five of the women’s quarter-finalists were in their 30s and on the men’s side the likes of Stan Wawrinka and Richard Gasquet enjoyed their best turnouts so far, both into their late 20s. Add onto this Tommy Robredo making the quarters after his marathon-man showing in Paris, David Ferrer playing the best tennis of his career in his 30s and Mikhail Youzhny playing as well as he has ever done aged 31, and then there’s Lleyton Hewitt. Ah yes, the man I expected to retire last January. He insists that he just couldn’t do it, no matter what his body was telling him to do. And boy is he being rewarded. Many argue that it’s the increased prize money that is keeping players from retiring. And for some that will be true. If your body isn’t giving up on you, then why turn your back on pay-checks. But for the likes of Hewitt, sporting glory and love of what he does will always come first. You’re a long time retired in this sport and fair play to these boys and girls for not wanting to be airbrushed out of history just yet.
Serena Williams is incredible. She won her first Grand Slam tournament in the 90s, she has won three of the four majors on five separate occasions and has now seen off challenges from her sister Venus, Justine Henin, Lindsay Davenport, Martina Hingis, Kim Clijsters, Jennifer Capriati and Maria Sharapova, whilst continuing to stave off Victoria Azarenka. She’s now won 17 majors, which puts her one behind Martina Navratilova and Chrissie Evert, and I’m starting to think she even has her sights on Steffi Graf’s 22. More tellingly for me, it puts her level with Roger Federer. Whilst she may not have had to play five sets, I would wager that the level of competition in front of her has been tougher long-term than that which Federer faced for a long period of his dominance between 2003 and 2008. So, if we talk about Federer as the greatest and put him ahead of the more competitive eras of Connors, Borg, McEnroe etc, then I argue that we put Serena on the same pedestal.
Which brings me to Rafael Nadal; he definitely has his sights set on catching Federer’s total of 17 majors. Not that he’d admit it of course, and not that he probably believes he can achieve it, such is his modesty. I always felt that the reason Federer tried so desperately for one more major was that he didn’t quite think 16 would be out of reach of Nadal and that 17 would prove to be. But it’s suddenly looking very achievable for the man from Mallorca. His renaissance is one of sport’s great tales – none of us could have imagined at the start of 2013 that he would come back from serious injury and win two of the three majors, go undefeated to date on hard courts and outlast Novak Djokovic, the indefatigable Novak Djokovic, on that surface. Rafa was in the zone during that final; it’s been a long time since we’ve seen him as pumped up as he was at the end of the decisive third set when he saved three consecutive break points at 4-4. As Djokovic watched those points sail by, he knew he couldn’t compete with this man over two more sets. The match was won and lost right there. Djokovic of course played his part as he always does but 2013 is Nadal’s year just as 2011 was the Serb’s. Were the Spaniard to carry this form into early-2014 and win in Melbourne, I would make him odds-on to at least match Federer’s 17 major titles. When you consider the likes of Becker, McEnroe, Lendl and Connors all ‘failed’ to reach double figures, you fully realise how great this last six years has been for men’s tennis. Golden age, enjoy every slam they give us.