“A tennis ball is the ultimate body. Perfectly round. Even distribution of mass. But empty inside, utterly, a vacuum. Susceptible to whim, spin, to force -used well or poorly. It will reflect your own character. Characterless itself. Pure potential.” — David Foster Wallace

Tennis should be at the top of the list for sports with the greatest athletes. I’m in awe of what great athletes they are.” — Retired baseball superstar Alex Rodriguez

Fifty years from now, when tennis approaches its 200th birthday, the past decade will stand out as a Golden Era. Not just because the three greatest men and the greatest woman in the annals of the sport competed. But also because they majestically dominated the 2010s, and the men produced riveting rivalries. Tennis lovers who witnessed these four titans will regale their grandchildren with stories about their unique playing styles, charismatic personalities, and classic matches. Never before had a tennis ball been struck with such power, spin, and virtuosity, or had its athletes moved with such speed and grace.

The writer David Foster Wallace rhapsodised about the most revered champion in a New York Times essay, “Federer as Religious Experience”: “The metaphysical explanation is that Roger Federer is one of those rare, preternatural athletes who appear to be exempt, at least in part, from certain physical laws. Good analogues here include Michael Jordan, who could not only jump inhumanly high but actually hang there a beat or two longer than gravity allows, and Muhammad Ali, who really could ‘float’ across the canvas and land two or three jabs in the clock-time required for one. There are probably a half-dozen other examples since 1960. And Federer is of this type — a type that one could call genius, or mutant, or avatar.”

Like Ali, Federer was far more than athletic genius. Unquestionably the most popular player in tennis history, Federer won the annual ATP Fan’s Favourite Award an astounding 17 times and the ATP Sportsmanship Award 13 times. A respected and vocal leader off the court, the Swiss elder statesman, now 38, also served three successful terms as president of the ATP Player Council. Moreover, Federer transcended tennis and earned universal acclaim as a humanitarian. His foundation invested more than $50 million in education initiatives in Southern Africa and Switzerland.

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While The Mighty Fed is considered by many as the greatest player of all time (GOAT), of his men’s record 20 Grand Slam titles, only five were captured during this past decade. His longtime archrival, Rafael Nadal, far surpassed that with 13 major titles. In fact, the muscular Spaniard both started and ended the decade with a bang, capturing three majors as a 24-year-old in 2010 — when he dethroned Federer — and two in 2019 to increase his career total to 19. Should he equal Federer’s record 20, Nadal will likely become the new GOAT because he also claimed an Olympic gold medal and more Masters 1000 titles, 35 to 28, than Federer. All that, despite missing eight majors in the 2010s due to injuries.

What is indisputable, though, is Nadal’s exalted status as the all-time King of Clay. His unimaginable 12 titles at the French Open doubled Bjorn Borg’s second place total of six. And it set a record that will never be broken at Roland Garros or any other major. Eight of those 12 came in eight finals in the 2010s. “On clay, he is virtually unbeatable,” acknowledged Federer. “There is nobody who even plays remotely close to him.”

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King of Clay: Rafael Nadal with the French Open trophy after defeating Roger Federer in the final in 2011. The muscular Spaniard both started and ended the decade with a bang, capturing three majors as a 24-year-old in 2010 — when he dethroned Federer — and two in 2019 to increase his career total to 19.

 

Also in 2019, Nadal strengthened his hard-court credentials by winning his third US Open. Emerging star Daniil Medvedev, before the final, admiringly said, “He’s just a machine, a beast on the court.” With the same relentless consistency and ferocious intensity that won Nadal’s first major in 2005, the machine from Mallorca ground down his 10-years-younger opponent in a five-set marathon. At 33-1/2 a more versatile Nadal stunningly played better than ever, hitting his serves and groundstrokes harder and serving and volleying occasionally to surprise Medvedev. Afterwards, Nadal and the crowd raptly watched a fascinating video of the highlights of his 19 major titles, prompting Nadal to say, “It’s one of the most emotional nights in my tennis career.”

While less celebrated than the sublime artistry of Federer and the beastly ferocity of Nadal, the ruthless efficiency of Djokovic has trumped both. Impeccable strokes and footwork married with superb fitness and mental toughness made it the Djokovic Decade. Not only did the 32-year-old Serb lead the terrific triumvirate with 15 majors, he also outpaced them with 29 Masters titles, four ATP Finals crowns, and five year-end No. 1 rankings. (Nadal wound up with 20 Masters and no ATP Finals titles and four year-end No. 1s; Federer with 12 Masters and two ATP Finals titles and no year-end No. 1s.) Formidable on every surface, Djokovic also became the only man to capture all nine Masters titles.

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Despite all his achievements, a two-year Grand Slam drought had the extroverted but introspective Djokovic questioning his ability and even his passion for tennis. After winning his only French Open in 2016, he endured a mystifying slump — complicated by elbow problems and coaching changes — that worsened with a dismal 6-6 match start in 2018. But then, suddenly, shockingly, the speedy Serb exploded to capture his fourth Wimbledon crown. The title run was highlighted by Djokovic’s razor-thin 6-4, 3-6, 7-6, 3-6, 10-8 semifinal classic over Nadal. “There were times of doubt, frustration, disappointment, where you are questioning whether you want to keep going,” he told the BBC. “So, to be where I am now is quite, quite satisfying.” The resurgent Djokovic has now seized four of the past six majors.

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All-time classic: In the 2012 Australian Open when Nadal, who led 4-2, 30-15 on his serve in the fifth set, missed an easy backhand passing shot by inches, Novak Djokovic came back to prevail 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5 in the five-hour and 53-minute final. The 32-year-old Serb made it the Djokovic Decade, leading the terrific triumvirate with 15 majors.

 

Although Djokovic had played third fiddle to Roger and Rafa until 2011, he often came out on top against them during the decade’s most compelling and unforgettable matches. For sustained brilliance and suspenseful twists and turns, the 2012 Australian Open final ranks as an all-time classic, second only to the Nadal-Federer 2008 Wimbledon final among the greatest matches in history. When Nadal, who led 4-2, 30-15 on his serve in the fifth set, missed an easy backhand passing shot by inches, Novak Djokovic came back to prevail 5-7, 6-4, 6-2, 6-7, 7-5 in the Grand Slam record 5-hour and 53-minute final.

“You consider yourself very fortunate to play in this era,” said American veteran John Isner, echoing the sentiments of contemporary players who marvelled at the legendary Big Three as much as sports fans.

The second-best duel of the 2010s also featured Djokovic. Retrospectively, it may turn out to be the most pivotal match in the unofficial GOAT competition. Why? Federer entered the 2019 Wimbledon owning 20 major titles with fast-charging Djokovic still five behind at 15. Had the Swiss maestro prevailed in the final, the chance that Nadal, or even Djokovic, would overtake Federer would have decreased significantly.

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Calling Wimbledon “the Holy Grail of tennis,” Djokovic competed as if his tennis life depended on capturing it. In the marathon final, Federer displayed his vast repertoire of mind-boggling shots as highly partisan spectators cheered him boisterously. But Djokovic countered with sounder groundstrokes and higher percentage tennis. Playing better when it mattered most, especially in the newfangled deciding set tiebreaker, the resilient Serb staved off two championships points and triumphed 7-6 (6), 1-6, 7-6 (4), 4-6, 13-12 (3). “I’m looking to make history,” said an exultant Djokovic. He sure did.

Andy Murray, though overshadowed by the Big Three, made a bit of history himself. Sir Andy — he received a knighthood in 2016 — became the first British man in 77 years to win a Grand Slam singles title at the 2013 Wimbledon. Murray also grabbed two US Open titles and a record two Olympic gold medals, surpassing even the Big Three.

Quite astonishingly, the decade started with Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic ranked 1, 2, and 3 and ended with ageless legends Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer ranked 1, 2, and 3.

Serena steals the show

On the women’s tour, experience also triumphed over youth during the decade that was. But it didn’t take a triumvirate of 30-somethings. Just one superstar renowned world round by her first name — Serena.

Although 38-year-old Serena Williams faded as the decade wound down, she still won 12 of her 23 Grand Slam titles, three WTA Finals crowns, and an Olympic gold medal. Consider this: Her closest, so-called “rival” won just three major titles.

And that’s just part of Serena’s whirlwind life. She also became a wife and mother, overcame life-threatening illness, hobnobbed with celebrities, launched businesses, created a capital investment firm (Serena Ventures), turned into a cultural icon, pushed the fashion envelope, advocated for a host of worthy causes, especially women’s rights, and often courted controversy.

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Hungry for more: Serena Williams with her daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. Although 38-year-old Serena faded as the decade wound down, she still won 12 of her 23 Grand Slam titles, three WTA Finals crowns, and an Olympic gold medal. Consider this: Her closest, so-called “rival” Angelique Kerber won just three major titles.

 

“Serena stole the headlines no matter what she did,” said former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport, a Tennis Channel analyst.

What Serena did in 2010 foreshadowed the rest of her roller coaster decade. Trailing No. 7 seed Victoria Azarenka 6-4, 4-0 in the Australian Open quarterfinals, she pulled off the comeback of the year to win 4-6, 7-6, 6-2. In the final, Serena stopped the redoubtable Justine Henin 6-4, 3-6, 6-2.

On July 7, 2010, four days after capturing her third Wimbledon title, Serena severely cut her right foot on broken glass at a Munich restaurant. Two surgeries were followed by complications from a pulmonary embolism in 2011 and urgent treatment for a massive hematoma. Serena called the ordeal, which briefly left her in critical condition, the “scariest moment of my life.”

Serena never met a challenge she didn’t embrace. But, after missing three majors in 2010-11, she struggled mightily to regain her championship form. A shocking first-round loss to No. 111 Virginie Razzano at the 2012 French Open left Serena so distraught she holed up in her hotel room for two days. Serendipitously, though, coach Patrick Mouratoglou invited her to train at his academy outside Paris. Kindred souls, they hit it off, and he helped her technically, tactically, and especially psychologically. Starting with the 2012 Wimbledon, she rebounded to take five of the next seven Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal.

When Serena racked up the first three Grand Slam titles in 2015, the pressure mounted on two fronts. With 21 major titles, she now had her sights on Steffi Graf’s 22 majors, and Margaret Court’s record of 24 was no longer on the distant horizon. More important, Serena was going for a rare Grand Slam — all four majors in one calendar year — a feat only Maureen Connolly (1953), Court (1970), and Graf (1988) had achieved.

Her quest for a Grand Slam riveted sports fans, but Serena wasn’t enjoying it. “It’s hard and lonely at the top,” she confided to Vogue magazine. “Everyone wants to beat you. Everyone talks behind your back, and you get a lot of criticism.” In the US Open semifinals against 250-1 longshot Roberta Vinci, Serena choked in an excruciatingly tense third set and was upended in a 2-6, 6-4, 6-4 shocker. “This is absolutely the biggest major upset of all time,” said ESPN analyst Pam Shriver.

In 2017, while eight weeks pregnant, Serena collected her 23rd and last Grand Slam title at the Australian Open, defeating her older sister Venus in the final. After giving birth to daughter Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr. on Sept. 1, she reached four major finals, but lost decisively each time as mediocre play and nerves did her in.

Lamentably, Serena sullied her reputation at the US Open starting in 2009 when she exploded after being foot faulted against Kim Clijsters. Brandishing her racquet, she angrily cursed and threatened a Japanese lineswoman. Two years later, just as her two-year probation was expiring, Serena repeated her disgraceful tirades during a shocking US Open final loss to Samantha Stosur.

Age never mellowed the hyper-intense American, and in the 2018 final against Naomi Osaka, Serena verbally abused the chair umpire, calling him “a liar” and “a thief.” For that and other transgressions, Serena was fined $17,000. Her bad behaviour at Flushing Meadows was ironic because New York spectators fervently supported her. Equally unsporting, Serena all too often was a sore loser, failing to give her opponents the credit they deserved.

Who challenged Serena, even if episodically?

Angelique Kerber, a late-blooming German, was the best of the 20 other women major champions (compared to only six for the men) in the 2010s. The lefty counterpuncher grabbed three Grand Slam titles at the 2016 Aussie and US Opens and the 2018 Wimbledon and earned a silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

Petra Kvitova, Azarenka, Maria Sharapova, and Li Na each won two majors before adversity derailed their careers. The hard-hitting Kvitova overpowered opponents to win the 2011 and 2014 Wimbledons. In the feel-good story of the decade, the popular Czech lefty rebounded from a horrific December 2016 stabbing to reach the 2019 Australian Open final.

Azarenka, a highly competitive Belarussian with superb groundstrokes, peaked in 2012 and 2013. She captured two Australian Opens and lost three-set US Open finals to Serena, before injuries and a bitter child custody battle hampered her.

Sharapova, never considered a clay courter, surprisingly won the 2012 and 2014 French Opens. More stunning, though, the statuesque Russian tested positive for the banned drug meldonium during the 2016 Australian Open. After a 15-month suspension, the world’s second-richest female athlete was a shadow of her former self on court and made only one Grand Slam quarterfinal.

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Confession: Maria Sharapova, never considered a clay courter, surprisingly won the 2012 and 2014 French Opens. More stunning, though, the statuesque Russian tested positive for the banned drug meldonium during the 2016 Australian Open. After a 15-month suspension, the world’s second-richest female athlete was a shadow of her former self on court and made only one Grand Slam quarterfinal.

 

When the charismatic Li captured the 2011 French Open, the final was watched by 250 million Chinese, twice as many TV viewers as for America’s Super Bowl. A Chinese newspaper editorial called Li’s triumph, which was the first major singles title won by a Chinese [and Asian] player, “The most glorious achievement of 30-plus years of Chinese sports.” Li, who also captured the 2014 Australian Open, ignited a tennis boom in China, which now stages more women’s pro tournaments, six, than the U.S.

More than any player this decade, Simona Halep learned from the long, hard school of defeat to transcend discouragement and succeed. Four months after losing her third straight Grand Slam final at the 2018 Australian Open, a 7-6, 3-6, 6-4 heartbreaker to Caroline Wozniacki, the stylish-stroking Romanian won the French Open for her first major title. She then trounced Serena 6-2, 6-2 in the 2019 Wimbledon final, calling it “the best match” she ever played.

Former No. 1 Clijsters joined Court and Evonne Goolagong as Open Era mothers who returned to the pro tour and won major titles. After a two-year retirement, the crowd-pleasing Belgian took the US Open in 2009-10 and the Aussie Open in 2011, and then retired again at the end of 2012. Now 36, Clijsters, taking a cue from all the 30-something champions, recently announced she would pull yet another comeback and rejoin the tour in 2020. Three rising stars — powerful Osaka, athletic Ashleigh Barty, and versatile Bianca Andreescu — closed the decade by winning majors with panache. And who can forget the terrific Wimbledon debut of 15-year-old American prodigy Coco Gauff? “She’ll be a giant star of the sport,” predicted former No. 1 Jim Courier.

This truly historical era was also marked by the continuing decline of serving and volleying and the one-handed backhand (Stefanos Tsitsipas is a refreshing exception), the increased use of analytics, new stadium roofs, and the introduction of serve and warm-up clocks. There were tiebreaker changes at Wimbledon and the Australian Open, a controversially revamped Davis Cup, omnipresent social media that praised and pilloried players, and the presence of increasingly towering players like 6’11-3/4” Reilly Opelka, the tallest in pro tennis history.

Prize money also reached record heights. Barty pocketed a staggering $4.42 million for winning the 2019 WTA Finals, far more than any man had ever earned at a tennis tournament.

 

Mirza, Paes, and Bopanna win Slams in doubles

During the 2010s, India enjoyed its greatest success in doubles. Sania Mirza used her big forehand to win three Grand Slam titles with Martina Hingis — Wimbledon and the US Open in 2015 and the Australian Open in 2016 — and finish No. 1 in the year-end rankings both years. The versatile Indian star, whose first name means “brilliant,” also captured the mixed doubles crown with compatriot Mahesh Bhupathi at the 2012 French Open and with Brazilian Bruno Soares at the 2014 US Open. In 2016, Mirza was named to the “Time 100,” a list of the 100 most influential people by TIME magazine. After leaving the pro tour for two years to give birth to her son Izhaan, Mirza is returning to the pro tour in 2020. “I am 32 years old, I am not so young as a tennis player,” she said in November 2019. “But I would die if I did not try. Tennis is my life, it has given me everything. I still have it in me.”

Like Old Man River, Leander Paes just kept rolling along. The 45-year-old Paes parlayed his deft volleying and clever tactics to capture eight of his career 18 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles during the decade — four with Hingis and two each with Cara Black and Elena Vesnina. In 2010, Paes and Bhupathi, nicknamed “The Indian Express,” set a Davis Cup record for the longest doubles winning streak with 24 straight wins.

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Winning combination: Leander Paes of India and Martina Hingis of Switzerland with the mixed doubles trophy at the 2016 French Open. Like Old Man River, Leander Paes just kept rolling along. The 45-year-old Paes captured eight of his career 18 Grand Slam mixed doubles titles during the decade — four with Hingis and two each with Cara Black and Elena Vesnina.

 

Rohan Bopanna, 39, became the fourth Indian player to capture a Grand Slam title in 2017 when he partnered Gabriela Dabrowski to the French Open mixed doubles crown. Bopanna, who with Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi reached the 2010 US Open doubles final, attained a career-high No. 3 doubles ranking in 2013.