Heading into January, there was a lot of punditry and speculation surrounding any number of tennis phenomena – Kyrgios, Federer, Nadal, Nishikori, Raonic, Dimitrov, Zverev, and the like – but there was one near certainty: it was going to be the year of Murray and Djokovic. Where previously these two had had to share the stage with the other two members of the Big Four, and occasionally had to step aside for Stan Wawrinka, the end of 2016 seemed to have cleared the way for these two to duke it out with each other (and only each other), at the top.
Unfortunately (or maybe not so much for Fedal fans), life is unpredictable, and tennis doubly so. In the few short months, the narratives have shifted from which slams Nole and Andy will split between them, to who between Kyrgios and Zverev will win one first and whether Federer will continue his dominance. Though both have pulled out of Miami with bizarrely the same injury, their season seems to be plagued with more than just physical issues.
A Lack of Motivation
Murray, since snatching the number one spot from Djokovic, seems to have run away with it given the large gulf that separates their ranking points. However, passing such an important career milestone seems to have hit Murray with the same problem Djokovic has apparently been facing since winning his last grand slam – a crisis of motivation. For Novak, the French Open had been that elusive rubber stamp of tennis immortality, ever since Federer denied his first real shot at it back in 2011. Similarly for Murray, with questions surrounding his role in the Big Four given Wawrinka’s third slam win, the year-end #1 ranking was the ultimate validation.
Now with both those goals achieved, both players seem lost out at sea with no idea which shore to swim to. They lack the motivation and drive necessary to win. You can’t just play, you have to love the game, to fight for every ball, something these two players know something about.The two players were known for their mental game, never giving up, often rebounding from sets down to pull out a miraculous comeback. But they seem to have let their victories get to their head. They have no real goals in mind, and they need to find some soon.
Have They Reached Their Peak?
Ordinarily for tennis players of their caliber, success would be achievable – they have more than enough game to coast to great results without a trail to blaze – but there’s the added snag of both players finally turning 30 this year. Something peculiar happens to tennis players after they turn 30 that we seem to have forgotten thanks to Federer and his success: they fade away. Suddenly the consistency falls away. They don’t necessarily get a step slower, they just stop being mind-bogglingly fast as often. Their forehands don’t get less threatening, they just start to threaten with them less. Five set escapes turn into five set heartbreaks, and inexplicable wins become explicable losses.
This is not to say that tennis legends after 30 are finished. Nadal is still as capable of dishing out a beatdown on clay as he was ten years ago, but there have slowly been more and more matches where Nadal has found a way to lose where before there wouldn’t have been one. As miracles become few and far in between, injuries pile up, and the aura of invincibility fades; players become susceptible to losses. For some, it’s unbearable – after all, many tennis players win simply because they hate losing.
While it’s too early to sound the siren for Djokovic and Murray (both have proven pundits wrong often in the past, and this era of tennis is generally unprecedented), it may be time to start tempering expectations. Their slam winning days may be far from over, but the total dominance of years past may be at an end. For all we know now, though, as young talent is on the rise and old rivals are winning back trophies that used to belong to the world numbers one and two, the latter might just be finding their drive again. Andy and Novak will be back, and we along with the rest of the tour better be ready.