End of an empire?

Novak Djokovic @ 15/8
Carlos Alcaraz @ 2/1
Rafael Nadal @ 7/2
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Iga Swiatek @ 4/5
Ons Jabeur @ 11/1
Simona Halep @ 12/1
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A fascinating aspect of the study of civilisation collapse is how quickly the decline can take place.  As soon as one key block is removed, the whole Jenga tower – which may have stood untroubled for centuries – suddenly begins to wobble ominously.

Greek historian Cassius Dio famously observed that the accession of emperor Commodus in 180 AD was enough to trigger the Roman Empire’s descent “from a kingdom of gold to one of rust and iron”.

Are we about to witness a similarly abrupt end of an empire in the world of men’s tennis?

It used to be the case that a small group of talented players would dominate for a few years.  Then, following that few years; a younger, fitter, hungrier group of practitioners would relegate the previous group to the outside courts.

But when the Big Three became firmly established as an entity (or Big Four, if you choose to include Stan Wawrinka) they successfully withheld the attacks from the subsequent generation.  Rome was not sacked.  And Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori and Grigor Dimitrov have precisely 0 grand slam titles to show for their efforts.

Proponents of regime change eventually began to look past that bracket – surely the next swathe of tennis talent would be sufficiently youthful and ravenous to conquer the now aging Big Three empire?

But while Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Alexander Zverev have certainly achieved more than the previous trio of challengers, there is nothing to suggest they will ever be able to exert a vice-like hold on their sport.  Thiem has struggled with injuries, Medvedev has only excelled on hard courts, and Zverev – to quote another distinguished scholar of history (ex-England footballer Theo Walcott) – is merely ‘consistent in patches.’

However, just when people had begun to begrudgingly accept that men’s tennis was now a discipline whose grandest prizes would be contested by the Big Three in perpetuity…Carlos Alcaraz entered the picture.

In February, Alcaraz won the Rio Open – becoming the youngest player to win an ATP 500 event.  In March he won his first ATP 1000 event, the Miami Open – becoming the youngest player to win that tournament in its history.  In April he won the Barcelona Open, and in May he lifted the Madrid Open trophy high into the air.

Adding even more significance to this most recent achievement, which took place just after his 19th birthday, was the fact that he beat both Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on his way to glory.

Significant damage had been inflicted.  The Jenga tower had begun to sway.

But at the Italian Open last week – which, fittingly, took place in Rome – the empire struck back.  Djokovic, judging his return to competitive tennis to absolute perfection, once again looked imperious – dismissing two, young, would-be Visigoths on his path to triumph.

Alcaraz had bypassed Rome, saving himself for Roland Garros, but Djokovic has suddenly bypassed Alcaraz as the favourite to win in Paris.  For Nadal, though, who has dominated the tournament since he won it on his very first visit way back in 2005, there is a feeling that his personal epoch of dominance may be over due to a persistent, untreatable foot injury.

A seeding quirk, however, has resulted in all three of these major contenders being planted in the top half of the draw.  Nadal, if fit, could meet Djokovic in the quarter-finals; and the victor could face Alcaraz in the semis.  Last year’s runner-up, Stefanos Tsitsipas, is best-placed to be an unlikely finalist from the bottom section.

The stage is set, then, for the men’s side of this year’s French Open.  Are we finally reaching the end of an era?  Or is this merely the latest in a very long series of false dawns?

The women’s game has already begun bearing witness to the formation of a new empire.  The Era of Iga.  Poland’s Iga Świątek is the world No.1, and is currently in the midst of a remarkable 28-match winning streak that has seen her triumph in 5 consecutive tournaments.  Nobody has exerted this kind of supremacy since the decline of The House of Williams.

Will the 20-year old empress succumb to the enormous weight of expectation?  Or has she already established a robust, seemingly impervious, empire state of mind?

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