‟In old age our bodies are worn-out instruments, on which the soul tries in vain to play the melodies of youth.”
Is this it? The final curtain? The coda? GOATs: Endgame? I have a feeling it might be. And it brings me absolutely no pleasure at all. What at times may have felt like an infinity war in the marvellous universe of men’s tennis over the last 15-20 years, now looks to be approaching the post-credits sequence:
‘We zoom in on Novak Djokovic endlessly bouncing a tennis ball in the centre of an enormous, apocalyptic, CGI crater. He stops bouncing the ball. Slowly looks up to the camera. Grins with ferocious confidence. And then proceeds to bounce the ball some more until it becomes really, really boring. The End.’
Roger Federer arrives at SW19 hoping to eke out one more major title, but his game currently looks wearily buttressed by his still-exemplary service action. The forehand buckles, backhand bum notes glissando into uncomfortable silence; the focus drifts, the grumbling discord intensifies. A reasonable showing on the clay at Roland Garros was followed by a meek exit from the grass court Halle Open. Inauspicious form for a major contender. And he well knows it.
Federer has always spoken of his love of life on the ATP tour, but if he is no longer capable of mounting a serious challenge that love may falter faster than a Las Vegas marriage. But could this really be his last Wimbledon? The tournament he has won 8 times? And is this the way a great career ends? Not with a slam but with a whimper?
Sport is a cruel mistress and very rarely scripts a perfect farewell for even the most deserving participants. Rafael Nadal, sensing a few more aches in the lower back than usual, has decided to eschew Wimbledon altogether – in much the same way Roger took to skipping the clay in recent years to prolong his career – but if his focus is now no longer on grass, will we ever see his muscular, snarling presence at the All England Club again?
And whither Andy Murray? For so long the sole stubborn flag-bearer for British tennis. Is the end nigh? More of a parochial than global breed of GOAT, Murray too clearly loves competing – to the extent that he is frequently unable to articulate the profundity of its importance in his life – but it won’t be very long before he can get a decent level of competition in his back garden at the hands of his eldest daughter (currently aged 5).
Whatever the fate of these greats, a few more instalments of the Djokoverse surely await. He may never be the most popular, but he is clearly the best. And, though several players are getting within reach – Tsitsipas, Berrettini, Medvedev – they will be compelled to dance a Serbian Kolo while Djokovic continues to lead the band…
In a welcome reverse of this suffocating domination, the women’s game has been an unpredictable, up-for-grabs affair for a good while. And the forthcoming draw may be one of the most wide-open in Wimbledon history – a proper Jenga block which could collapse at any time, seeds being hastily dispersed, far and wide, like a dandelion in a stiff breeze.
This situation has been exacerbated by last year’s cancellation and this year’s rushed grass court swing, which has resulted in a number of recent, young Grand Slam winners, who would normally be serious challengers – Świątek, Andreescu, Krejčíková, Kenin – having barely played a game on the turf in their whole careers.
Ash Barty is unlikely to be 100% fit and defending champion Simona Halep has failed to recover from the injury that caused her to miss the French Open. But what of the other GOAT? There’s a uniquely wide-open draw, inexperience among the chasing pack, on a surface that benefits a big serve? Kamaan! Is anyone out there brave enough to completely rule out a histrionic, blockbuster last waltz from Serena Williams?