Welcome to Tennis Elbow, the column that looks back on the week that was in the world of tennis. This week, Charles Blouin-Gascon discusses the high number of surprises we’ve witnessed at Grand Slams so far in this 2018 season.
In tennis in 2018, the rich haven’t been getting richer.
You’d be remiss for complaining, so far in 2018, that the tennis you see just isn’t the one you’re used to. On both the men’s side, which had been dominated by a handful of names in the past 13 years to an outrageous degree, and the women’s side, which has never been this wide open, there’s an aura of change.
And this change has been perhaps most apparent on the grandest of stages at the Grand Slams. Oh sure, if you look at the names on the trophies, maybe it doesn’t feel this way, not with the first two seeds having won the four combined titles so far in 2018.
But dig a little deeper and you’re left wondering one thing, namely: just what in the hell is happening and why are there so many upsets? In Australia, the women’s quarterfinals included two unseeded players as well as the 17th- and 21st-seeds, while one Roland Garros semifinal pitted the 10-seed Sloane Stephens against the 13-seed Madison Keys. So far in Wimbledon, things have been even more dire:
This is the first time in the 50 year history of the Open era that only 2 of the top 8 women seeds have made the third round at Wimbledon.
— Mike Dickson (@Mike_Dickson_DM) July 5, 2018
On the men’s side, we saw a similar situation unfold in Australia with three unseeded players in the quarterfinals all the while unknown Marco Cecchinato somehow made the French Open semifinal on Court Philippe-Chatrier. Things are also wonky on the Wimbledon men’s draw as we move to the second week with only nine seeded players remaining in the fourth round.
What’s the end result?
Well the end result is one where the typical and average tennis fan might not know many of the players competing. This doesn’t mean it absolutely is a bad thing, but it can certainly be one.
Again, because it bears repeating, but this isn’t supposed to happen. Every tennis tournament and Grand Slam are set up to favour the top players: the best players, as you know, receive seeds, and they’re drafted into this or that place on a main draw according to their seeding.
The best players have earned the right to play the easiest matches, and this in turn increases the odds that they’ll go farther than other, lesser and unseeded players at any given tournament.
Better tennis players begat better tennis played begat more fans begat more money. It’s maybe not quite this simple, but it’s close enough—especially so at Grand Slam tournaments, where there’s more money and more of everything.
Only in 2018, there have been more upsets than anything else. Why? For both men and women, we’ve seen a number of well-timed upsets that blow a section of a draw wide open and have large ramifications: think Alison Van Uytvanck beating Wimbledon defending champion Garbine Muguruza in the third round, or Hyeon Chung getting rid of Alexander Zverev in the third round in Australia.
But it’s not just upsets. On the WTA, we’ve recently seen the return to action of players like Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, who were out due to various reasons for a long time and found themselves woefully under seeded upon their return. Sharapova making the Roland Garros quarterfinals shouldn’t qualify as a surprise but it technically was in 2018.
We shouldn’t forget either that the women’s game is so wide open. It’s not a coincidence that it felt like such a big deal when Simona Halep finally captured her first Grand Slam this year after, oh, about four years at or near the top: if anyone’s well positioned to rule the sport over the next few years, it’s Halep but it was anyone’s guess as to whether she ever would.
And if the past few months on the ATP World Tour have taught us anything, it’s not to take anything for granted. A number of youngsters (i.e. Milos Raonic, Zverev, Dominic Thiem, Denis Shapovalov, Nick Kyrgios, Grigor Dimitrov) have been hailed as the new “Next Big Thing” only to more or less flame out on the Grand Slam stages.
Couple that with other aggravating circumstances, like Roger Federer deciding to simply skip clay court season because he’s allowed to and it’s hopeless to stand in Rafael Nadal’s way, or the (lack of) health of players like Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, and you have draws ripe for the taking from so-called lesser players.
Winning a single Grand Slam title is really freaking difficult and we should never take it for granted. Unless you’re Nadal or Federer. Then you’ve been fine and tennis in 2018 has been a lot like tennis in, say, 2009.
They’re making it look easy, too easy, and it’s not fair.
Follow Charles Blouin-Gascon on Twitter @RealCBG