Wimbledon 2015: Sad as it is, Rafael Nadal's decline does not mark the end of the tennis golden era

Only the age of boxing’s great heavyweights of the 1970s has entered more readily into myth

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The Independent Online

That the phrase “the end of an era” should be among the most overused in all the language is precisely because it has never in reality actually happened. There is no fixed mark at which any era comes to an end, any more than there is when one begins.

Certainly this most golden period of men’s tennis, which was transformed from a hegemony to an era by a dazzling, brutal teenage Spaniard who won the French Open before anyone knew his name, has moved beyond its peak.

But Rafael Nadal’s defeat at the hands of an inspired German Rastafarian does not mark the point at which the credits roll.

It is sad that he, once the young pretender, has entered what appears – and not just on Thursday’s evidence – to be a decline more rapid and ruinous than that of his old nemesis, but it is not the end.

Even the ghosts of McEnroe and Borg, Nastasie and Connors still haunt the distant reaches of the minor sports TV channels, and the Royal Albert Hall.

 

Comparisons across grand stretches of time are as pointless as they are seductive. Across different sports, even more so. But is the age of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic the finest era of them all, in any sport?

Only the age of boxing’s great heavyweights of the 1970s has entered more readily into myth. That had all the ferocious energy of deep political and racial tension cutting through it, of Vietnam and segregation. But it is nevertheless a script that has been closely followed.

Both have needed above all else the transcendent hero, the aura of Ali and Federer, the brutalising ferocity of Frazier and Nadal. Enter then the Third Man, Djokovic, Foreman, different from the rest but every bit as fierce, and the whole period carried along on the moments that will define its sport for ever more.

The 15th round that never came in The Thriller in Manila. That 2008 final, that one-handed backhand to end them all, the trophy lit up by the flashbulbs in the Centre Court darkness. Not to mention those on the periphery who might have defined their sport had they come at a different time. Andy Murray has given his country something it yearned for almost above all else. In another decade it might have been him who made Centre Court his own.

That the tennis giants don’t appear to loathe each other is a disappointment. Frazier eked out his magnificent rivalry by refusing to forgive Ali for all the publicity-inspired trash talk until well into this millennium. Fergie and Wenger, at least for a while, loathed each other.

That Messi and Ronaldo are such contrasting figures makes surely the greatest rivalry in football history all the more intriguing.

The seemingly simple, understated genius who just wants to get on and play, versus the strutting, preening, underpants-modelling Ronaldo, with his self-funded museum to himself in his own home town, which quite genuinely houses such achievements as the “Zoo Magazine 2012 Overseas Player of the Season.”

Of Coe and Ovett, only one was ever going to end up in the House of Lords.

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There is an old thought experiment known as the Ship of Theseus, debated by philosophers for two and a half millennia and counting, over whether a ship, once all its components have been replaced, is the same ship – better known to 21st-century Brits as the paradox of Trigger’s broom.

In English football, Keegan’s era was no more an era than Bobby Charlton’s, Lineker’s or Rooney’s. Sporting teams are not scrapped and replaced wholesale like a family fridge-freezer. The current England team, supposedly a new generation, is the same one that won the World Cup in 1966. It’s just had 14 new keepers, 26 new right-backs, and 144 strikers. The Spanish hegemony supposedly ended with their first-round elimination last summer, yet there in the team, even now, are Iniesta, Pique, Busquets and the rest.

Coaches, as it happens, don’t like eras. Cavendish, Froome and Wiggins are all in their thirties. Their greatness will not be replicated in the near future. Sir Chris Hoy and Vicky Pendleton have retired. Great Britain and Team Sky’s phenomenal former cycling coach Dave Brailsford once explained to me how all the brilliant riders he had would all have their journeys to the top, their peaks and their declines. It was his job, he said, to keep “constant peak”.

That is impossible. Tennis will have to come down from its high perch. But its era will only end, as it began, when you’re looking the other way.

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