One year ago, Roger Federer was being urged by critics and fans to retire. The Maestro’s subpar performance at Wimbledon was still fresh in everyone’s minds, and Federer’s hard court form seemed less than average, producing only a quarterfinals billet at the Cincinnati Open. His prospects looked bleak heading into the US Open. Ultimately, the Swiss fell in the fourth round of the Open to low-ranked Tommy Robredo, ending a month of poor results and disappointing tennis.
Meanwhile, Rafael Nadal was scooping up titles like candy, winning both the Rogers Cup in Canada and the Cincinnati Open back to back in preparation for what would be a historic run to the top at the US Open. Novak Djokovic had been playing some great tennis as well, but his game was largely overshadowed by Nadal’s “Summer Conquest,” and the Serbian had fallen prey to Nadal’s unique brand of tennis multiple times during the year. These two faced off in the US Open final, and though Djokovic forced the match to four sets, Nadal lifted the trophy yet again.
Fast forward a year. Here, at the cusp of the 2014 US Open, all roles seem reversed. Federer is now the favorite at the Open, Djokovic is under pressure due to multiple losses at the hands of lesser ranked players, and Nadal has dropped out of the Open to tend to his right wrist injury. A number of upcoming contenders have garnered their share of the limelight, most notably Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. With a week of rest now in effect for the highest-ranked players, the courts of Flushing Meadows are prepared for what can only be a fascinating US Open.
It takes a lot of skill to beat a Top Ten tennis player. It also takes a lot of skill to beat one who has won Grand Slams on that particular surface. It takes a completely different set of skill entirely to beat three such Grand Slam-winning Top Ten players, all while marching on the road to a Masters 1000 title.
Meet Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. The Frenchman is not exactly a household name, but he has had some degree of success in the past, contesting the final of the 2008 Australian Open as well as making showings in the semifinals of Wimbledon and the French Open. He holds a career 11 titles, including two Masters 1000 titles, and spent the better part of 2013 within the lower levels of the Top Ten.
His 2014 season prior to Montreal, however, has been less than satisfactory. He failed to win a single title, and produced sub-par fourth round showings in the first three Grand Slams of the year. As a result, Tsonga dropped down to World No. 15, finally falling out of the Top Ten for the first time in nearly a season.
Winning two ATP World Tour titles in two weeks is generally a feat reserved for Top Ten players or those athletes with incredible physical stamina and consistent gameplay. The grueling nature of tennis, requiring players to play consecutive matches nearly every day with little to no rest between tournaments, often beats players down, emotionally and physically. Often this results in phenomenal performances one week followed by sub-par results the next, sabotaging players’ chances in multi-tournament play.
Before July 7, Uruguayan Pablo Cuevas was just another lowly ranked, aging tennis player with no ATP World Tour singles titles to his name, a struggling journeyman not unlike many other lesser ranked competitors on the Tour. At the age of 28, the Argentine-born player had never made it beyond the second round of any Grand Slam singles tournament, and apart from a number of doubles titles, including an unexpected French Open doubles victory in 2008, he had not made much of an impact in the greater tennis world.
The July conquest
Then, seeded into the Swedish Open in Båstad with a Protected Ranking on July 7, Cuevas began working some singles magic never before glimpsed in his career. In the space of one short week, he dispatched sixth-seed Jérémy Chardy in the first round, third-seed Fernando Verdasco in the semi-finals, and fifth-seed João Sousa in the finals, securing his first ATP World Tour 250 title. The Uruguayan only dropped one set in his run to the top, to Swedish wild card Christian Lindell in the second round, defeating highly-ranked contenders with ease.
Professional tennis is in many ways a game of hierarchies and hegemonies, wherein the best remain at the top and generally throttle the lesser ranked competition on every front. Some seasons bear testimony to unbroken stretches of dominance by the Top Ten players, who vie amongst themselves in the semifinals and finals of nearly every major tournament and championship. Occasionally, however, an upset or an unexpected injury will shatter the status quo and send the establishment reeling.
In many ways, 2014 has been a season full of such upsets and unprecedented challengers. The Australian Open was the first major championship of the year to bear testimony to such an upset, with Stan Wawrinka’s victory over former champion Rafael Nadal in the final, and his brutal defeat of defending champion Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals.
The French Open quarterfinals played host to a variety of new and upcoming contenders, as did the grass courts of Wimbledon. The enthralled audiences present at the Championships witnessed the defeat of defending champion Andy Murray to Bulgarian Grigor Dimitrov and the unexpected resurgence of finalist and seven-time champion Roger Federer. Other pundits marveled at Rafael Nadal’s defeat at the hands of the 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios of Australia in the fourth round.
For the average recreational tennis player, a tennis court and a hard court are one and the same. The ubiquitous red and green paint, the fading white lines, and the rough, concrete-like playing surface are all characteristics of the court that dominates both the ATP World Tour and the vast majority of recreational and club tennis courts the world over.
Of the 65 professional events on the ATP World Tour, including Grand Slams, the ATP World Tour Finals, Masters 1000 events, ATP 500 events and ATP 250 events, 37 of these are held on some variation of hard court, made of either acrylic or synthetic material. Comparatively, only 22 events are held on clay, and a mere six are held on grass. Since 2009, no professional events have been held on carpet courts.
Over the years, some players have complained of the seemingly unequal distribution of tournaments and surface types. Some have bemoaned the fact that many injuries on the Tour occur because of the damage that hard courts often cause on players’ knees. Others have stated that the Tour panders to those players who perform best on the medium speed surface.