With the French Open in tennis just past and the U.S. Open in golf this week, the majors show us two men’s sports at a crossroads and searching. If there is a Next Big Thing in either worthy of the capital letters and able to stir the imagination, we’ll take a show of hands, please. Please?
Novak Djokovic rallied from two sets down Sunday to win on the red clay of Roland Garros in Paris. It was a remarkable comeback. It also was the latest reminder how men’s tennis is drowning in its own predictability in the Big 3 era of Djokovic, 34; Rafael Nadal, 35; and Roger Federer, who’ll turn 40 in August.
Since 2004 those three have combined to win 58 of the sport’s 68 major men’s titles, or 85 percent. There hasn’t been a run like that in any individual sport, ever. That it goes on, though, speaks less of those three’s continued excellence than it does the absence of sustained challengers. Or even one.
The slow death of American men’s tennis has played a big role.
No American man has won a tennis major since Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick both did in 2003, just as the Federer/Nadal/Djokovic steamroller was beginning its roll.
On the women’s side Serena Williams fades by degrees, but there is a young heir in Naomi Osaka, Japan-born but living in the U.S. since age 3.
In men’s tennis, very good players such as Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem have failed to become household names outside of the sport’s hardcore fandom, or hasten the past tense on the Big 3 era.
And no American man ranks higher today on the ATP than No. 32. That’s a person named Reilly Opelka. He is notable for being 6-11. He is not notable for winning anything of note.
In men’s golf the search for the Next Big Thing, the next big era, is similar as the U.S. Open begins Thursday at Torrey Pines in La Jolla, California, near San Diego.
Tiger Woods is still the most interesting thing in golf, at age 45, as he recovers from terrible leg injuries sustained in that February car wreck. There is no bigger question in the sport than, “Will Tiger play again and when?”
Phil Mickelson, winning the PGA Championship last month at age 50, his first major win in eight years, was another reminder how golf depends on its old stars because the Next Big Thing has been slow coming.
Rory McIlroy looked like it in bunching together four major wins in 2011-14. He has not won one since.
Tiger ‘n Phil remain the faces of the PGA Tour by default, as the sport waits for somebody else to be transformational, generational, a star beyond just hardcore golf nuts.
Since McIlroy’s run, Jordan Spieth held the mantle for a minute. Now Brooks Koepka seems to, after winning four majors from 2017 to 2019.
Koepka, though, is more known now for his feud with fellow pro Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 U.S. Open winner.
It led to a story on ESPN.com Monday pleading, ‘C’mon, USGA: Give us Brooks-Bryson at the U.S. Open!’
The writer must have imagined those two being paired might lead to fisticuffs and the two of them in mid-brawl tumbling down an embankment like Adam Sandler and Bob Barker in “Happy Gilmore.”
(The reality might be two players who don’t like each other simply avoiding one another for 18 holes, but that’s no fun).
The feud is good for golf, in the absence of anybody being great at golf.
DeChambeau, in his Puma driver cap, a beret, and slow-playing, is easy to dislike. (Bryson DeChapeau). If only Koepka were the least bit likable.
Koepka tweeted his sympathies to Aaron Rodgers for being paired with DeChambeau in an upcoming charity match. Beret Man tweeted back at Kopeka, “It’s nice to be living rent-free in your head!” And so it has gone.
The childish feud is a fun diversion for golf while the sport idles at its crossroads, searching just like men’s tennis is, for whatever is next.