With her recent return to the professional tour, 36-year-old Kim Clijsters was swimming against the tide. On Wednesday, we discovered that January’s Australian Open will be the last tournament for 33-year-old Maria Sharapova, who thus joins 29-year-old Caroline Wozniacki on the list of recently retired multi-millionaires.
Yes, the Williams sisters forge on. But for how long? Can we really see Venus – who has lost five of six matches since September’s US Open – lasting much beyond the Tokyo Olympics? Serena is still chasing that elusive 24th major, but there is speculation that she may want a sibling for Alexis Olympia before she turns 40. With six of the world’s top ten now 25 or younger, the baton has well and truly passed to the next generation.
Is this a problem for the game? Not necessarily. The likes of Ashleigh Barty, Naomi Osaka and Bianca Andreescu are fresh, diverse and charismatic, while 15-year-old Coco Gauff has transfixed audiences in a manner reminiscent of the teenaged Jennifer Capriati in the early 1990s.
Even so, when a rusty Clijsters arrived in Dubai last week, and gave recent Australian Open finalist Garbine Muguruza a real run for her money, it was hard not to wonder if standards had slipped from the high point of around 15 years ago.
In the mid-Noughties, women’s tennis effectively had a Big Four: Serena and Venus Williams at their peak, with Clijsters and Justine Henin to challenge them. For neutrals, it was a shame that the two Belgians suffered from issues of fitness and motivation, and retired in 2007 and 2011 respectively. Had they played on into their 30s, Serena would have faced stiffer opposition on her road to 23 major titles.
Marion Bartoli – who beat top seed Henin on her way to the 2007 Wimbledon final – recently offered a fascinating take on this high-powered era. “When I arrived on the tour [in 2000],” she told the Tennis Podcast, “I used to see Monica Seles practising at 7.30am, Serena at 8am. So you felt, if you want to have a chance of beating those girls, you had to do the same thing.
“Once we retired, I felt the girls arriving didn’t have the same hunger. The example was more to be at the court at 10am, or 11am or 12, practising once a day. When I used to play, it was not even in question that you had to practise twice, because the competition was just so fierce.”
Admittedly, we all tend to remember the past through rose-tinted spectacles. And Bartoli’s training sessions were unlike those of any other player. Her father and coach Walter used to begin with a bag of soft sponge balls – as if harking back to the days when a six-year-old Bartoli would hit silently against the garage wall – then ask her to play endless drive volleys from the baseline.
But there is definitely a sense that, when modern players talk about the enormous depth in the game, they are referring to a large number of goodish performers. Where are the modern greats to emulate Sharapova’s capture of the career grand slam? Does anyone want it as badly as she did?
Like the modern “Big Four” men, Kim, Justine, Serena and Venus had a single-pointed focus. True, there were a couple of years when the Williams sisters dropped off the tour to sample other aspects of life, dabbling in everything from fashion to medicine. When they were there, though, they were really there.
Everything is different now, according to Simona Halep’s coach Darren Cahill. “The sport in general has changed a lot in the last 15 or 20 years because of social media, the money, the pressures,” Cahill said recently. “Every [top] player has a minibus of people travelling around,” he said, “so the pressure is much more than it ever used to be.”
The digital world is certainly distracting. Many feel that today’s stars spend too much energy worrying about how they come across, or trying to project the right image. And then there is the comfort zone of the regular top-tenner who earns £4m a year in prizemoney alone, yet never seems to threaten at a slam.
Perhaps Gauff, Osaka and the rest will rise above these pitfalls, throwing up a new dynasty of champions to stand alongside anything the game has seen. But this is no small challenge, for the generation born in or around the 1980s have set a high bar, on both men’s and women’s tours. As a collective, one suspects they may never be equalled.