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On The Golden Era

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Steve Kerr, the coach for the formidable Golden State Warriors, recently laid to rest the questions about old time teams beating the current ones. Although his answer was related to basketball, it simply applies to all sports. Kerr used a charming and sophisticated dose of sarcasm when he stated that the teams of the past would crush the current teams. Paraphrasing, he jokingly stated that in sports, as opposed to other aspects of real life, evolution works backwards; athletes become slower, weaker, smaller and simply worst. The question arose from the hypothetical matchup between his Warriors against the legendary Chicago Bulls (a team that he actually played in). So indeed, comparing a modern team or athlete to past glories is futile. The new kids simply are better because of evolutionary forces.
As blunt and correct Kerrís tongue in cheek answer was, there is an issue with it. Sports, performed by human beings truly subject to evolution, have limits. Let me use Usain Bolt, the fastest man on Earth EVER, to explain my point. Bolt holds the world records in the 100 and 200 meters dashes, and has been the record holder since 2009. Kerr did refer to sports in which measurable accomplishments are kept as proof of the improvement of athletic achievements, but there is a subtle twist there.
Boltís record for the 100 Mts dash is a blistering 9.58 seconds. He holds the second fastest time at 9.63, and shares the third fastest at 9.69. He established the record in 2009 and has not been able to break it. Granted, Bolt has grown older but his achievements continued, winning Gold medals in London and Rio. But the issue is that eventually, the laws of physics and biomechanics will put a limit on what a human body can do. MAYBE, a big maybe, some athlete in the future will run the 100 in 9.57. Maybe another will then drop it to 9.55. But you can rest assured that the chances that anybody will ever run the 100 in 9.00 are infinitesimal. The human body has limits. So eventually, the man (or woman) that will set that record will remain, for the rest of such competitions, the best of all times. And his/her record will claim that he/she was better than all those that came before, and all of those that came after. Evolution will reach its peak, and rest there.
The matter comes into discussion with the completion of the two first tennis Grand Slams of the year. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have triumphed at one of each and it is time to start wondering if this is THE GOLDEN ERA. Not A GOLDEN ERA but the definitive one. Because the group of current champions playing the sport are simply reaching heights that one wonders if any other group can achieve in the future.
Quantitatively, the sport has, as Kerr discussed, evolved grandiosely. Starting in 1968 and the beginning of the Open Era, the players have become faster and stronger and bigger and simply better. During the 70ís, a Golden Era of Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Ivan Lendl brought the sport to great heights. But if you simply add Slam titles, those great ones do not measure up to the current Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray. Add Wilander to the first group and Wawrinka to the second, and their Slam counts is 53 for the recent ones, 41 for the elders. Ten slams is a huge difference. Take only the top three and it is 47 (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic) to 26 (Borg, Connors, Lendl). Yes, you can raise you eyebrows.
What about the transitional guys in the mid 80ís? Lendl and Wilander (still playing), plus Becker and Edberg. A pale 27. How about the 90ís? Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang also add up to 27. Throw in Kafelnikov to save face and you only add two more, 29.
The records imposed by the current group are mind blowing. Three of the top five winningest Slam players belong to this group (Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, Sampras and Roy Emerson are the other two). The top two are Roger and Rafa. Only seven players have won the career Grand Slam (winning all four majors throughout their careers). Again, three belong to this group (Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, joining Agassi, Emerson, Laver and Budge). Only player to win a Slam ten times? Nadal (which he has also done at two other ďminorĒ tournaments). Record at Wimbledon? Federer (passing Sampras). Record at Australian Open? Djokovic. Most weeks at #1? Federer. Longest streak on a surface? Nadal (on clay, 81). On and on, the records imposed by this group simply canít be matched by any combination of players of the past, unless you count groups of players by the dozen.
So Kerrís statement seems on the money, but there is a problem. What will happen in the future? Will we see a 20 Slam winner, surpassing Federer (and assuming he is done with winning)? Will somebody win 11 titles at a single slam, surpassing Nadal (and also assuming he is done)?. Anybody taking more than two Olympic Medals (passing Murray)? What would a group of future tennis players have to do to beat the records and achievements of these five men? And especially, of the top three?

Maybe in 20 years, the coach of, letís say, the NBAís Milwaukee Bucks will be asked if his team could have beaten the 2017 Golden State Warriors. Maybe he will paraphrase Kerr. But also, maybe, in 20 years some tennis commentator will be discussing a great player from the future, a star coming out of China or Bolivia or Uganda, and will have to compare him or her to the Golden Era of Roger, Rafa, Nole, Andy and Stan. Maybe group him with three or four more players. Because when you analyze what the current guys have done, starting with Federerís 2003 Wimbledon and up to Nadalís Roland Garros 2017, it seems that the evolution of tennis has reached its peak.
If that has not happened, I wonder what we will witness in the future. And I simply could not wait to see it, if I believed that any players of the future will be better than the crop right now.

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Updated 10-19-2017 at 09:25 AM by ponchi101



  1. ponchi101's Avatar
    Numbers updated after the 2017 US Open.