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In T.S. Eliot’s, ‘The Hollow Men’, the poem famously ends with, ‘this is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but with a whimper.’

And so it is in men’s tennis right now.

There are a whole range of tennis players that are either imminently retiring or on the verge. And most of these players have one thing in common: they are shadows of their former selves.

Whether it be the clearly injury ravaged players that are ending their careers like Dominic Thiem, Andy Murray or, of course, Rafael Nadal (despite a rather cryptic on-court interview after his loss against Alexander Zverev) or old reliables like Pablo Carreno Busta or Roberto Bautista Agut, who are horribly out of form. 

Granted, all of these players are in their 30s and well past their prime, but, for the most part, this downward spiral has been happening for years.

Case in point, Dominic Thiem.  

The Austrian was in career-best form after he won his maiden slam at the U.S. Open in 2020. 

He had reached a career high of number 3 in the world and was finally starting to realise his potential, after a few years knocking at the door.

The stage was set for Thiem to finally dominate the tennis world, or at least assert himself as a prime contender at grand slam level.

Instead, in 2021, Thiem had a horror start to the year (by his standards).

Despite making the fourth round at the Australian Open and the semis in Madrid, he was losing first or second rounds in every ATP event he entered. 

After a shock first round loss at the French Open to Pablo Andújar (despite being 2 sets up), Thiem suffered a wrist injury in Mallorca, forcing him to withdraw for the remainder of 2021.

Since then, the Austrian has never been the same again, contributing to the decision in May that 2024 will be his final year on tour.

Andy Murray has a similar story after his breakthrough year in 2016, although two hip surgeries in 2018 and 2019 have prevented the Scot from ever getting back to his brilliant best, despite his best efforts.

In their heyday, Spanish robots, Pablo Carreno Busta and Roberto Bautista Agut, were almost impossible to break down, regularly troubling the best players in the world.

Now, you could barely call them competitive, despite still being active on the tour (although Carreno Busta has had his own injury woes). 

At this year’s Roland Garros, Kei Nishikori returned to compete in his first grand slam in 3 years, following a succession of injuries to his hip, ankle and knee, only to pull out with a shoulder injury in his second round match against Ben Shelton.

Nishikori was another player who consistently went deep at grand slams, regularly making quarter final runs before inevitably losing to one of the big 3 (or big 5 if you include Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka).

2014 U.S. Open champion, Marin Cilic, who underwent knee surgery in early 2023 that derailed his entire season, is hoping to make a comeback this year, but how competitive will he be?

Sure, injury has been a major factor for most of these players, but the lack of form late in their respective careers has dropped them off everyone’s radars.

Rather than racing to the finish line, they are limping their way there. 

There are some exceptions, of course. 

Grigor Dimitrov is having a resurgence late in his career, cracking the top 10 for the first time since 2017 and making the quarter finals at the French Open for the first time in his career.

Roger Federer also had that much-discussed renaissance in 2017, and was a point away from the 2019 Wimbledon title, despite being well into his 30s.

And of course, we need not mention Novak, who has continued to defy the odds despite recently turning 37. 

With no finals to date in 2024, you always write Novak off at your own peril, but this time, it appears age is finally catching up with the dominant Serb.

Perhaps Dimitrov, Federer and Djokovic are all the exceptions rather than the rule. Perhaps what I’m saying is incredibly unfair.

After all, there was a time when professional tennis players used to retire at 30. Now, with 

the marvels of modern medicine and sports science innovations, players are able to compete well into their 30s.

Andre Agassi was arguably the first to buck this trend, winning 5 of his 8 grand slams after the age of 29. 

When he finally retired in 2006, Agassi was basically at the top of his game, making the U.S. Open final a year earlier. Sampras famously went out on a high too, winning his 14th and final grand slam at the U.S. Open in 2002 and promptly called it quits.

Perhaps we can’t ask for much more from these beloved players. It’s a joy to just see them competing on the tour for as long as they have.

In the cult classic movie, High Fidelity, Jack Black once asked John Cusack, “Is it unfair to criticise a formerly great artist for their latter day sins. Is it better to burn out or fade away?” 

While most of the aforementioned players fall into the latter category, they’ve each forged consistent careers in the highly competitive world of professional tennis, to varying degrees of success.

What does seem clear, however, is that all of these once great players are nearing the end at the same time. 

And rather than going out with a bang, they are going out with a whimper.

Which raises the question of whether these players are holding on for too long.

And, more importantly, is it time for the old guard to hang up the racquet and let the next generation, led by Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner, lead us into a new era of men’s tennis?


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