The year after bursting onto the world tennis scene, it's common for young players to endure a drop in form the following year. James Crabtree explores this notion of the 'Sophomore Slump'.
Often a player has a breakout year before fading away leaving everybody to wonder if a particular show of form was a miraculous fluke.
Cue an old man, sitting on his porch, strumming his guitar and singing the blues.
Before you have realised what has happened and everyone with an opinion has stuck the metaphorical knife in, the player is back on track and heading for the heights most expected.
Cue ‘Move on Up’ by Curtis Mayfield – the player in question is winning with ease again, all questions have vanished, and all knives removed.
Let’s face it: being an unknown quantity is a fun position to be in. You possess skills nobody has seen, and nobody has an idea how to deal with you. You are treated as an enigma while praised for your genius. Most of all, you are exempt from expectation and pressure.
At 17 years old, Michael Chang burst onto the scene and finished his 1989 Grand Slam winning year ranked No.5. By the close of 1990 and 1991 he was ranked 15th in the world. He was back at No.6 the following year with improved results across the board although he never returned to the heights of his Roland Garros success.
In 2008 current world No.1 Novak Djokovic won his first Australian Open crown. Although he never dropped far in the rankings, many suspected he might never come between the Federer–Nadal dominance and win another major. That was until 2011, the year that he took the tour by storm and won three of the four Grand Slam titles on offer.
On the flipside, life as a marked man can be pretty exhausting. Expectations extend as everyone is out to get you; a few losses ensue with a loss of confidence and before you know it those two steps forward have turned into three steps back.
It can be argued that this is what has happened to Bernard Tomic who experienced a rough ending to his 2012 campaign. Donald Young of the United States had the best year of his career in 2011, only to be derailed in 2012. Only time will tell what will happen to the latest fast riser Jerzy Janowicz of Poland, who is the latest young-gun to make an impact.
These days it seems especially difficult to make headway early on. Back in 1990, 19-year-old Pete Sampras won his first major at the US Open. The 14-time Grand Slam champion had to wait until 1993 before he found his second major title at Wimbledon and a rhythm that would follow for years to come. Juan Martin del Potro won his US Open crown aged 20 and experienced a drop the following year, but this was mainly due to injury. Interestingly the big Argentinean is currently the youngest player in the top 10 at 24 years ols, and the only player under 25 in this select group.
Interestingly, 10 years ago the average age of the top 10 was 24. It appears that the days of the teenage phenomena, such as Boris Becker, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe are over. These days players don’t reach the same heights at such a young age. Like a fine wine, some professionals don’t show their best until they reach a more mature vintage. Thirty-year-old David Ferrer experienced the best year of his career winning a tour leading seven titles. Juan Monaco of Argentina experienced his breakout year this past year, winning four tournaments at the age of 27.
Like the irregular climbs and fall on a seismograph, the best tennis a player is capable of cannot be predicted. It is important to remember that players are human and although they may possess immense ability and talent, they too are subject to the normal and humane pressures of the world.
It takes time to establish such a talent and may take even longer to learn to control the mind side of the game. As spectators it is easy to place expectations on the professionals but it is a true fan that endures the seismic waves of a player’s career.