1993 and 2023
Rivalry at the Top
In 1993, the entire season was captivated by the rivalry between two US players: Pete Sampras and Jim Courier. One year older Courier continued his astounding form on clay and hardcourts, which had begun at Indian Wells ’91, while Sampras finally lived up to the expectations set by his US Open ’90 title. However, the latter part of the season saw an abrupt end to this rivalry. Courier lost his form, and concurrently, Michael Stich, who had been relatively successful earlier in the season, surged, dominating the autumn of ’93. Looking back, Stich may be regarded as the most successful player in the final quarter of the season, clinching three indoor titles, two of which were highly prestigious (especially Frankfurt), and leading Germany to victories over Sweden and Australia in the Davis Cup, triumphing over almost all the top-ranked players of that time.
Thirty years later, the first half of the season was marked by a rivalry among three players: Novak Đoković, Carlos Alcaraz, and Daniil Medvedev. Jannik Sinner joined in the latter part of the season, initially in a more cautious mode as his Wimbledon semifinal and victory in Toronto were partially due to very favorable draws. In the autumn, he ascended to a higher level, defeating all three higher-ranked players multiple times, including Medvedev thrice and Đoković twice.
Guy Forget, one of the leading players of the early ’90s, suffered a severe injury at Hamburg ’93, sidelining him for nearly a year and causing a significant drop in rankings from no. 17 to 623. That year was critical for Ivan Lendl, the most dominant player of the ’80s, as it was the first time since his teenage years that he was unable to be competitive in the “best of five” format. He also lost his edge in crucial moments of tighter sets, a trend that continued in 1994, leading to his retirement at the age of 34. Andre Agassi, a Top 10 player from 1988 to 1992, experienced the first of his two major crises in his long career (the second would occur in 1997), resulting in a plummet to no. 24 by the end of the season.
Three decades later, more elite players had a disastrous season, especially Rafael Nadal, one of the greatest players of all time, who participated in only two events at the beginning of the year and dropped from no. 2 to 664 (two places below him is Marin Čilić, the former US Open champion, who also played just two events this year, beginning it as no. 17). Nadal’s compatriot Pablo Carreño Busta falls down from no. 16 to 607 having played three ATP events (two Challengers). Nine years younger than Nadal, Nick Kyrgios played just one event, resulting in his disappearance from the ATP ranking after being ranked no. 22. Matteo Berrettini, another significant name in the past few years, faced physical problems throughout the ’23 year, plummeting from no. 14 to 92. The 27-year-old Berrettini began and ended the year positively, first aiding Italy in reaching the final of the United Cup, and then concluding the year on the bench, motivating his younger Italian compatriots during the Davis Cup triumph.
Nineteen-year-old Andrei Medvedev was a rising star in 1993. The Ukrainian, with a somewhat wooden yet efficient style, proved to be successful on all surfaces. Many pundits viewed him as a potential main rival for Pete Sampras in the second half of the ’90s. However, Medvedev’s peak was actually reached the following year, before he turned 20. Although four of Medvedev’s peers finished their careers with more accomplishments, in 1993, none of them was frequently mentioned in the same breath as Medvedev. Here’s a ranking comparison of the best players born in 1974 at the end of 1993:
6 – Andrei Medvedev
76 – Àlex Corretja
88 – Thomas Enqvist
102 – Yevgeny Kafelnikov
372 – Tim Henman (before his ATP debut)
Two prodigies born in 2003, Carlos Alcaraz and Holger Rune, confirmed their tremendous potential displayed a year before. As I write this, it seems they along with two years older Jannik Sinner – could create a new “Big 3” in the ’20s. However, it’s a shallow assumption that doesn’t account for super-talented players born in the mid-2000s who might emerge in a few years. The current best teenager, Arthur Fils, is ranked 36. My early estimation suggests he may have a more successful career than a fellowFrenchman, Gaël Monfils.
The age of veterans shifted from the age of 30 to 35 over thirty years. In 1993, there were few players who could turn 30 and still pose a threat. One of them was Ivan Lendl, mentioned earlier, but at 33, he reached his physical limits. Other famous players in their thirties who were approaching the twilight of their careers included Brad Gilbert (32), Anders Järryd (32), as well as Mikael Pernfors and Henri Leconte, both at 30. The former French Open champion Andrés Gómez decided to retire at 33 in 1993 while four years older Björn Borg, the icon of the 70s, finally played the last match in his professional career, ultimately completing his retirement which had been initiated… ten years earlier. Thirty years later the most significant name to finish career is John Isner (38), a man who brought serving and playing tie-breaks to another level.
In 2023, Novak Đoković defied the age paradigm by securing three major titles and enjoying one of the best seasons of his illustrious career at the age of 36. Other players from his generation still achieved notable results: Andy Murray, only seven days older than Đoković, reached the final in Doha; 37-year-old Gaël Monfils triumphed in Stockholm; his contemporary Richard Gasquet commenced the season with a title in Auckland, and 38-year-old Stan Wawrinka was a runner-up in Umag. Feliciano López, aged 42, reached the quarterfinals in his farewell event this year (Mallorca). Thirty years ago the oldest player to win an ATP match was Jimmy Connors (41). Below is the ranking of players aged 35 and above in the Top 100:
1 – Novak Đoković
42 – Andy Murray
49 – Stan Wawrinka
74 – Gaël Monfils
76 – Richard Gasquet
In 1993, the trend initiated in the late ’80s/early ’90s continued, transitioning from aluminium racquets to graphite ones (Cédric Pioline was a significant exception), which led to increased serve-and-volleyers garnering points directly behind their serves, primarily focusing on tie-breaks. Notably, Pete Sampras, Michael Stich, Goran Ivanišević, and Richard Krajicek epitomized this style, contrasting with players like John McEnroe (finished his career at the end of 1992, but took part in two exhibition events of ’93), Stefan Edberg or Pat Cash (due to injury he missed the entire ’93 season), who were faithful to the chip-and-charge strategy as returners. Boris Becker stood somewhat in between; in the mid-’80s, he was a prototype for players who emerged in the early ’90s. Canadian Greg Rusedski entered the scene in 1993, known later for breaking his own records in serve-speed as well as being super dependent on tie-breaks. At that time, the magical velocity touched 200 kph (125 mph) – rarely crossed by servers. Other young player, who gathered some attention in 1993 it was Australian Patrick Rafter, a follower of the McEnroe/Edberg tradition. These two “R” native English speakers would face each other in an unexpected US Open ’97 final, and Rafter’s finesse triumphed over a show of brute force in a duel of two different S/V mindsets. Rusedski finished the year 1993 ranked 50th, Rafter 16 places below. More than four years later they’ll enter an event trying to become world’s no. 1 (Key Biscayne ’98).
At the end of 1993 in the Top 20, there were eight serve-and-volleyers, nine offensive baseliners, and three defensive baseliners (noting that Michael Chang was improving his serve, transforming into an offensive baseliner in the mid-’90s). The landscape is somewhat simplistic as players often adjusted their styles based on the surface (carpet was still popular, encouraging players to more offensive attitude indoors). The ratio of one-handed and double-handed players inside the Top 20 was pretty balanced.
In contrast, today, only two players among the Top 20 use one-handed backhands (Stefanos Tsitsipas & Grigor Dimitrov), and there’s a single style prevailing across players – offensive baselining – regardless of the surface. Among the current top twenty, only Alex de Minaur and Cameron Norrie adopt a more defensive approach during baseline exchanges. Termed “defensive baseliners,” their gameplay differs significantly from the excellent clay-courters of the mid-’90s, such as Sergi Bruguera and Thomas Muster, who operated deeper behind the baseline, with higher net clearance.
Statistical summary of these two seasons here
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