The Federer-Nadal-Djokovic trio-poly, the Bolt and Phelps monopolies, and the Messi-Ronaldo duopoly continued to thrive as an age of deep analysis gave us glorious certainties instead of fresh sporting narratives
In 2004, Billy Crystal returned to host the Academy Awards. In his opening monologue, the actor reflected, in a grand burst of nostalgia, on the state of world at the time of his first brush with the Oscars.
“It was 13 years ago when I first hosted the Academy Awards, and things sure have changed since then,” Crystal started, with a mischievous glint in his eyes. “Back then, George Bush was president, the economy was tanking, and we had just finished a war with Iraq. Yeah, things really have changed!”
In both 1991 and 2004, the US economy was crumbling, American troops had just won a Gulf War, and there was a Bush in the White House.
You could, with a vaudevillian bow to Crystal, get similarly nostalgic about the state of world sport a decade ago.
“It was 2009 when I last followed sport, and things surely were different back then,” you could begin expansively. “Messi and Ronaldo were the world’s best footballers; Federer, Nadal and Djokovic were splitting Grand Slams between them; and the only golf tournaments worth watching were the ones Tiger Woods was playing. Yes, indeed, things have changed!”
Tyranny of champions
The march of time does not factor in dates and decades – these are man-made implements created to record history, to map flashes from the past or moments in the future. So we remember the 1920s for the Flappers, the 1940s for the Great War, the 1960s for hippies and great music, the 1980s for scrunchies and shoulder pads, and the 1990s for our first email id.
These events or trends were not year-, date-, or decade-specific. They just happened in a particular moment, which, when recorded on a calendar, and categorised in 10-year bands, allowed us to chart the course of the modern age.
Several events coexisted in each decade, intrinsically linking books, political movements, cinema, human achievement, and sporting icons. So Johnny Weissmuller matches the Flappers, Don Bradman the War, Muhammad Ali the civil rights movement, Diego Maradona shoulder pads, and Michael Jordan your first email.
In this narrow but chronologically convenient context, the 2000s emerged as a golden decade for sport – it marked the coming of Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo; the emergence of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams; the rise of LeBron James and Tom Brady; the arrival of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps; and the consolidation as legends of Tiger Woods and Michael Schumacher.
The 2010s ended many things – America’s position as the world’s undisputed leader, capitalism and liberal democracies as the world’s preferred models – and while the hunger for sporting excellence did not abate, the emergence of new icons reduced to a trickle. It was as if the second batch of Millennials was content with applauding, rather than competing with, the first wave of their generation and the last of the Gen-Xers.
A few exceptions stood out – gymnast Simone Biles, cricketer Virat Kohli, football’s Spanish Armada as a genuine historical rival to Brazil in the 1960s, and the race for the sub-two-hour marathon – but the 2010s were largely about consolidation, emulation and deep analysis, rather than breaching new frontiers.
So while this was the decade of sport’s greatest rivalry between three age-defying tennis players, of two of the greatest Olympians marching side by side, of two superhuman club footballers encapsulating Spanish politics in their scissor runs and one-twos, it was also an era in which the tyranny of champions was scarcely challenged by underdogs.
Playing and watching sport sure became smarter – data-sets crunching every performance, physicians mapping every movement, psychologists analysing every response – as advanced technology and new theories changed how we eat, think, move; even how we discuss sporting achievements through decimal points that measure conversion rates, consistency levels, and reaction times.
But did this new statistical geek-out muffle the really important things that made us watch and play sport: the unconfined joy of victory, the nervous energy of uncertainty, and the sweet pain of defeat?
It’s perhaps these new scientific inputs that led to the extension of the playing careers of several stalwarts from the previous decade, equipping them with the information, fitness levels, and mental agility to quell new challenges from a new breed of sportsmen.
In 2011, close to the start of the decade, when Tiger Woods was trying to make one of his first few comebacks, I’d argued that his biggest test would not be overcoming injuries or internal demons, but competing with a generation of players, more than 10 years younger than him, and ready for him in a way his peers never were. Golfers who started playing after Woods won the Masters by 12 strokes in 1997; some who picked up a club because of him, and were therefore not surprised by what he did on the course; they had trained to be like him, and to beat him.
While Woods may not be the dominant force he was before his personal and professional life went into a tailspin in 2009, this is the year he made what could be considered the greatest comeback in history at the Masters. That he could do it may be because of a gamut of inputs that enabled him to first compete with, and then overcome, a new band of competitors. It is perhaps this additional information that helped the tennis trio-poly, the football duopoly, and the Usain Bolt’s sprint monopoly (though he may shrug off any such attribution) to flourish.
This may also be why, in terms of dominant personalities and new sporting narratives, the 2010s gave us precious little.
In spite of this, the 2010s did witness some convention-defying contests: Iceland stunned England in the Euros, John Isner beat Nicolas Mahut 70-68 in the fifth set at Wimbledon, Andy Ruiz Jr downed Anthony Joshua to become a first Mexican-origin heavyweight champion of the world, Kobe Bryant scored 60 points in his final NBA game, Leicester City won the Premier League, Mahendra Singh Dhoni put together a chase for the gods to give India its second cricket World Cup, and the 2019 cricket World Cup and the 2019 Wimbledon final — played on the same night — produced the fiercest battles you could ever hope to see.
For India, this decade witnessed along-awaited revolution in non-cricket sport. Evidence of this lies not in how many medals were won at international events, but how Indian athletes got into contention, day after day, event after event, in different parts of the world. The Indian sporting horizon also expanded beyond its traditional areas of strength. Though there had been mini-movements in various disciplines at different times – athletics in two or three bursts between the 1950s and 1980s, badminton in the 1980s, weightlifting in the 1990s, shooting in the early 2000s, boxing and wrestling in late 2000s – never before did India fire across sports at the same time.
PV Sindhu and Kidambi Srikanth; Saurabh Chaudhary and Manu Bhaker; Hima Das and Neeraj Chopra; Bajrang Punia; and Amit Pangal, are the new torch-bearers of a spark lit in the 2008 Beijing Olympics (the first time India won an individual gold and multiple medals), stoked at London 2012, and fanned in Rio 2016.
The next decade is when this narrative is likely to evolve into a larger story.
So, all told, how will history remember sport in the Twenteens? As the era of sport’s greatest rivalry? As the time two extraordinary Olympians walked into the sunset? As the age of Messi and Ronaldo? As the decade when Sachin Tendulkar handed the baton to Kohli?
It will perhaps be known as a time of glorious certainties. An era when we were enthralled by exceptional consistency and superlative sameness. Sport’s decade of un-change.