Shelton and his impersonators send Federer and Nadal to tennis museum

Rafael Nadal could come back and win five more Grand Slam titles. He could even regain the number one ranking, but nothing would matter when it comes to one certainty: his era is over, the tennis he created with Roger Federer no longer exists, buried by Ben Shelton and his legion of imitators.

Today’s tennis is also that of Novak Djokovic, free to be more Djokovic than ever. And it is, above all, that of a number of young people who look back with distance, sometimes with disdain, on that era of “peace and love”, on that classic sportsmanship that the Swiss and the Spaniard fostered, and which permeated the rest of the players and the entire tour for years.

When Shelton, left-handed like Nadal, pretends to answer a phone when he wins a big point or a match, he is doing something Nadal and Federer never did and never would. They believed that respect for one’s opponent was sacred.

When Daniil Medvedev faces the crowd, he is doing something that Nadal and Federer never did and never would. If there were problems with the crowd, it was Uncle Toni who took care of it. Ask the spectators at Roland Garros what he said about them in the early years of the Nadal saga. In Federer’s case, it was simpler: he never played with the crowd against him.

When Djokovic beats Shelton in the US Open semi-finals and his first reaction is to pretend to answer a phone, he is doing something Nadal and Federer never did and never would. To mock a rival would, as in ancient Athenian democracy, have ostracised them. With the enthusiastic endorsement of their entire families.

When Carlos Alcaraz wins a big point, one of those spectacular ones that only he is capable of, and puffs out his chest proudly as a sign that he is waiting for the ovation, he does something that Nadal and Federer never did and never would do. The celebration was with themselves and their people in the stands. Cheering to the masses was not on the menu for either of them. Much less present themselves as players with “head, heart and balls”.

And when Shelton’s father publicly criticises Djokovic and accuses him of being a bad sportsman and poorly educated – “He wants to be loved so much, Novak. He wanted to mock Ben at the end. It wasn’t something he was doing just to copy Ben” – tennis is clearly entering another era.

“So what? Sport is entertainment. We aren’t robots,” says Australian Nick Kyrgios, who spends far more time off the court than on it. But Kyrgios has an advantage when it comes to imposing his vision: 2023 is already part of the era in which there is no Federer or Nadal capable of bucking the trend. Tennis is already something else.

So Djokovic can win the US Open and have his entire team – coach, physical trainer, physiotherapist, sparring partner, etc. – do 24 push-ups at Arthur Ashe Stadium for winning 24 Grand Slam titles.

Is that bad in itself? No, it’s just very different, with many points of contact with the ’70s and ’80s of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, among others. And it’s ideal for this era of tennis in little pills, in half-minute clips of big hits, angry outbursts or unusual situations. That of social media, which is where almost everything happens in life today. Also in tennis.

Federer and Nadal, to the museum.

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Clay’s managing editor has covered more than 60 Grand Slam tournaments since 1996. Author of “Sin Red”, a journey around the world following Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal: The Lives and Careers of Two Tennis Legends