The Forever Men
Last Sunday afternoon, Milos Raonic became the first man to win three consecutive titles at the SAP Open, at precisely the same moment he became the last man to win one at all. This edition of the San Jose was the last, bringing the rich history of professional tennis in northern California to a close. Raonic will therefore reign as defending champion approximately forever.
It can be a tricky matter to define precisely when a tournament actually expires, or even if it has. There are technical points to be made about licences and ownership, such that it is theoretically possible for an event to survive across endless variations of geography, surface and draw. Has Los Angeles really gone, or has it just moved to Bogota, simultaneously shifting continent and soaring into low orbit? What about the Memphis 500 event, which will relocate to Rio? What, if anything, about that tournament will truly endure?
Such discussions are apt to grow philosophical, as we’re compelled to wonder at the ineradicable essence of a tennis tournament, such that it can retain its identity when everything important about it has ostensibly changed. Apparently these things have ineffable souls, or at least durable traditions that might be strung out indefinitely.
On the other hand, aficionados of professional tennis in southern California are in no doubt that the LA tournament has ascended, not to Columbia, but to that great tennis boneyard in the sky. They might well be insulted if the next champion in Bogota was appended to the long and illustrious list of past LA champions, which includes Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. The fans often know when a tournament has really perished, just as they know when it is being artificially sustained on life support.
Indeed, reading down the past champion’s lists for many of these cancelled events is bittersweet, evoking sepia-tinted glories, now fading irrecoverably with the tournament’s passing. While some were new ventures that evidently didn’t pan out, many more were decades old, and the winner’s list tells a salutary tale of prestige giving way, gradually or suddenly, to irrelevance. You can understand what is lost, even as you can see why it had to go.
Sometimes what is lost is an invaluable start. It is fascinating to note that each of the Big Four won his first title at a tournament that has since been cancelled: Roger Federer (Milan 2001), Rafael Nadal (Sopot 2004), Novak Djokovic (Amersfoort 2006), and Andy Murray (San Jose 2006).*
In any case, today I’m going to look at those men currently active on the ATP tour who won the ultimate edition of a tournament, whose names will remain the last one on the trophy. I won’t pretend that great insight will be thereby gleaned – perhaps a pattern will emerge – but sometimes it is enough merely to catalogue such things as they pass. There is a sense in which such compilations are subjective; I think I could mount a good argument why the tournament in Sao Paulo is the basically same one that was in Costa do Sauipe, while disputing the idea that Brisbane is a continuation of Adelaide, but I understand that others may not feel the same way. (I do encourage anyone who spots glaring factual inaccuracies to let me know.)
Milos Raonic (San Jose 2013)
The Canadian is only man on this list who goes out as back-to-back-to-back champion. He has won three San Jose titles in a row without dropping a set, in the process breaking records and Fernando Verdasco’s mind. It’s interesting to think how different it might have been had Gael Monfils contested their semifinal in 2011. He didn’t, Raonic gained free passage to the final, and the rest is history, in every sense. It’s even more interesting to think what the tournament’s disappearance will mean for Raonic from here. San Jose accounts for 75% of his career titles.
Sam Querrey (Los Angeles 2012 and Las Vegas 2008)
Querrey is one of two men who merit inclusion on this list twice. He is the forever champion in Los Angeles, which he won a total of three times. Indeed, one report archly implied that his dominance was part of the reason the event was consigned to oblivion (or Columbia). He was also the last man to win the ill-fated Las Vegas event, which is where the Scottsdale tourney went to undergo palliative care.
Andreas Seppi (Belgrade 2012)
When the old Dutch Open was sold to the Djokovic family, they probably dreamed it would last longer in their home city than five years. Alas, the event more or less lived and died according to the presence of the family’s most famed member, which is a parlous situation for any tournament. Nonetheless, Seppi was a worthy final winner.
Kevin Anderson (Johannesburg 2011)
At the time, I joked that Joburg’s days were numbered when Feliciano Lopez was marketed as the star attraction in 2011. Initially things seemed okay, with players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and David Ferrer lured to South Africa, presumably with their consent. But geography and scheduling proved a fatal cocktail. Staged the week after the Australian Open, at the far end of the earth, it just couldn’t work. It was, nonetheless, Anderson’s first title. It also boasted a truly ludicrous trophy, as so many do.
Nikolay Davydenko (Pörtschach 2008 and Warsaw 2008)
Davydenko is the other twice-tainted forever man. He remains the eternal champion in both Pörtschach and in Warsaw (which were to St Poeten and Sopot what Las Vegas was to Scottsdale: a nice spot for the tournament to sit with a rug over its knees as it quickly slid into its eternal goodnight). Both of these events were staged for the last time in 2008, which was something of a watershed year as far as these matters go. If the prevailing trend is for the United States to shed tournaments, five years ago Europe was suffering a similar affliction. It is curious that almost alone among this list, Davydenko is rare for being a player who was at the top of the game when he won these tournaments (ranked world No.4), although this says more about how modest his profile was even in his hey-day.
Ivo Karlovic (Nottingham 2008)
In 1998, the towering Croat became the two-time defending champion in Nottingham, which used to be the Wimbledon warm-up that almost no one played. On this surface, facing a weak field with his serve, Karlovic had no trouble making hay from the emerald sward. Nottingham was replaced (but not relocated) on the calendar by Eastbourne, which became a dual-gender event. The current Nottingham Challenger is a totally new tournament.
Michael Llodra (Adelaide 2008)
The French net-rusher was the last man ever to win the ATP event in Adelaide, also in 2008. The technical argument is that this tournament was moved to Brisbane, and combined with the existing WTA event. Technically this may be true, but really the Brisbane International is nothing like the old warhorse at Memorial Drive, where Lleyton Hewitt famously won his first career title as a 16 year old.
Richard Gasquet (Mumbai 2007)
The tournament that finally found peace in Mumbai had led a troubled journey through what some Australians quaintly persist in calling the Far East, beginning in Shanghai, moving briefly to Ho Chi Minh City, and finally gasping its last in Mumbai. After Gasquet won the final instalment, it was supposed to move to Bangalore, but security concerns cancelled the event the following year, and after that everyone seemed to lose interest. It was replaced by Kuala Lumpur, meaning that India, the second largest country in the Asia, lacks a tournament within the now-unified Asian Swing.
Filippo Volandri (Palermo 2006)
I confess I don’t know too much about this one, although I’d suggest that the days were numbered on any tournament whose final featured Volandri three years in a row.
Robin Soderling (Milan 2005)
The Milan Indoors was one of those tournaments with a tremendous history and a champion’s list that scans like a who’s who of the Open Era (McEnroe and Becker won four times each. Lendl, Borg, Edberg, and Vilas also hoisted the trophy). Roger Federer won his first title here in 2001. Nonetheless, the entry list had thinned calamitously by the time Soderling won in 2005, years before the Swede found his place in the loftier echelons of the sport. At the time he was just another in a lengthening line of journeyman champions, a line that leads smaller regional tournaments inevitably to the scrapheap.
*Amersfoort later moved to Belgrade, which has also been cancelled.