Tennis's Big Three and the Next Gen

Though Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are unlikely to retire during the same year, many are worried about the impact of their departures.

Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas holds the winner’s trophy after defeating Austria’s Dominic Thiem in the ATP World Tour Finals.   -  AFP

For me, tennis without Federer is like Shakespeare without Hamlet.” — a Yahoo user comment.

Not so long ago, the Cassandras were predicting doom and gloom in the post-Big Three era. Who, they wailed, could possibly replace living legends Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic? After all, these champions have blessed — and spoiled — us with sublime tennis for 15 years. Would we have to settle for a pedestrian champion like Lleyton Hewitt, who reigned briefly between Pete Sampras and Federer?

Though the Big Three are very unlikely to retire during the same year, Judy Murray echoed the sentiments of many fans worried about the impact of their departures. “Oh, wow. That would be massive,” said Judy, Andy’s mother and Britain’s former Fed Cup coach, during the US Open in September. “They’ve been around for so long. They’ve been dominant for so long. It would be a huge, huge blow to the men’s tour to lose them.”

The seemingly endless domination of the Big Three continued at the US Open. When Nadal outlasted Daniil Medvedev in the riveting US Open final, it marked the third straight year the triumphant triumvirate divvied up all four Grand Slam tournaments. All told, they’ve grabbed 51 of the past 59 majors! The Big Three weren’t just getting older. Astoundingly, two of them — Nadal, 33, and Djokovic, 32 — were getting better. They each won two majors this season, and Federer, 38, twice came within a point of capturing Wimbledon in a classic final against Djokovic. Their fervent fans love their exciting games and charismatic personalities and hope their dynasty extends into the 2020s.

Dominic Thiem, by far the oldest Next Genner at 26, has improved greatly on hard courts this year.   -  AFP

 

Although earlier so-called Next Gens never panned out, the current batch has attracted thousands of new followers through Twitter, Instagram and other social media platforms. “Tennis is now so much about the personality off the court, interviews, being an athlete, and also being a ‘brand,’” Stefanos Tsitsipas said to Interview magazine about his popularity. “It’s important to showcase your personality and show people who you are and why you are the way you are. The Internet allows you to put yourself out there and share experiences, share stories, share yourself, and who you are in this world.”

Only an elusive Grand Slam title has kept this Next Gen from multiplying those thousands into millions. But will that breakthrough, when it comes, offset the enormous void left by the inevitable decline and retirements of the Big Three?

Tennis has survived the retirements of past superstars with barely a hiccup. When Bjorn Borg prematurely retired at age 26 in 1982, a Swedish doppelganger named Mats Wilander, another stoic teenager with metronomic groundstrokes, burst on the scene to win the French Open. After 22-time major champion Steffi Graf unexpectedly retired in August 1999, 17-year-old Serena Williams captured the US Open a month later and mitigated the impact. Indeed, together with her sister Venus, who won Wimbledon 10 months later, the dynamic duo would form the most successful and talked-about sister act in sports history.

By any standard, however, the ageless Big Three are different. They are much older than Borg and Graf, and also older than Sampras when he left the game at 31, after winning the 2002 US Open. What makes Roger, Rafa and Novak most distinctive, though, is that the three greatest players today also rank as the greatest in the 145-year annals of men’s tennis. This phenomenon has never happened before in tennis, and likely never has in any sport.

Russian Daniil Medvedev finished the season with a bang, reaching six straight finals. He made a Tour-leading nine finals, including his first at a major, the US Open, and captured four titles.   -  Getty Images

 

This Next Gen also differ from previous iterations this decade in terms of pure talent. Before the ATP Finals, Nadal praised them, saying, “I think they’re super-good. They say they’re the future of our sport, but they’re the present.”

At the ATP’s season-ending tournament, Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem more than confirmed that assessment. So, if the ATP Finals provided an accurate forecast of the coming decade, men’s tennis should not just survive but thrive.

For starters, five of the eight players to qualify for London were Next Genners. More telling, though, three of them made the semifinals, where Alexander Zverev lost to Thiem. The unlucky Nadal, who finished the round-robin phase with a 2-1 record like Zverev and Tsitsipas, was eliminated on sets-won percentage based on the tournament’s tiebreaker rules.

Similar styles

To reach the semifinals, Tsitsipas reprised his stunning, four-set upset over 20-time major champion Federer at the Australian Open with an even more convincing 6-3, 6-4 victory at The O2 arena. Though their games are strikingly similar, “The Greek Freak” is a superior volleyer, and during this match anyway, his forehand was more punishing and consistent. On nearly all the big points, Tsitsipas simply outplayed Federer. Exploiting Federer’s vulnerable backhand, Tsitsipas saved 11 of 12 break points against him and converted three of his own four break point chances. “Tsitsipas is tough as nails,” complimented Federer.

The praise didn’t end there. “I knew he was going to be incredibly athletic,” said the analytical Federer. “His footwork is always on the aggressive side. Any short ball will be attacked. He’s one of the best at that in the game.”

“I knew he was going to be incredibly athletic. His footwork is always on the aggressive side. Any short ball will be attacked. He’s one of the best at that in the game,” said Roger Federer after being outplayed by Tsitsipas.   -  Getty Images

 

Tsitsipas also whipped No. 4 Daniil Medvedev and No. 7 Zverev in straight sets. But, oddly enough, his 6-7, 6-4, 7-5 loss to Nadal was his most impressive round-robin match because he fought so hard despite having nothing at stake after clinching a semifinal berth. In past years, a handful of players in his position have played half-heartedly or even tanked. But the highly motivated Greek, before facing Nadal, said, “I’m going to give it my all. I’m going to try to give my soul…. This match is going to give me a lot. It’s going to educate me, and I’m going to try to get and absorb as much as I can from that.”

Although the education of two-time French Open finalist Thiem, by far the oldest Next Genner at 26, has taken much longer, he improved greatly on hard courts this year. Upsetting Federer to capture Indian Wells for his first Masters 1000 title proved Thiem’s hyper-aggressive game can beat anyone when it’s enhanced with shorter ground stroke back swings, positioning closer to the baseline, and timely forays to the net. In October, the mild-mannered Austrian won two more hard court titles, in Beijing and Vienna, to tie him with Djokovic for the most titles 2019, with each winning five. Then, at the ATP Finals, the rampaging Thiem edged Djokovic in a 6-7, 6-3, 7-6 thriller. “It was maybe the best match I ever played,” Thiem said.

“If he is happy, he plays his best tennis,” Nicolas Massu, Thiem’s coach since March, said. “That’s the most important thing. You can train 20 hours a day, but if you are not happy, you do not enjoy yourself on the court.”

It was only three years ago that the teenaged Tsitsipas arrived at the ATP Finals as a hitting partner for his friend Thiem. When reminded of that day, Stefanos said, “It’s unbelievable, isn’t it? We are now facing each other in the final.” Now they would vie for the most prestigious title in their careers with the winner pocketing a staggering $2.7 million.

Besides their friendship, Thiem and Tsitsipas are linked stylistically. While the one-handed backhand is nearly extinct on the women’s tour, they ensure that this stylish stroke will continue, even flourish, at least through the 2020s on the men’s circuit. Both brandished it with supreme confidence during their bruising baseline exchanges in the final. The fast indoor hard courts, with no wind or sun to contend with, were ideal for these two power hitters. “The best defence is a potent offence” seemed to be their motto, as hard shots were rifled back with even harder shots time and time again.

Rafael Nadal, who finished the round-robin phase with a 2-1 record, was eliminated on sets-won percentage based on the tournament’s tiebreaker rules.   -  Getty Images

 

Traits of greats

Tsitsipas looked unfazed, despite erring on three serve returns to lose the opening set tiebreaker 8-6. “Tsitsipas has those traits a lot of great players have,” noted ESPN analyst Darren Cahill. “When he loses a tough set, he’s ready to play the first game of the next set. He has not changed his demeanour one bit.”

Conversely, Thiem squandered his lead and momentum by inexplicably erring repeatedly to get broken twice, gifting the Greek with a quick 3-0 lead. Tsitsipas seized 16 of the first 18 points and coasted to take the second set 6-2.

Thiem boasted a terrific 16-3 record in deciding sets this season compared to just 13-13 for Tsitsipas. But you could tear up the stats and use ’em as confetti because both competitors planned to push their bodies and skills to the limit to vanquish each other.

Tactics would matter almost as much as brute power. To return Thiem’s wicked kick second serve more consistently in the second set, Tsitsipas retreated from a foot behind the baseline to six feet. Even so, Thiem staved off two break points in the opening game of the deciding set and then broke serve to go ahead 2-1.

Novak Djokovic was edged by the rampaging Thiem in a 6-7, 6-3, 7-6 thriller.   -  AFP

 

While the Austrian was grunting and hurling his body into almost every groundstroke, the Greek moved effortlessly and struck the ball without a sound. A wild swinging volley and two unforced forehand errors by Thiem gave Tsitsipas a service break to even the third set at 3-all. Both players then held serve easily to force a tiebreaker.

Predictably, Thiem blasted virtually every shot. He quickly fell behind 4-1. Sensing victory, the Greek contingent and other Tsitsipas partisans chanted “Tsitsipas! Tsitsipas!” But the Austrian fought back with a huge backhand down the line, an overhead winner, and another bold backhand down the line to even the tiebreaker at 4-all.

Succumbing to the pressure, Thiem then badly missed three straight forehands. The disappointing ending to an otherwise brilliant match gave Tsitsipas a 6-7 (6), 6-2, 7-6 (4) triumph.

“We played an unbelievable final,” Thiem said to the appreciative crowd afterwards. “We are playing the most brutal sport which exists. It was so close. Both were fighting 100 percent to the end. Stefanos, you really deserve this, you are an amazing player.”

Thiem continued to praise his rival, saying, “He’s great for tennis, because he has a very attractive game style, one-handed backhand, comes in a lot. It’s great that he’s up on the top. It’s great that he’s going to fight for the big titles in the future. I’m 100% sure of that. I’m also very sure of the fact that I can challenge him in every single match we’re going to play.”

(From left) Tomas Berdych, Radek Stepanek, David Ferrer, Victor Estrella Burgos, Nicolas Almagro, Max Mirnyi, Marcin Matkowski, Mikhail Youzhny and Marcos Baghdatis pose for the lensmen during a presentation to honour their service to the ATP Tour.   -  Getty Images

 

This was the fourth straight year the ATP finals crowned a first-time champion, but the others don’t hold a candle to the more versatile and talented Tsitsipas. Besides his exciting Federer-like game, the handsome, swashbuckling Greek exudes charisma. As Cahill said, “When was the last time you saw a crowd into it like this when Federer, Nadal and Djokovic weren’t playing?”

Tsitsipas has yet to reach a Grand Slam final, but he has the swagger of a champion. Even before the ATP Finals, he crowed that he wasn’t intimidated by the Big Three. “I honestly feel like they are more threatened than I am, and that makes me more relaxed on court,” Tsitsipas said. “I know I just have to hang in there and be able to be more aggressive. Once you get aggressive and they see you going for it, I might even say they get scared.”

Thiem isn’t scared either and he has the record to prove it. He’s defeated Federer all three times this year, has four wins over Nadal, the King of Clay, on that surface, and has beaten Djokovic in four of their last five matches. The third elite Next Genner, Medvedev, also finished the season with a bang, reaching six straight finals. All told, he made a Tour-leading nine finals, including his first at a major, the US Open, and captured four titles. The 23-year-old Russian tactician, currently No. 5, defeated Djokovic twice, Tsitsipas twice, Thiem and Zverev.

No wonder Thiem predicts, “The Big Three still took the Grand Slams this year, but I think next year will be the year where there’s a big change.”

Talk may be cheap. But if Thiem is right, next year we may have a new Big Three.

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