Tennis is the only leading individual sport where the three greatest players in men’s history have competed in the same era, and that Golden Era has lasted a dozen years.
Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have racked up a combined 53 Grand Slam titles. Having grabbed the last 11 majors, this terrific triumvirate of 30-somethings shows no signs of decline either. What about the Next Gen, the latest nickname for the purported coming champions? They aren’t pushing the three legends off the stage. On the contrary, no other active major winner is under 30, and only one active major finalist — Dominic Thiem — is under 28.
Even so, this soothsayer predicts a fast-rising star will rock staid Wimbledon, dethrone the gerontocracy and become its youngest king since 18-year-old Boris Becker reigned in 1986.
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Meanwhile, a new era has dawned in women’s tennis. Following 21-year-old Naomi Osaka’s US Open and Australian Open titles, 23-year-old Ashleigh Barty captured the French Open. The average age of the four women’s singles semifinalists at the 2019 French Open was 21.8 years, the youngest at a Grand Slam tournament since the 2011 Wimbledon.
Unlike on the men’s side, where the Roland Garros semifinalists averaged 32 years of age, the women’s Next Gen has arrived. A year ago, only insiders had heard of teenagers Amanda Anisimova, Bianca Andreescu and Marketa Vondrousova. Now they contend for Grand Slam trophies.
How will these and other rising stars stack up against established stars like Serena Williams and Petra Kvitova? Let’s find out.
The contenders — Gentlemen
Novak Djokovic — ATP ranking: 1
Best Wimbledon finish: Champion (2011, 2014-15, 2018)
Why he could win: For starters, defending champion Djokovic has already captured Wimbledon on four occasions. Although the 32-year-old Serb was discombobulated by gusting winds and bad bounces during his five-set French Open semifinal loss to Dominic Thiem, he typically plays his best when it matters the most. He ranks No. 2 in the ATP’s Under Pressure Standings and No. 2 in percentage of tiebreakers won, a superb 77.3, which will prove critical at Wimbledon where tiebreakers are frequent.
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Although Djoker lost his bid to win four straight majors for the second time, a feat achieved only by Rod Laver, he’s targeting Federer’s record 20 career majors. He knows Nadal, who took his 18th major at Roland Garros, is also eyeing the history books. “The longer I play in my career, the sense of history-making is only getting stronger,” Djokovic said. “That’s one of the greatest motivations I have, obviously. I think there is no better way to make history of the sport than to win Slams.”
Why he won’t win: Even though Djoker possesses the best serve return and an excellent serve, his reluctance to come to net and his inability to put away overheads weaken his offence. “Do unto others before they do it to you” should be the credo he follows on grass, rather than his grinding away from the baseline.
Rafael Nadal — ATP ranking: 2
Best Wimbledon finish: champion (2008, 2010)
Why he could win: Coach Carlos Moya improved Nadal’s tactics by making him more aggressive. The 33-year-old Spanish superstar served powerfully, cracked his two-handed backhand harder than ever, smacked his lefty forehand ferociously, and pounced on short balls to win his last two French Opens. With so many weapons, Nadal’s stellar volley, which former No. 1 John McEnroe rates the best in tennis, is often overlooked. This relentlessly offensive style will pay off in spades on the Wimbledon grass. Although Nadal hasn’t advanced past the fourth round at Wimbledon since reaching the 2011 final, he should reach the semifinals this year.
Why he won’t win: Rafa could suffer a natural letdown after winning his mind-blowing record 12th French Open, especially with only three weeks between Paris and Wimbledon. Even if he doesn’t, he doesn’t have the deep confidence that Federer and Djokovic have on grass courts.
Roger Federer — ATP ranking: 3
Best Wimbledon finish: champion (2003-07, 2009, 2012, 2017)
Why he could win: If Roland Garros is Rafa’s house, Wimbledon is surely Roger’s. The Mighty Fed has seized eight Wimbledon titles and would love to extend that record on his beloved grass as well as his record 20 Grand Slam titles. At not quite 38, it would likely be his last hurrah if he won Wimbledon. And what a place to pull it off as he dazzles opponents and enchants spectators with his scintillating shot-making and age-defying athleticism. The most popular men’s champion in tennis history will be buoyed by partisan crowds no matter whom he plays against.
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Why he won’t win: The stat that has long haunted the Swiss maestro is an extremely low break-point conversion percentage, often below 20. Opponents serve repeatedly to his relatively weak backhand with great success in the ad court where the vast majority of the break points are played. As a result, Federer has lost 21 matches after holding at least one match point, an unenviable record. Federer won’t be gracing the pro tour much longer, so let’s enjoy this incomparable talent no matter how far he advances.
Dominic Thiem — ATP ranking: 4
Best Wimbledon finish: Fourth round (2017)
Why he could win: The newest member of the Big 4, Thiem has notched four wins each over Nadal and Federer and three over Djokovic, including a gutsy 6-2, 3-6, 7-5, 5-7, 7-5 victory in the French Open semifinals. “Thiem is a great mover and the hardest hitter in the top 10,” praised Paul Annacone, who coached 1990s superstar Pete Sampras. “He’s incredibly talented and not afraid of the Big 3.”
After a slow start this season, Thiem hired Nicolas Massu, the 2004 Olympic gold medallist. They immediately clicked, and the 25-year-old Austrian won Indian Wells on hard courts and Barcelona on clay. Then, for the second straight year, he reached the French Open final, losing to Nadal. He has momentum and confidence going into the grass-court season.
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Why he won’t win: With only five match wins in his five appearances, Thiem’s career record at Wimbledon is unequivocally and inexplicably poor. He will undoubtedly fare better this year if he positions himself closer to the baseline and shortens his ultra-long ground-stroke back-swings. With his terrific talent, awesome power and an advantageous seeding, Thiem should reach his first Big W quarterfinal.
Alexander Zverev — ATP ranking: 5
Best Wimbledon finish: Fourth round (2017)
Why he could win: The 6’6” German can overpower opponents as he showed when he won the 2018 Nitto ATP Finals, his biggest title, by upsetting No. 1 Djokovic, his biggest win. He’s also the only active player aside from Djokovic, Nadal, Federer and Andy Murray to win at least three Masters 1000 titles. His first serve ranks among the best, averaging around 125 mph.
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Why he won’t win: Zverev doesn’t play his best at the majors. “Zverev has been the [Next Gen] front-runner for a while,” said former No. 1 John McEnroe. “But it seems like he hasn’t rounded his game off enough, so that when the pressure ramps up at the big ones, he gets a little passive. He has to be more proactive. In a way, he psyches himself out. The pressure so far has gotten to him. He’s choked in some of his losses.” Zverev also often misses or under-hits volleys, lacks finesse and plays points aimlessly.
Karen Khachanov — ATP ranking: 9
Best Wimbledon finish: Fourth round (2018)
Why he could win: A gruelling, close four-set loss to Nadal at the 2018 US Open inspired the steadily improving Russian to capture the Paris Masters two months later for his most prestigious title. “After some tough losses against top guys like Rafa in New York, I think they push me to the limit and even to work harder,” Khachanov said then. “And I saw that my level is there. I could play and compete on this level. [I thought that] if I continue to do the same things what I was doing and the way I was playing with the guys like Rafa...against top guys, it would bring me [to that level] at one point. So I was really believing in this, and actually that’s what I’ve got.”
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A solidly built 6’6”, this Russian plays no-frills power tennis like his compatriot and idol Marat Safin, who won two majors. Both feature strong backhands and powerful serves, though Khachanov concentrates better and competes harder. Khachanov says his favourite surfaces are clay and indoor hard courts, but his aggressive game should also prosper on grass.
Why he won’t win: Like Safin, Khachanov plays too predictably and lacks shot variety. Still, his heavyweight power game should take him to the quarterfinals.
Stan Wawrinka — ATP ranking: 19
Best Wimbledon finish: Quarterfinals (2014-15)
Why he could win: Stan the Man has won a Grand Slam title at the other three majors. His 7-6 (6), 7-5, 4-6, 6-3, 8-6 win over Stefanos Tsitsipas, lasting five hours and nine minutes, at the 2019 Roland Garros was the best match of the tournament and Wawrinka’s best in 18 months. A tattoo on his left forearm states his philosophy: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.” Wawrinka has failed plenty at Wimbledon, where he’s reached the quarterfinals only twice in 14 appearances. Nonetheless, the 34-year-old Swiss packs power in every stroke and is way overdue for a Wimbledon breakthrough.
Why he won’t win: Wawrinka’s mediocre serve return is his Achilles heel. His long backhand back-swing also hurts his chances on fast grass.
Felix Auger-Aliassime — ATP ranking: 21
Best Wimbledon finish: No record
Why he could win: Sheer athleticism and precocious poise make this 18-year-old Canadian a fascinating prospect. Like many experts, Annacone raves about Auger-Aliassime. “The power he generates is amazing. This kid averaged 83 mph on his forehand [at Indian Wells]. He is solid with his stroke production. Most importantly, he is solid with his shot selection. He has a beautiful two-handed backhand, and he can also slice it. He has the right movements at net — a still upper body and really good volley technique. And I love his ability to get inside the baseline and pounce on short shots. So he has a pretty complete package.”
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The lithe, 6’4” FAA is starting to put all these assets together, plus a serve that exceeds 130 mph. Although he’s suffered bad losses as all teenagers do, he’s also notched significant wins over Tsitsipas, Fabio Fognini, Borna Coric and Denis Shapovalov. Reaching the finals at Lyon, Rio de Janeiro and Stuttgart and going 16-7 in tiebreakers provide further evidence of his rapid progress.
Why he won’t win: FAA and his “pretty complete package” could win two or even three matches, but his inexperience on grass and hallowed Centre Court will keep him from becoming the first teenage champion since Becker.
Denis Shapovalov — ATP ranking: 25
Best Wimbledon finish: Second round (2018)
Why he could win: The 20-year-old Canadian lives and dies with flashy, often spectacular lefty shot-making. Grass, his favourite surface, rewards that style, but only up to a point, as he’ll find out. If he gets an easy draw and goes on a hot streak, he could upset a seed or two and reach the quarterfinals. If he advances that far, momentum and confidence could propel him further.
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Why he won’t win: Shapo will likely only go far if his single-handed backhand doesn’t break down. His violent backhand swings are prone to mishits and errors. The key question is: Can his swerving serve, which is especially effective in the ad court, and his potent forehand offset his vulnerable backhand?
Dark horses: Reilly Opelka, Alexei Popyrin, Matteo Berrettini, Borna Coric.
Stefanos Tsitsipas — ATP ranking: 6
Best Wimbledon finish: Fourth round (2018)
Why he WILL win: The Greek Freak has clearly emerged as the top Next Gen (21 and under) prospect. Along with only 14 other players in the top 100 brandishing an old-fashioned one-handed backhand — and just two under age 25 — Tsitsipas plays old-school tennis like his idol, Federer. The rapidly improving, 20-year-old Athenian broke through last year at Toronto where he upset Djokovic, Thiem, Zverev and Kevin Anderson.
At the Australian Open in January, Tsitsipas stunned Federer in four sets and memorably declared: “My idol became my rival.” The quotable Greek also said, “I could have cracked at any moment, but I didn’t.” That’s one of the reasons Tsitsipas has zoomed up to No. 6 in the world. He thrives on pressure.
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Tsitsipas’s aggressive all-court game is tempered by a mature shot selection that minimises unforced errors. While an inconsistent toss makes him off-balance on his serve, it’s still a weapon, as are his powerful Eastern forehand and solid backhand. But what really beat Federer was Tsitsipas’s dynamic net game. It features classic volleys, agility, quick reflexes and spectacular leaps. That crowd-pleasing asset, more than any other, will pay off at Wimbledon.
“My life is like a speeding bullet that just hasn’t hit the target yet,” the charismatic Tsitsipas tweeted this spring. This speeding bullet will hit the bull’s eye at Wimbledon.
The contenders — Ladies
Naomi Osaka — WTA ranking: 2
Best Wimbledon finish: Third round (2017-18)
Why she could win: Reasons abound why the 21-year-old Japanese can capture her third Grand Slam title here. Osaka’s stroke assets include a booming serve, ferocious topspin forehand, solid backhand and improved volley. She also covers the court well and thrives on pressure, both when she’s trailing in early-round matches and when she reaches the semis and the final. Her quirky personality hides her considerable ambition to become a great player, like her idol Serena.
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Osaka has the right perspective now. After Katerina Siniakova upset her at the French Open, the Australian Open champion confided: “It’s weird, but me losing is probably the best thing that could have happened. I was overthinking this calendar Slam. It is something I have wanted to do forever but... if it was that easy, everyone would have done it.”
Why she won’t win: Osaka lacks experience on grass and hasn’t advanced past the third round here in two appearances. She can be outfoxed by players using backhand slices, angles and drop shots. Despite these shortcomings, the redoubtable Osaka will reach the final.
Karolina Pliskova — WTA ranking: 3
Best Wimbledon finish: Fourth round (2018)
Why she could win: The 27-year-old Czech pounds one of the biggest serves on the WTA Tour and led in aces from 2015 to 2017. This year Pliskova ranks No. 1 in aces, service points won percentage and service games won percentage. She also hits hard and flat ground strokes that explode on grass. Last year, Pliskova had her best Wimbledon result, reaching the fourth round, and she boasts two grass-court titles, Nottingham (2016) and Eastbourne (2017).
Why she won’t win: Pliskova makes too many errors because of her low-percentage shots, she’s the worst top 10 player defensively, and she’s also the least competitive when the going gets tough.
Kiki Bertens — WTA ranking: 4
Best Wimbledon finish: Quarterfinals (2018)
Why she could win: The 27-year-old Dutchwoman is finally coming into her own as an elite player after underachieving for most of this decade. Though she’s fared best on clay, her powerful game is also suited to faster grass. She plays the percentages judiciously and can volley, as her 10 doubles titles attest. Above all, Bertens has that most precious sports commodity: confidence. After she upset Simona Halep 6-4, 6-4 in the Madrid final to boost her ranking to a career-high No. 4, the normally modest Bertens said, “I know I can beat a lot of girls. I can compete with the best of the world on clay.” She can undoubtedly beat a lot of them on grass, too.
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Why she won’t win: Though she reached the Wimbledon quarters last year, her best career result, she still has to master the intricacies of grass, such as dealing with low, skidding shots and being agile enough to change directions on a dead run.
Petra Kvitova — WTA ranking: 6
Best Wimbledon finish: Champion (2011, 2014)
Why she could win: After performing poorly at the majors in 2018, despite winning five titles elsewhere, the popular Petra regained her Grand Slam form at the Australian Open in January. There she played superbly and lost a close, high-quality three-setter to Osaka. Kvitova’s two Wimbledon titles, plus a semifinal and two quarterfinals, give her plenty of confidence. Her aggressive, lefty game and sound strokes overpower opponents when she hits peak form.
Why she won’t win: A grade-2 tear in her left forearm forced Kvitova to withdraw from the French Open. She may not fully recover in time for Wimbledon. If she’s healthy, just two players can beat her this year, and that’s because they’re faster and more athletic. Expect Kvitova to reach the semis.
Serena Williams — WTA ranking: 11
Best Wimbledon finish: Champion (2002-03, 2009-10, 2012, 2015-16)
Why she could win: No one in the field comes remotely close to Serena in terms of credentials — 23 Grand Slam titles, including seven at the Big W. Her power game pays its biggest dividends on grass. Despite being short on match play last year, she reached the final. When detractors have counted her out in the past, she’s relished proving them wrong.
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Why she won’t win: Serena’s “average level” of play has dropped considerably, chiefly because her serve and court coverage have slowed perceptibly. Furthermore, she’s rusty, having played only 12 matches going into the grass-court season. More importantly, opponents don’t fear Serena any more. When 37-year-old Serena gave Sofia Kenin what the 20-year-old American called a “death stare” at the French Open, Kenin wasn’t intimidated and whipped Serena 6-2, 7-5.
Belinda Bencic — WTA ranking: 13
Best Wimbledon finish: Fourth round (2014, 2018)
Why she could win: The 22-year-old Swiss Miss zoomed up to No. 7 before back and wrist injuries derailed her promising career. She learned the right lessons from adversity. “I feel like losing is not the worst thing any more,” she said. “The worst thing is not being able to play at all.” That realisation relaxed her and revitalised her career.
This season, a healthy, resurgent Bencic has used her extremely sound ground strokes and rhythmical serve to score major victories over Osaka (twice), Halep, Kvitova, Pliskova and Elina Svitolina. In short, she can beat anyone on a given day.
Why she won’t win: Bencic doesn’t have quite enough athleticism and speed on a surface that demands both.
Bianca Andreescu — WTA ranking: 25
Best Wimbledon finish: No record
Why she could win: All-time great Chris Evert put it best when she said, “Typically the finesse players like [Agnieszka] Radwanska and [Roberta] Vinci didn’t have power, but Andreescu has both. She’s watched a lot of men’s tennis and discussed with her coach [Sylvain Bruneau] how her style could become similar to men players in terms of racquet acceleration and ball rotation.”
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The just-turned-19-year-old Canadian showcased her powerful topspin forehand, kick serve and beautiful drop shot when she upset Venus Williams and Caroline Wozniacki to make the Auckland final in January. It was no fluke. Two months later, Andreescu seized her first Premier Mandatory title at Indian Wells with big wins over Garbine Muguruza, Svitolina and Angelique Kerber.
Why she won’t win: She lost in the last qualifying round last year at Wimbledon. Even though Andreescu possesses many weapons that work on grass, she’s too inexperienced on it to have mastered its intricacies yet. She’s also recovering from a shoulder injury that may hamper her serve.
Garbine Muguruza — WTA ranking: 27
Best Wimbledon finish: Champion (2017)
Why she could win: Interestingly, though Garbine calls hard courts her favourite surface, her two Grand Slam titles have come on clay (2016 French Open) and grass (2017 Wimbledon). Whatever, she’s a quintessential power player. When she “on,” she’s almost unbeatable.
Why she won’t win: Since finishing 2015 ranked No. 2, 2016 ranked No. 7 and 2017 ranked No. 2, the 25-year-old Spaniard has been mired in a prolong slump. She needs more variety and nuance in her one-dimensional game, because when Plan A doesn’t work, she has no Plan B.
Amanda Anisimova — WTA ranking: 26
Best Wimbledon finish: No record
Why she could win: The 17-year-old American prodigy overpowered defending champion Simona Halep 6-2, 6-4 at the French Open, and in a riveting semifinal gave Ashleigh Barty her sternest test, losing 6-7, 6-3, 6-3.
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Fast-improving Anisimova isn’t far from achieving her avowed ambition. She declared: “I want to be the next player after her to win a Slam as a teenager,” referring to Maria Sharapova, her inspiration and also the daughter of Russian parents. Like Sharapova, Anisimova is a tall, slender blonde with elegant, picture-perfect ground strokes. “Anisimova has a natural composure, which you can’t teach,” said former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport.
Why she won’t win: The changing condition of grass during the fortnight requires experience and improvisational skills, both of which Anisimova lacks now. She also must improve her volleying and court coverage. Even so, her formidable power and growing confidence will take her into the second week.
Dark horses: Aryna Sabalenka, Danielle Collins, Petra Martic, Anastasia Potapova.
Ashleigh Barty — WTA ranking: 1
Best Wimbledon finish: Third round (2018)
Why she WILL win: Except for a so-so two-handed backhand that she uses less than half the time, Barty’s brand of tennis is a throwback to the 1950s and ’60s. “She’s got a very good all-round game,” Margaret Court, a superstar from that era, told The Sydney Morning Herald . “She can slice, volley, she’s got a good serve and smashes well. There’s not a weakness there. She is a very good role model. She is good for our nation. I think she is very refreshing.”
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That diverse shot repertoire also features sharp angles, drop shots and drop volleys. Excellent speed, stamina and concentration complete the package. Smart tactics combine all these assets highly effectively. That the 23-year-old Aussie won the French Open on clay, which in theory should be her weakest surface, is most impressive. Grass will likely turn out to be Barty’s best surface, and she’ll prove that at Wimbledon.
As tennis legend Martina Navratilova told WTA.com , “There’s no doubt that Barty can win Wimbledon. Grass allows her to make use of all the shots and options that she has in her game. Whatever Barty did on clay, she can do even better on grass.”
Barty will overcome Osaka in a classic final filled with memorable points. This match will ignite the most compelling rivalry in women’s tennis since Serena Williams duelled Justine Henin.
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