Can tennis's Next Gen take down Federer, Djokovic and Nadal?

Few years have been more challenging to predict, aside from you-know-who at the French Open. Let’s dust off the crystal ball and peer into the future.

Much like all-time great Bill Tilden 100 years earlier, Thiem emerged from the hard school of defeat and discouragement to win his first Grand Slam title at age 27.   -  Reuters

“We know what we are, but know not what we may be.” — William Shakespeare, Hamlet.

Not since 2003 when future superstar Roger Federer led a changing of the guard has a new season offered such intriguing possibilities, and they pose two large questions for 2021. Will the frustrated Next Gen finally overthrow the legendary Big Three? And will one player from either generation win two or more of the five most prestigious titles, including the Tokyo Olympics? Sceptics, unimpressed that Dominic Thiem took the US Open without defeating Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Federer, were silenced a month later at the ATP Finals. There, Daniil Medvedev whipped both Djokovic and Nadal before overcoming Thiem in a thrilling 4-6, 7-6, 6-4 final. And, for good measure, Thiem also knocked off Djokovic and Nadal.

Few years have been more challenging to predict, aside from you-know-who at the French Open. Let’s dust off the crystal ball and peer into the future.

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Novak Djokovic: A student of tennis history, Djokovic harbours a burning, often-declared ambition to make history by winning the most Grand Slam titles. The 33-year-old Serb, with 17 majors, trails Nadal and Federer by three. His quest for GOAT recognition will likely require an Olympic gold medal, the only prestigious title not on his resume. With an all-court game and no weak links, except for a mediocre smash and flawed net positioning, No. 1-ranked Djokovic is a slight favourite at every major other than the French Open. If he can avoid controversy — such as his ill-fated, Covid-stricken Adria Tour and accidentally hitting a lineswoman with a ball in 2020 — he can maintain his edge over Nadal and Federer, while repelling the Next Gen often enough to win at least one more major this year.

With an all-court game and no weak links, except for a mediocre smash and flawed net positioning, No. 1-ranked Djokovic is a slight favourite at every major other than the French Open.   -  Getty Images

 

Rafael Nadal: The unqualified praise of archrival Novak Djokovic best summed up Nadal: “The resilience, the intensity he brings — when you see him jumping around before you walk onto court, it already intimidates you,” he told the BBC. “A mental giant and a physical giant.” Barring injury, count on this primal force of nature to extend his mind-boggling record of 13 French Open titles in June. The biggest question is whether the most injury-prone of the Big Three can stay healthy throughout the season. If he does, Nadal will also contend at the other majors, but likely get beaten by Djokovic or overpowered by gigantic servers like Alexander Zverev and Reilly Opelka.

Barring injury, count on Rafael Nadal to extend his mind-boggling record of 13 French Open titles in June.   -  Getty Images

 

Dominic Thiem: Much like all-time great Bill Tilden 100 years earlier, Thiem emerged from the hard school of defeat and discouragement to win his first Grand Slam title at age 27. At the 2020 US Open, he overcame a severe case of nerves — “I was super, super tight. I was tighter than in a long time” — to outlast Zverev in a thrilling, five-set final. Critics downplayed the achievement because Thiem didn’t play any of the Big Three. Even so, his high-risk and high-reward style should bring him a second major title and a couple of Masters crowns. Achieving the right balance between brute power and judicious defence is the key for the amiable Austrian.

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Daniil Medvedev: His game is unorthodox and his personality quirky, but when he gets hot, he’s very hot. To wit, he reached six straight finals in 2019, winning Masters events at Cincinnati and Shanghai and reaching the US Open final. The 6’6” Russian had a mediocre 2020 until he went unbeaten at the ATP Finals where he made history as the first to defeat the top three-ranked players there. On the debit side, he has fared poorly on grass and clay and is a woeful 0-6 in five-set matches. This clever, chess-playing tactician has his best shot at the Tokyo Olympics where all matches are best-of-three sets.

Daniil Medvedev had a mediocre 2020 until he went unbeaten at the ATP Finals where he made history as the first to defeat the top three-ranked players there.   -  Getty Images

 

Alexander Zverev: Last year was the best of times and the worst of times for Zverev. The 23-year-old German enjoyed a breakthrough season by advancing to his first major semifinal at the Australian Open and his first major final at the US Open. Parlaying a rocket serve, aggressive groundstrokes and improved defence, he came within six points of defeating Thiem in the Flushing Meadows final. Away from the court, though, he went off the rails. One ex-girlfriend announced she was pregnant and would not let Zverev share custody of their child, and another ex-girlfriend accused him of physical and mental abuse, which he denied. If the beleaguered Zverev can stay out of trouble and focus on tennis, he can surely win a Grand Slam title in 2021.

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Roger Federer: Will the ageless Federer reprise his stunning 2017 form when he rebounded from a dismal, injury-plagued, title-less 2016 to win the Australian Open and Wimbledon? Though Fed has predicted Nadal and Djokovic will surpass the record 20 Grand Slam titles he shares with Nadal, adding another major would make it tougher for his two long-time rivals to eclipse him. An even bigger goal is grabbing an Olympic gold medal, the only coveted prize he hasn’t claimed. “This is for me the big one,” he recently said about 2021. Much like Serena Williams in her career twilight, Fed will come agonisingly close, but lose in the Tokyo and Wimbledon finals. After bowing out early at the US Open, the beloved, soon-to-be 40-year-old tennis legend will announce his retirement.

An even bigger goal for Roger Federer is grabbing an Olympic singles gold medal, the only coveted prize he hasn’t claimed.   -  Getty Images

 

Andrey Rublev: Overshadowed by fellow Russians Medvedev and Karen Khachanov, the wiry, 6’2” Rublev surged to a career-high No. 8 last year when he added considerable power to his serve and improved his shot selection. His career-high five tournament titles led the ATP Tour. A hard worker and a tireless competitor, Rublev notched wins over Thiem (twice), No. 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 10 Matteo Berrettini. He needs more experience to win a major, but the humble Russian — “There are still so many things I can improve” — will likely go deep in all of them.

Stefanos Tsitsipas: The “Greek Freak” consolidated his top-10 status by ranking No. 6 for the second straight year. Other than reaching the French Open semis, where he lost a five-setter to Djokovic, he had disappointing results at the majors. Borna Coric upset him in the US Open third round and unseeded Milos Raonic overpowered him in straight sets at the Aussie Open. At his athletic and volleying best, he resembles Federer, but his vulnerable one-handed backhand sometimes lets him down. His game is ideal for grass, his favourite surface, so expect the handsome Tsitsipas to reach the semis at Wimbledon.

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The best of the rest: Denis Shapovalov, a dynamic but erratic lefty shot-maker, is the most accomplished, boasting a No. 12 ranking. Jannik Sinner, a poised, 19-year-old Italian whom John McEnroe called “one of the most talented kids I’ve seen in 10 years,” is rapidly improving. Felix Auger-Aliassime, a soft-spoken, 20-year-old Canadian, features eye-catching athleticism. Carlos Alcaraz, a versatile, 17-year-old Spaniard with blazing speed, evokes memories of the teenage Nadal, his idol. If you haven’t seen the amazing Alcaraz, check out this future star on YouTube.

Osaka leads the women

With so many leading players sitting out the US and/or French Opens in 2020, it’s difficult to assess how they’ll fare after the layoff. It’s just as tough to judge the winners of tournaments with unusually weak fields.

You can pretty much make a case that every top 15 woman has the potential to reach a final at Grand Slam events or the Olympics. So, let’s dive in and preview the top contenders.

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Naomi Osaka: In just three years, Osaka has blossomed from a shy, awkward speaker at post-match press conferences to a confident, outspoken political activist. Although Osaka says she still gets very nervous during matches, she’s clearly emerged as the leading New Gen player. Her explosive shots have produced a Grand Slam title — an Australian Open and two US Opens — in each of the past three years. The Japanese-Haitian shines on hard courts and will get huge support from her passionate fans at the Tokyo Olympics. Immensely talented, the 23-year-old Osaka can still improve her volley and consistency, but expect her to grab an Olympic gold medal and another major title in 2021.

Naomi Osaka's explosive shots have produced a Grand Slam title — an Australian Open and two US Opens — in each of the past three years.   -  Getty Images

 

Bianca Andreescu: No elite competitor is rustier than Andreescu. The 20-year-old Canadian last played on tour at the 2019 WTA Finals. Despite being sidelined with a right shoulder injury for nearly four months during that breakthrough year, Andreescu captured the US Open, Indian Wells and Toronto. A knee injury forced her to miss the entire 2020 season, but Andreescu says she has fully recovered. When in top form, she breaks up opponents’ games with a bewildering array of power, touch, topspin and angles. Relaxation techniques during changeovers help her excel on pressure points. After Osaka, this smiling assassin is the best bet to win a major and WTA Premier events.

A knee injury forced her to miss the entire 2020 season, but Bianca Andreescu says she has fully recovered.   -  Getty Images

 

Ashleigh Barty: The best natural athlete on the WTA Tour since Justine Henin, Barty took two teenage years off to play pro cricket. In 2020, she skipped the US and French Opens because of Covid concerns and won golf tournaments. Gracious in victory and insouciant in defeat, the popular Australian took the 2019 French Open on clay, her worst surface. Barty is a terrific server despite her 5’5” stature, the top women’s volleyer and a smart tactician, so don’t be surprised if she wins Wimbledon.

Ashleigh Barty is a terrific server despite her 5’5” stature, the top women’s volleyer and a smart tactician, so don’t be surprised if she wins Wimbledon.   -  AP

 

Sofia Kenin: If you like diehard competitors, you’ll love Kenin. “She just doesn’t back off,” said former No. 1 Tracy Austin. “She has incredible focus, and she’s got incredible hunger.” The fist-pumping Russian-born American won the Australian Open, the only 2020 major with a top-notch field, and then confirmed her elite status by reaching the French Open final. She’s solid rather than flashy, aside from a nifty drop shot, and her biggest weapon is a backhand that she fearlessly hits down the line. Kenin, 21, has a high floor, so expect her to make plenty of quarterfinals and semifinals this decade.

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Simona Halep: The only player to rank in the top five for the past seven years, Halep boasts a steady, rock-solid game and terrific speed. A 2016 Australian Open study measured the Romanian with the highest peak running speed (over a distance of 3m or more) at 23.04km per hour. She won the 2018 French Open and 2019 Wimbledon with bold shot-making and enough variety to keep opponents off balance. If the reserved, 29-year-old Halep can reproduce that winning formula, she can stave off the talented Next Gen stars and win a couple more majors.

Iga Swiatek: A cross between Barty (athleticism) and Andreescu (shot variety and mental toughness), No. 54-ranked Swiatek surprised almost everyone by winning the French Open. Amazingly, this newest star in tennis had never won a title before. The 19-year-old Pole capitalised on a very weak field. Even so, she destroyed seven opponents, including No. 1 Halep 6-1, 6-2 in the fourth round and No. 4 Kenin 6-4, 6-1 in the final. “The way she’s playing now, you can imagine she’ll win six majors,” raved former champion John McEnroe. This happy warrior has won at every level, so expect more big things from her in 2021.

A cross between Ashleigh Barty (athleticism) and Bianca Andreescu (shot variety and mental toughness), No. 54-ranked Iga Swiatek surprised almost everyone by winning the French Open.   -  Getty Images

 

Karolina Pliskova: Although the 28-year-old Czech briefly ranked No. 1 in 2017 and has captured 15 career titles, she has rarely peaked at a major, except for making the 2016 US Open final. Hoping for a breakthrough, Pliskova split with coach Dani Vallverdu and hired Sascha Bajin, who guided Osaka to two major titles. Bajin will try to help her overcome the mental obstacles dogging her in big matches and develop a Plan B when her power game misfires. Odds are the 6’1” Pliskova will fall short because she lacks the requisite athleticism and competitiveness.

The best of the rest: Among the veterans, two-time Grand Slam winners Victoria Azarenka and Garbiñe Muguruza had impressive comeback years, reaching major finals. At 39, Serena Williams, alas, is too slow, too injury-prone, too inactive, and too inconsistent to capture a record-tying 24th major, though she might reach a semifinal or two. Keep an eye on four exciting Next Gen standouts: Ukraine slugger Aryna Sabalenka, Kazakhstan’s Elena Rybakina, and highly touted American teenagers Amanda Anisimova and Coco Gauff.