Could it be that the 50th anniversary of the first ever ATP World Tour finals and the last at London’s O2 Arena will be symbolic for a changing of the guard in men’s tennis? Probably not.
A new era is looming ever closer on the horizon - but the sport’s legendary triumvirate are not done yet. Talk of a shift in power at the summit of the game has been a recurring theme in recent years.
After Alexander Zverev’s success at the 2018 ATP World Tour finals, John McEnroe claimed it would be the catalyst for the new names to take charge. He was wrong in terms of the timing, but he’s not been alone there. It was mooted after Stefanos Tsitsipas won the same event last year, but the status quo pretty much remained the same.
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Now Daniil Medvedev has become the latest NextGen star to lift what many believe to be the fifth biggest title in men’s tennis.
So, is this trend now going to bear fruit for the new class at the very top of the rankings and in the 2021 Grand Slam events?
It would certainly add to the spectacle of the majors if there were several serious contenders beyond the usual suspects. However, these four tournaments and the best of five format remain the acid test.
In best-of-three set competitions, the young players have been nibbling away and making their mark. Medvedev has added this ATP finals trophy to three Masters 1000 crowns and the 24-year-old appears to be emerging as a Grand Slam winner in waiting. This was another significant step forward for him, but there’s still a way to go to dislodge tennis’ holy trinity.
Zverev has three Masters 1000 titles along with the Russian, but the ‘Big Three’ have still won 17 of the last 30 on offer without being in regular attendance at all of the tournaments.
The Slams are a completely different story and even more skewed in favour of those familiar names. Zverev and Medvedev have both reached a US Open final, but taking that next step is the hardest of all. Nadal, Djokovic and Federer have won 14 of the last 15 Grand Slams and 35 out of 43 since the start of 2010. They have made an art form of peaking at the climax of these events.
Dominic Thiem may have won this year’s US Open, but Federer and Nadal were absent, while Djokovic beat himself. The Austrian knows the pain of a major final loss all too well, succumbing to Nadal twice and Djokovic once, before finally getting his hands on his maiden title when he didn’t meet one of these superstars in a final.
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Thiem is the slight anomaly in this equation involving the old guard and the NextGen. At 27, he is too old to be regarded as a member of tennis’ brat pack and is starting to clock up results to suggest he could take Andy Murray’s place on what was previously an elite list of four prior to the Scot’s hip issues.
The Austrian looks like he could go on to be a multiple major winner now he has broken his duck, but whether he can go through two or even all of the ‘Big Three’ in a best of five set tournament regularly in a season, across every surface remains to be seen.
What he does do, is complicate the path even further for Medvedev and co.
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There’s no doubt that taking three sets off one of these ageing rock stars of tennis and then backing it up by translating it into silverware is still the toughest of nuts to crack. Throw in the fact that they all continue to work tirelessly on supposed weaknesses in their game to gain an edge in their very own GOAT race, and it becomes an even harder proposition given that they seem to take inspiration from each other’s hunger to win more and more trophies.
This changing of the guard will inevitably happen as Father Time plays its role too, but the familiar pattern we have seen for the best part of 10-15 years is unlikely to change too dramatically in 2021. Federer is the most vulnerable given his age, results in the last two years and his absence through injury - but he showed in 2017 that he can’t be written off following a lengthy lay off.
The Australian Open will provide a barometer of how things stand given that the young stars seem to be making more impact on a hard surface. But Rod Laver Arena remains Djokovic’s back yard and if he’s healthy and not distracted by off-court politics, it’s difficult to look beyond him adding a ninth title there - if and when the tournament takes place next year.
As for Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros, the court may as well be renamed after Nadal. The King of Clay has only ever lost two matches there and still claimed a staggering 13th title in September playing in conditions that don’t really suit him. When it moves back to late spring/early summer, it’s very likely a fit Nadal will continue his dominance for at least one more year.
Then there’s Wimbledon. Grass has proved a tricky surface for the new kids on the block to master. Zverev and Tsitsipas have never gone beyond round four with Medvedev only reaching as far as the third. Thiem has also struggled to make any sort of impact with three first-round exits in six visits. His best showing was a run to the last 16 in 2017.
If we do see a welcome return to SW19 after the 2020 cancellation, it’d be hard to look beyond Djokovic and Federer as the lords of the lawn. The pair have won eight of the last 10 titles there.
If someone like Medvedev is to come through and claim that first Grand Slam in the new year, the smart money would likely be placed on the US Open. Flushing Meadows has proved to be the major where a very occasional outsider with a big-hitting game, such as Marin Cilic, Juan Martin del Potro and now Thiem have prevailed. It is usually at this time in the sport’s hectic schedule that the physical cost of a successful season begins to tell too, particularly on the likes of Nadal.
So, in uncertain times when we don’t even know when or if the 2021 Australian Open will take place, the one thing you can be sure of is that the ‘Big Three’ are still going to take some stopping.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
A new year is likely to once again require patience from the NextGen. They are not quite ready to establish their own regular rivalries in finals on the biggest stages on the tennis map. But we are seeing growing glimpses of what Medvedev, Zverev, Tsitsipas et al will one day be capable of. They aren’t about to sweep the board, but they are hovering with intent.
And that can only mean men’s tennis is going to be in very safe hands when this golden era does finally come to a close.
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