The Times They Are A-Changin'.
Perhaps not quite as much as Bob Dylan sung about in the 1960s, but there is a growing sense of a shift in the tennis world. And it’s been a long time coming. A very long time.
Daniil Medvedev’s move up to No 2 in the world this week ends a 16-year wait for a player not named Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray to be ranked in the top two places in the world. Medvedev displaces Nadal – who hasn’t played since losing in the quarter-finals of the Australian Open – in the rankings and did so in style by winning the Marseille Open.
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"It is always better when you step up the rankings when you do something great," he said. "I know that winning here didn’t give me the points to become No 2, but it is great for the self-esteem that just before becoming No 2 on Monday, I win a tournament."
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Medvedev has a chance to move even higher over the next few months too. He doesn’t have many points to defend on clay or grass while Novak Djokovic, who has a 2,135-point lead at the top of the rankings, has plenty to defend. The world No 1 can also only add to his total at Miami, Monte Carlo and Roland-Garros.
If Medvedev did get to the top he would be the first player outside the ‘Big Four’ to do so since Andy Roddick in 2004. But he will need to improve significantly on clay and grass for that to happen. He's lost in the first round at Roland-Garros for each of the last four years and has never made it past the third round at Wimbledon. Improving on clay is the biggest challenge facing Medvedev right now.
But what does his rise to No 2 mean for the bigger picture of men’s tennis?
Clearly things are changing, albeit slower than might have been expected five or 10 years ago. Murray is out of the equation at the top after undergoing hip surgery while Federer is still ranked in the top 10 only by virtue of the extended ranking system. It’s likely that Federer will slip down later this year, barring a successful summer, while Nadal’s place feels in limbo at the moment. He could dominate on clay as he normally does and soon return to No 2, or the back injury that has seen him not play since the Australian Open could continue to bother him.
Djokovic remains a force, and that is unlikely to change as he aims to extend his record for most weeks as world No 1 and pursues Nadal and Federer at the top of the all-time Grand Slam standings.
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But after so many false dawns, it does feel like the balance of power is shifting slightly.
Federer is 39, Nadal will soon be 35, Djokovic is almost 34. Their powers will wane at some point, and in Medvedev and Dominic Thiem especially, it feels like there are now high-quality, mature players ready to take over. Whether Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas join them remains to be seen, but they are both a few years younger and have time to gain more experience. Medvedev and Thiem have shown over the last year they can compete with, and beat, Nadal and Djokovic. The final step for them is doing it at Grand Slams.
As Medvedev said last week, it’s no shame that it has taken so long for the dominance of three of the greatest players ever to be seriously challenged:
As I’ve always said about the Big Three, they are unbelievable. The records they have set are probably not going to be beaten maybe in 100 years. It’s very rare that you see this in sports. I don’t think you can say that other players were not good enough in this era, it’s just that they were unbelievable and there’s nothing for others to be ashamed of.
But now the aura of invincibility is finally slipping, it will be fascinating to see who can make the most of the new opportunities. Medvedev may be up to No 2 but he’s still yet to win his first Slam, while Thiem secured his first Slam at the US Open last year but hasn’t had great results since. Both are coming up to a critical point in their seasons, with Medvedev aiming for improved results on grass and clay to close the gap on Djokovic and Thiem targeting a first win at Roland-Garros, where he has made the final twice, and a better showing at Wimbledon, where he has only once made it past the second round.
Both appear to be moving in the right direction, but can they keep going and secure their place at the top?
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