Playing the Waiting Game

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It’s been some time since tennis fans got to enjoy the classical sporting narrative of the young guard usurping the old elite. The Tennis review looks back at the last few years, asks why this changing of the guard has not happened and hopes the waiting game will soon end and we’ll have some Next in Line/Next Gen slam champions to get excited about.

Back in Spring 2017, I posted this article: Men’s Tennis European Clay Court Season 2017 Who Will Step Up? Five Faces

The article was specifically about the Clay season, but the post could also apply to the rest of the 2017 season with one tennis surface more or less sliding seemlessly into the next.

I was asking about when some of the younger players on the tour such as Dominic Thiem, Sascha Zverev, David Goffin and Kei Nisikori were going to reach the next level in their career (self indulgently, I also asked about Martin Klizan, one of my favorite players, who was 28 then and who was once also, albeit briefly and in a very low-key fashion, hyped as a next big thing). These players were not exactly the same generation, but they were all big prospects and had all been stalled somewhat, or, in Thiem and Zverev’s case were about to be, in the traditional career arc of previous era’s players of their talent and type; players who came on to the tour, got some big wins and went on to win slams and reach No.1. I termed them the Next-in-line.

Three seasons on and while some of those players have made progress and some have not, none of them have done the stepping up I was hoping for- winning slams, reaching No.1, and setting up a new order in men’s tennis.

Not that they have done badly, mind.

Thiem has certainly achieved great things- three slam finals and an Indian Wells title.

After much messing around, Zverev broke through, by his standards, at slam level by reaching this season’s AO semi finals.

David Goffin has been unfortunate with injuries, but he did make an ATP 1000 final in Cincy last season and he made the WTF finals in ’17.

Kei Nishikori never achieved what so many of us hoped for him. (I have hope though that he will benefit from 30 being the new 20 in men’s tennis. Anything else and I would have to really start wondering about the tennis Gods). He wasn’t really anywhere near Next Gen back then in 2017, age wise, occupying much the same kind of space Thiem does now.

As for Klizan, he continues to suffer the worst luck with injuries, and has not been able to make a Gaudioesque run to a slam title that I dreamed up for him (perhaps my second favorite tennis narrative, the talented underachiever making good).

Since 2017, there has been no big breakthrough at the top, no giant steps for the next in line, no Gaudio style runs. The only champions we’ve seen at the slams are those from the Big 3, around a decade and a half since they first started dominating them.

These have been the slam champions since the 2017 European Clay Season:

2017:

Roland Garros: Rafa Nadal

Wimbledon: Roger Federer

US Open: Rafa Nadal

2018:

Australian Open: Roger Federer

Roland Garros: Rafa Nadal

Wimbledon: Novak Djokovic

US Open: Novak Djokovic

2019:

Australian Open: Novak Djokovic

Roland Garros: Rafa Nadal

Wimbledon: Novak Djokovic

US Open: Rafa Nadal.

2020:

Australian Open: Novak Djokovic

Considering the Big 3’s talent and work ethic and general advances in science, I should have known better than to expect that 8 years after starting blogging about tennis, I would actually get to do what I had started blogging for in the first place- covering the emergence of a new generation at the top of the game. (I have some old notes I wrote, pre-blogging, when it did happen in previous eras, perhaps I should just publish them.)

After all, I had been here before in 2014 when another ‘next gen’, then known as the ‘young Guns’ could not take what they would have once done in previous eras.

When I first started blogging, in 2012, I, naively in hindsight, expected the start of my blogging life would see out the end of the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic power triangle.

It was an exciting time, the final peak of the Big 4 as a group and, I thought, what looked like the end of the Big 3’s combined prime; a golden age, (excuse the hyperbole, but it was warranted back then).

Covering Djokovic and Nadal’s final at AO ’12 was something else. It was a treat to write about Federer winning Wimbledon ’12. Nadal’s comeback in 2013 and the twists and turns of his rivalry with Djokovic was an intriguing one.

In early 2014, I was ready for the next stage, the natural transition from the old and bruised elite to the new sprightly guard, a sporting and tennis story as old and as vital as any.

Djokovic had not been delivering in slam finals and looked mentally fragile; Federer was physically so, suffering a terrible back injury; Nadal had a great 2013, but the toll on his body meant he never seemed to back up a great season with another one, and 2013 had been a great year for Murray, but his exertions left him spent and broken.

I didn’t raise an eyebrow that the elite were starting to decline. They were 33, 28 and 27 years old and champs going out in their late 20s and early 30s was the norm. The odd last run to a title would always be possible for a slam champ, but another lengthy peak at the top seemed unlikely, a combined one even less so.

So, back in 2014, I got ready to write about this changing of the guard. Dimitrov, Nishikori and Raonic were expected to take the places of the Big 3 on the tennis podiums and rankings, and I was looking forward to that. Three very different games, nice guys, and something fresh to the tennis mix.

It seemed like it might even happen, what I was hoping for. Dimitrov gave Djokovic a good match in the Wimbledon semis and Nishikori actually beat Djokovic at the USO ’14.

However, they could not push through.

We did, though, get some new faces holding up the slam trophies.

Wawrinka and Cilic, aged 28 and 26 respectively, both stepped up and won slams that year and interrupted the Big 4’s slam dominance.

Watching them do so a little later in their careers made up somewhat for the ‘young guns’ not coming through. Wawrinka and Cilic may not have been ‘young’, but they were new and different, and, excellent, and that, was good enough.

Still, though I wanted my Next Gen story line, but the 2014 Young Guns never did come through- the baton Federer, Nadal and Djokovic were supposed to hand over to Dimitrov, Nishikori and Raonic left somewhere in the locker room.

In 2015 to 2016, it was all Djokovic and his history making, and then Murray having a world class second wind.

Raonic did get close, but he could not quite get close enough. Nishikori showed signs of resurgence but he was just too fragile.

In 2017, Federer surprised many of us in Australia and Nadal came back to slam competing and then slam winning form, as he likes to do.

Meanwhile, as far as the next in line went, one of the guys I was counting on, Dimitrov, suggested great things in Melbourne ’17, really great let’s-get-excited-as-hell things, and then promptly vanished.

So, in the spring of 2017, I thought, surely, it was time for a new era to come in and I would have something new to write about or, more to the point, the story I wanted to write about.

It seemed like the signs were there; signs I would, naturally, misinterpret.

First, I doubted the following- the likelihood of Federer continuing to win slams after the AO, the chances of Nadal with his physical game winning more slams, and the probability of a burnt out, injured Djokovic making a comeback to the top.

Federer’s gap between his first and last slam was, in 2017, 14 years; Nadal’s is now also 14. Djokovic could tie that record in 2022. Before that, Sampras had held the record with 12 years, followed by Becker (11), Andre Agassi (10) and Jimmy Connors (9). Surely, I thought, the gap could not get even bigger. Of course, in 2018, a year later, it did; Federer increasing the gap to fifteen years, winning his first slam at Wimbledon 2003 and, for now, his last at the AO’ 18 (I am never writing him off again. Lesson learned.)

Perhaps it’s only natural that with every other record inevitably being broken, the age one would, too, but it would only go so far, I reasoned, and maybe the Fedal AO ’17 final was that duo’s Sampras-Agassi US Open 2002 moment; the final hurrah before a new cheer.

The start of the Clay season suggested I might have a point. Thiem beat Nadal in Rome and Zverev beat Djokovic in the final.

But the changing of the guard, once again, never happened. Quite a lot of teasing went on, though.

At the end of 2017, Dimitrov beat Goffin at the WTF finals.

In 2018, we had rumblings of movement at the top with Khachanov in Paris and Zverev at the WTF, both beating Djokovic, Zverev beating Federer and Djokovic back to back.

In 2019, we had Daniil Medvdedev’s superb run and his great efforts versus Nadal in the US Open final.

The WTF ’19 teased us once again with that final between Tsitsipas and Thiem.

At the start of 2020, when Thiem led Djokovic by two sets to one in the Australian Open final with another inspiring display of power hitting, I thought this is it.

I thought wrong.

And, while it’s certainly encouraging that Medvedev and co. are gaining ground outside the slams and in some respect at them, and it was a great sight to see Medvedev, Zverev, Tsitsipas and Berretinni make up the Shanghai last four last season, slams are the pinnacle of the sport, where the real history is made.

Tsitsipas winning the WTF is close, but the Majors are where you get to put the cigar in your mouth and take a well-deserved puff.

That’s precisely why Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are still winning them. They have unparalleled motivation at their age with the slam race at 20, 19 and 17, and they have all the confidence and experience, and the right conditions, to keep playing and winning slams and pushing each other until their bodies give up on them because they do not look like giving up the race anytime soon.

In tennis, there is a conversation happening about why this changing of the guard has not happened.

Some say the Big 3 are just too great, and their motivation greater.

Some say the playing field just is not level- the Big 3 have so much money they can stay at the top with all the support and medicine money can buy while other players struggle to achieve those same advantages.

Some say the Next Gen/ Next in Line are distracted, too rich too young, and just don’t work as hard.

Some say the Next Gen/ Next in Line have not had the advantage of new technology to give them an edge over the older generations.

Others say the ATP has manipulated the whole thing, for example, slowing down surfaces, and the slam count is over-inflated (even Roger Federer has suggested this.)

 Anyway, every surface is very similar today, otherwise we couldn’t have achieved all these things on all these different surfaces so quickly, like him and myself.

– Roger Federer, Australian Open, 2016 after his semi-final loss to Nadal.

Whatever the reason is, I have been playing the waiting game for a long time, too long, and maybe you have, too.

The ageing process means we will eventually get there. Even the big 3 cannot defy that.

If, when tennis returns, the Big 3 keep going where they left off, I will enjoy it, for some of the tennis they produce is beyond excellent, and while I may prefer the idea of another scenario, I’d be a fool not to appreciate the actual and, admittedly, extraordinary one taking place before me.

But I’ll be cheering on the likes of Shapovalov, Auger-Aliassime, Rublev, di Minaur, Coric, Zverev, Medvedev, Tsitsipas, Fritz, Tiafoe, Kecmanovic, Humbert, and Hurkacz to do what I enjoyed so much seeing Sampras, Agassi, Kafelnikov, Moya, Kuerten, Roddick, Hewitt, Ferrero, Safin, Nadal, Djokovic, and del Potro do before them: take on, as youngsters, the established champions and carve their names on the sport’s greatest trophies.

I’ll also cheer on the Thiems and Nishikoris, the players whose chances of living the young gun dream have passed by but who could still enjoy a second Sunday or two of lifting a slam trophy.

It was new faces breaking through at slams that made me want to write about tennis, and when they finally turn up, I’ll be ready with my pen to finally try and do them justice on the page as they do themselves on the court.

(If Klizan does it, I’ll write a book about it).

Please share your comments below.

Are you also waiting for the next in line to break through in men’s tennis? Or would you be happy to see the Big 3 go on indefinitely?

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Christian Deverille

Christian Deverille is a tennis writer with a diploma in Freelance Sports Writing from the London School of Journalism. He loves all things tennis, most of all the Federer and del Potro forehands.
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