Few would disagree that men’s tennis is due a makeover and perhaps we are closer than ever to glimpsing its new face.
The same names are reeled off at every grand slam when talk turns to the ‘next generation’, and Kei Nishikori ran us through them on the first day of this US Open.
The Japanese put himself forward as a possible contender, then added: “You see [Dominic] Thiem playing finals, and I think a couple of guys are getting closer.
“Of course, Sascha [Alexander Zverev] is a great player and a couple of young guys: Felix [Auger-Aliassime], [Denis] Shapovalov, [Nick] Kyrgios, those guys who are coming up, too. Oh, yes, and [Daniil] Medvedev.”
Four times a year, the debate turns to which ‘#NextGen’ star – Nishikori is now 29 – might be able to end the slam dominance of the ‘Big Three’.
Andy Murray had made it a ‘Big Four’ and Stan Wawrinka won three majors in three years, but the latter’s Flushing Meadows triumph in 2016 was the last time one of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic, three of the greatest players in history, did not win a grand slam.
There is certainly no shame in coming up short when those three represent the competition.
Federer has made his home in Melbourne and at Wimbledon, Nadal is close to untouchable on clay, and Djokovic, on his day and when fit, has the full package.
Opportunities for the rest are scarce. Thiem has been able to beat Nadal on the red dirt but not at Roland Garros, losing consecutive finals. The US Open has seen a varied cast of recent finalists, yet Djokovic has played in three of the past four deciders and won two of them.
This is the golden era of men’s tennis, and yet…
No holding back after that win!
— ATP Tour (@ATP_Tour) September 5, 2019
Whisper it quietly, but might there be an argument that it has become a little dull seeing the same three names top the honours boards four times a year?
Can we have too much of a good thing? Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are certainly a good thing. They have done wonders for tennis with their efforts both individually and collectively.
But sport is arguably at its best when it is unpredictable, when fans come along for the ride not knowing which way it will twist or turn.
Look at the NFL or the NBA, where regular-season records count for nothing when the top seeds – like the New Orleans Saints or the Milwaukee Bucks – fall short in the playoffs. Look at the Champions League, where Manchester City, Juventus and Paris Saint-Germain, try as they might, cannot turn domestic dominance into European success. Look a little closer to home at the WTA Tour.
For while men’s tennis is a closed shop, the women’s equivalent is anything but. Since Serena Williams completed her second ‘Serena Slam’ in 2015, there have been 10 different champions across 16 major tournaments.
Serena can dismantle any opponent when on top form and has at times done so this year, but the competition is healthy, the results are often unexpected.
So this year’s men’s US Open has been similarly refreshing.
We can all remember classic Djokovic-Federer clashes – as recently as the Wimbledon final – but Grigor Dimitrov downed the great Swiss in a New York epic, while Matteo Berrettini described his own quarter-final against Gael Monfils as “one of the best matches I’ve ever seen”.
Seeing new faces compete at the business end of the tournament has been uplifting, with unusually early exits for Federer and Djokovic presenting opportunities for others to forge legacies.
This match had everything!
All the best bits from Berretini vs Monfils wrapped up in one pic.twitter.com/WPv2KA3PF4
— US Open Tennis (@usopen) September 5, 2019
And now, one could argue, we must have a new winner. Only Nadal, with a patchy recent hard-court record, remains of the superhuman trio. He is the favourite but surely he is beatable.
Because how quickly would a thrilling fortnight be forgotten if, come the start of next year, Nadal and Djokovic each held two slam titles? Conversely, a triumphant Medvedev, Dimitrov or Berrettini would renew hope within the locker room.
The ‘Big Three’ might not have long left at the top – particularly in 38-year-old Federer’s case – but the ‘next generation’ need not wait that long to get over the hump. This looks like a fine opportunity.