How long will it take the young players to take down the aging Big Three finally? Going by recent results, not very long, it seems!
How difficult is it to win a tournament when three of the greatest players of the sport are still playing the game? As it turns out, it’s not so easy. In the last three years, the Big Three have combined to win all the grand slams. There have been six different finalists in that period, including three first-time finalists, and none could break the hegemony of the Big Three.
To understand the enormity of the task in front of the players, consider this: Daniil Medvedev produced one of the greatest clutch performances of the last decade in the 2019 US Open final. He still lost. Dominic Thiem went two sets to 1 up in 2020 Australian Open final and still couldn’t win it as Novak Djokovic found the right spots with his serving and managed to outlast the Austrian. As it is clear, the Big three still have extra gear in them that they can call upon in the big moments.
But is the Next-Gen getting closer?
For this writeup, I am going to assume “Next-Gen” to be the players from ages 20-21 to age 26-27. Again, I am only covering the players that are currently in the top 20 of the ATP Rankings. So, Jack Sock, for example, wouldn’t feature as part of the “Next-Gen” even though he is 27 years of age.
Now, there are 10 “Big” events outside the slams in the ATP Tour every year. Since 2017, the Big Three and the non-Big Three members have split it five each. So out of the 30 “Big” events outside the slams in the ATP Tour since 2017, the Big Three have won 15 of them, and others won 15. However, how many of those 15 did our described “Next-Gen” win? The Answer to that is, “9”. Four of them were won by Alexander Zverev, one by Dominic Thiem, one by Karen Khachanov, two by Daniil Medvedev, and one by Stefanos Tsitsipas.
The next part that we have to answer is how many of them were won by beating at least one of the Big Three? Out of those Nine, The Next-Gen won Seven, beating one of the Big Three. Thiem and Tsitsipas beat Federer. Khachanov and Medvedev beat Djokovic. Zverev has beaten both Federer and Djokovic. Now, out of these 9, Four were won in 2019 itself, signaling that the winds of change have started to blow.
Can the Next-Gen beat the Big Three in Slams?
The short answer to this question is, “Yes.” What are the results? In 2017, Thiem got the better of an ailing Djokovic at the French Open. Rafael Nadal then handed him a lesson in Clay court tennis in the next round. In 2018, None of our described Next-Gen managed to beat any of the Big Three members.
In 2019, Stefanos Tsitsipas beat two-time defending champion Roger Federer in the Australian Open. Thiem again beat Djokovic in the French Open to end his 26-match winning streak in Grand Slams. In the 2020 Australian Open, Thiem ended Rafael Nadal’s two-year streak of not losing a Grand Slam Quarterfinal. While we only have a handful of these examples, it is still clear that the young guns are beginning to better the Big Three in slams.
How can we tell if the Next-Gen is breaking through?
Most people hold the view that unless the Next-Gen win a Grand Slam, they can’t be breaking through the hegemony of the Big Three. Winning a slam is essential, but it should not be the only criteria. For example, Juan Martin Del Potro beat Federer and Nadal back-to-back to win the 2009 US Open, but injuries and poor form derailed his career. Marin Cilic beat Federer en route to winning the 2014 US Open, but again, he was never a consistent threat to the Big Three.
A new Grand Slam winner is not unlikely, especially in the upcoming US Open with both Federer and Nadal opting not to play it. Novak Djokovic has not officially confirmed his participation in the tournament either.
The criteria I will choose to determine whether or not the Next-Gen have taken the next step is the ATP Rankings. The Big Three and Andy Murray have had unprecedented dominance over the top two spots in the rankings. The last “new” player ranked in the top two, was Novak Djokovic, back in February 2010.
Nobody has been able to break that quadropoly at the very top for ten years. Until a “new” player breaks into the top two of the rankings, the Next-Gen won’t have taken the next step. As of now, the player that appears closest to do that is Dominic Thiem. The Austrian is ranked third globally, but he is still a fair way behind Nadal and Djokovic in terms of ATP Points.
What is positive (for the young guns) is that the signs are there. For the first time since 1999, All four semifinalists in a Masters 1000 event were under the age of 24, in 2019 Shanghai Masters. Daniil Medvedev went on a scarcely believable streak of six consecutive ATP Finals from the Citi Open in Washington to the Shanghai Masters. It was the longest such streak since Andy Murray’s six straight finals in 2016-17. Stefanos Tsitsipas made his debut in the Nitto ATP Finals in 2019 and won it, beating Federer in the semifinal and a high flying Thiem in the final.
The Next-Gen is getting close with every passing year. How long will it take them to finally take down the legendary trio? Nobody can tell. The signs, however, say that it shouldn’t be too long now.