Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal: The Big Three are all right
For the sake of statistical comparison, let’s take the year 1990 as a rough marker to separate generations in modern tennis.
Since 2017, how many women born after 1990 have been Grand Slam singles champions? Nine: Jelena Ostapenko, Garbine Muguruza, Sloane Stephens, Simona Halep, Naomi Osaka, Ashleigh Barty, Bianca Andreescu, Sofia Kenin, Iga Swiatek.
Using the same parameters, how many men’s singles champions do we get? One: Dominic Thiem.
Even as the “Next Gen”—the term used to describe the younger generation in the sport—among men continue their struggles to get an inch from the old-guard of Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the women have effectively overthrown the previous rule.
It was apparent at the 2021 Australian Open, where the two champions in Osaka, 23, and Novak Djokovic, 33, have an age gap of a decade. And while Osaka marched to the title by out-powering 23-time Slam winner Serena Williams—ruling the roost in women’s tennis for a large part since the turn of the century and still making deep Slam runs at 39—in the semi-finals, Djokovic swatted aside two young and ambitious challengers in Alexander Zverev (quarter-finals) and Daniil Medvedev (final).
Men’s tennis has, for quite some time now, longed for a fresh face to mount a serious challenge to the “Big Three”—Djokovic, Nadal and Federer. It is yet to happen.
Since 2017, for example, the Big Three have won 15 of the 16 slams. When Thiem finally wrapped his hands around the US Open trophy last year (after Djokovic defaulted, Nadal pulled out and Federer remained sidelined with injury), it was the first time after 13 Grand Slams than anyone outside the trio won a Slam. The storylines quickly cropped up again—is this finally the beginning of the passing of the baton? Not yet, emphatically stated Nadal in Paris and Djokovic in Melbourne, we’re still running fine.
It has been like this since 2005, when Nadal won the first of his incredible 13 French Open titles (Federer was already a 4-time Slam Champion)—fifteen years of dominance as challengers in men’s singles have risen briefly only to recede again in the shadows of the Big Three. Grigor Dimitrov? Stan Wawrinka? Milos Raonic? Kei Nishikori? Marin Cilic? Andy Murray? All superb players, Wawrinka and Murray the most successful of that group of challengers from the last decade with three Slams each. In that same time (2010-2020) the Big Three stacked up 34 of their 59 collective Slam titles till date.
Now the Big Three are older, almost at the edge of retirement; they have a new generation of challengers in Thiem, Medvedev, Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas. Like the generation before them, they too have shown the odd moment of inspiration—Thiem beating Djokovic at the 2019 French Open semi-final or Tsitsipas rallying past Nadal at the quarter-finals of this Australian Open, both in five sets.
The Next Gen in women—from Muguruza to Osaka to Halep to Andreescu—have each managed to get past the experience of Serena in a Grand Slam final in the last five years. Muguruza has also beaten Venus Williams, 40, while Osaka has defeated Petra Kvitova, 30, and Victoria Azarenka, 31, in Slam finals during the period.
Let’s look at the head-to-head record of two of the most prominent Next Gen members against two seasoned campaigners still at it among both men and women. Osaka has a 3-1 win-loss record over Serena, and that includes Osaka’s straight-sets victories in both their Slam meetings, while Halep has a 6-5 record against 33-year-old Angelique Kerber, a three-time Slam champion, with the Romanian beating the German in their previous two Slam outings. On the flipside there’s Medvedev with a 3-5 record against Djokovic, none of those three victories coming at Slams, while Thiem is 6-9 against Nadal, having only once beaten the Spaniard at the Australian Open quarter-finals last year.
“Everyone (among the women) believes now. I think before, Serena’s aura was so big that a lot of people lost the match in the locker room; we used to joke about it too,” India’s six-time Grand Slam champion Sania Mirza said during a media interaction. “A lot of these girls now believe because they’ve had wins over her."
That belief appears to be in shorter supply among the young male players the moment they come up against the Big Three—more so against Djokovic and Nadal now—in best-of-five tournaments. Medvedev had no qualms in admitting as much.
“When they're in the zone, and I'm not shy to say it, I feel like they're just better tennis players," he said in the press conference after his Australian Open final defeat. "For sure, when we are also in the zone, we can bring them a big fight, we can win some matches, maybe some big titles, but it's just that the percentage is on their side.”
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