Australian Open: Young pretenders wait to topple tennis royalty
The last time a player outside of the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic laid his hands on a Grand Slam title was Stan Wawrinka, at the 2016 US Open. It’s been 12 Grand Slams of renewed dominance of the familiar trio.Updated: Jan 15, 2020 10:53 IST
Will this be the year of Gennext? This has been the recurring question at the start of the season over the last three-four years. Yet, at the end of each season, the troika of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic send a collective message—not yet, kids.
The last time a player outside of the Big Three of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic laid his hands on a Grand Slam title was Stan Wawrinka, at the 2016 US Open. It’s been 12 Grand Slams of renewed dominance of the familiar trio.
With Nadal getting stronger after a career-threatening injury, Djokovic close to his best and Federer, the oldest of them, smarter in choosing his events, the onus is again on the pretenders to step up and prove right Djokovic’s statement, “Everybody keeps on talking about a NextGen player winning a Slam. You know, it seems like it’s getting closer.”
As the Australian Open starts in Melbourne from Monday, HT looks at the three who can end the stranglehold of the stalwarts.
Keeping aside the super showing of Nadal and Djokovic, 2019 belonged to Medvedev.
The 23-year-old Russian won 56 matches on the ATP Tour, second only to Nadal (58). Going on a breathtaking and giant-killing spree from July to October, he reached six straight tournament finals, winning three while defeating Djokovic, Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas and German Alexander Zverev. Perhaps Medvedev’s best showing came in a losing cause, when he pushed Nadal against the wall by taking him into a fifth set in the US Open final. But for Nadal’s legendary resilience, Medvedev might well have capped the season with a maiden Grand Slam triumph.
He doesn’t seem too far off from it, though, given the 6’6” Russian’s solid all-around game coupled with a big serve. However, Djokovic posed some tricky questions during their clash at the ATP Cup, often forcing Medvedev to come to the net instead of dictating play from the back as the Serb got his revenge. It’ll be a tactic other players will look at, and the world No. 4 will have to find answers to counter in Melbourne. Given his form and temperament, one can’t rule out another Medvedev run.
He won the 2018 Next Generation ATP Finals in 2018, and the Greek did justice to that tag last year, showing why he is tipped for glory soon. The 21-year-old clinched three titles through 2019, saving his best for the ATP World Tour Finals that he won after beating Roger Federer and Dominic Thiem in the semis and final, respectively.
And yet, it was at the start of the year in Melbourne that the Greek announced his arrival on the big stage, beating Federer in the Australian Open Round of 16 and going a step further before being blown away by Nadal in the semi-finals. However, Tsitsipas went on to down Nadal (Madrid) and Djokovic (Shanghai), becoming the youngest player to defeat the three giants.
But Tsitsipas is a bit of a blow-hot-blow-cold player, with first-round exits in the previous couple of Grand Slams indicating that he must get his temperament to match his skill sets.
“I’m going to keep trying to do my best because I feel like I can surpass them (Big Three), I can be better. It’s just a matter of time, patience and dedication,” he said this month. Could that time come in Melbourne?
Leave aside everything else—Thiem has beaten Nadal at least once on clay in the last four years. Merely for that, for consistently challenging the king of clay on his favourite surface, the Austrian deserves a crown.
However, the 26-year-old is more than just a claycourt player. Out of the five titles Thiem won in 2019, three came on hard courts, the first at Indian Wells where he rallied from a set down to beat Federer in the final.
Like Tsitsipas, Thiem defeated Federer, Nadal as well as Djokovic last year, with his unrelenting defensive game making him a threat on any surface. Although Australian Open has not been his happy hunting ground—Thiem’s best remains the fourth-round—the world No. 5 is sure to keep the Big Three on their toes.