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Still the ones to beat: Roger Federer (photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports/Reuters), Rafael Nadal (photo from his Instagram), and Novak Djokovic (photo by Giuseppe Maffia, Reuters)

Not yet, NextGen: why tennis’s Big Three still rule Wimbledon

The next generation isn’t quite ready to take over from the Big Three of men’s tennis, and other takeaways from the first week of this year’s Wimbledon.
Exie Abola | Jul 09 2019

For at least half a decade the tennis world has been waiting for someone to break the stranglehold the Big Three have on the men’s game. Surely Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic would decline as they aged, and a new set of players would push them aside and take the reins.

It hasn’t happened. Already in their thirties, the Big Three remain the game’s immovable object. In The Tennis Podcast, when David Law, Catherine Whitaker, and Matt Roberts discuss who is “in the mix” in a slam, they don’t offer a fourth name.

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Which is why eyes are on the next generation, the young guns who show promise and flashes of brilliance and who are expected to take over the game sometime soon. The men’s tour has even instituted a yearend tournament for them: The Next Generation ATP Finals, which coincides with the yearend ATP Finals for the tour’s top players, showcases seven of the best players aged 21-and-below.

This hyping of the next generation (#NextGen), is also the tour’s way of distracting from the reality that the previous generation, consisting of the ones in their late twenties (such as Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, and Kei Nishikori), have failed to dislodge their illustrious elders from their perch. They’re good but not good enough. Writers have even come to call them the Lost Generation (#LostGen?).

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There have been a lot of pretenders to the throne, inlcuding Grigor Dimitrov (photo from his Instagram), Milos Raonic (photo by Dita Alangkara/AP) and Kei Nishikori (photo by Danielle Parhizkaran, USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)

Wimbledon, the tennis year’s premier event, is upon us, and the first half of the fortnight shows us that the most prominent members of the NextGen aren’t quite ready. Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Frances Tiafoe, and Denis Shapovalov (first round); Andrey Rublev and Taylor Fritz (second round); Felix Auger-Aliassime and Daniil Medvedev (third round) didn’t survive the first week.

Everyone’s anointed one is Stefanos Tsitsipas, the one most people (including me) think has the best chance among them to steal a slam from the Big Three. His coming out party took place at the Australian Open this past January, where he took out Roger Federer in the fourth round in four steely sets and made it to the semifinals at the tender age of 20. His game looks ready-made for grass. Alas, he fell on opening day to someone ten years older and eight inches shorter. Thomas Fabbiano of Italy, ranked no. 378, took out the young Greek in five sets. At the postmatch presser Tsitsipas sounded as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. He knows everyone expects him to be the next world-beater, and it looks like it’s wearing on him.

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Newer threats are starting to come up like Stefanos Tsitsipas (photo by Vincent Kessler, Reuters) and Thomas Fabbiano (photo from his Instagram)

Expectations have worn on Alexander Zverev for a while now, yet he’s only just 22. For all his talent and achievement (he’s been ranked as high as no. 3), he hasn’t made it past the quarters of a slam, and on the first day he lost in lackluster fashion to Jiri Vesely, 25 years old and ranked no. 248. Afterwards he revealed that personal issues have been weighing him down.

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The match between Alexander Zverev (photo by Sergio Perez, Reuters) and Jiri Vesely (photo from his Instagram) yielded an unexpected result.

Felix Auger-Aliassime, 18, had never won a match at a slam, but that didn’t stop bookkeepers from giving him the fourth-best odds at winning it all. It seemed silly then, and it seems silly now. He may be the best physical specimen of this youth movement, the most athletic and most naturally talented, and it wouldn’t surprise me if five years from now he will have gotten multiple slams under his belt and risen to the top of the rankings. But it’s really early in his career, and he’s still a teenager. The potential is vast, but the road ahead is long.

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Bookies gave Felix Auger-Aliassime (photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports/Reuters) great odds.

Grass isn’t for giants anymore

The All-England Club’s lush lawns always favored really tall players with really big serves. This year it seems the grass is playing slow, like, as one player put it, “green clay.” No surprise that the giants have lost early. Two of last year’s semifinalists, 6’8” Kevin Anderson and 6’10” John Isner, lost early. Anderson has been searching for his form this year, and he lost in straights to Guido Pella. Isner, who hadn’t played since a foot injury felled him in the Miami Open final against Federer, lost in the second round. Ageless wonder Ivo Karlovic lost to Fabbiano, 13 inches shorter. Reilly Opelka, the new giant on the block who stands 6’11”, took out Stan Wawrinka, the 22nd seed, in five sets in the second round then lost to Milos Raonic, the 6’5” Canadian who made the finals in 2016 beating Federer along the way.

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Guido Pella and Reilly Opelka took out some of the favorites this year. Photos from their Instagram

If a giant goes deep this year, it will be either Raonic or Sam Querrey. The resurgent American beat fifth seed Dominic Thiem in the first round and didn’t drop a set in this second and third round matches. Querrey, 6’7”, made the semis in 2017, and if he gets that far his probable opponent is a guy he took out that year, Novak Djokovic. The 6’5” Raonic, for his part, hasn’t dropped a set and has looked formidable on serve.

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Resurgent Sam Querrey might book a semifinal clash against Novak Djokovic. Photos from their Instagram

The Big Three march on

Though the young guns fell by the wayside, the Big Three marched on, none looking as fearsome as Rafael Nadal. He hasn’t won here since 2010, but perhaps the unusually slow conditions have allowed the King of Clay to shine. The tussle of the first week of the fortnight was the heavily anticipated grudge match between him and Nick Kyrgios. The tension had built up since their spicy encounter in Acapulco in February.

The Aussie again looked like a guy who could beat anyone when he cares to show up. He often doesn’t, which makes his a tragedy of wasted talent. The match featured quintessential Kyrgios, who hit underhanded serves, snarled at the referee (and got a code violation), and tried to bury balls in Nadal’s chest. It also featured some deliciously good tennis. Nadal started the match like a beast unleashed. He pumped his fists and roared as if he were in the final. At the end of it, Nadal prevailed in a three-hour thriller, 6–3 3–6 7–6 7–6. The Spaniard had dropped his five previous tiebreaks to the Aussie, but he was sharp in them, while Kyrgios played some loose points. Afterward Kyrgios was unsurprisingly unapologetic about trying to hit his opponent, and Nadal dismissed the encounter as “just a second-round match.” It obviously wasn’t for either of them.

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Rafael Nadal (photo by Yann Coatsaliou, AFP) and Nick Kyrgios (photo by Jayne Kamin-Oncea, USA TODAY Sports/Reuters) played in a dramatic second-round encounter full of theatrics and antics.

Nadal and Federer are on a collision course for a semifinal encounter. Djokovic looks like he’s in the easier half of the draw, and if I had to guess who he’d be up against, I’d choose Raonic, who is looking great again after injury prevented him from building on his strong showing in 2016 (Wimbledon finals, semis in Melbourne).

But am I saying that Milos Raonic is in the mix? Not really. Raonic hasn’t beaten Djokovic in nine tries. And even if he prevails this time, he’ll probably have to deal with Nadal in the finals. Which means that, yet again, the trophy will go to one of the Big Three, as it has, with two exceptions (hello, Andy Murray), since 2003, when Roger Federer won the first of his eight championships. Some day soon someone else will take it, but not this year. The reign of the Big Three continues.