Before Sunday’s Australian Open final, Novak Djokovic addressed a topic that has been gaining momentum over the past few years: the young players in professional men’s tennis who are rising to meet and eventually overtake the “Big Three,” composed of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic himself.
“There’s been a lot of talks about the new generation coming and taking over the three of us. But realistically that isn’t happening still,” Djokovic said in an interview. “I mean, we can talk about it all day if you want. But with all my respect for the other guys, they still have a lot of work to do.”
With all due respect to Djokovic, there’s a lot to be said about the next generation of tennis players — a generation that is about to eclipse the aging Big Three and take over the sport altogether.
In the 2000s and 2010s, tennis fans around the world reveled in the incredible feats Federer, Nadal and Djokovic achieved. We saw them shatter records previously thought to be unbreakable, and they’ve continued to do so, with Djokovic adding to an already impressive record number of Australian Open titles last Sunday. Even in the new decade, Nadal and Djokovic have combined to win three of the first four Grand Slam tournaments. This kind of dominance — the kind that stretches over three decades — is unprecedented in tennis, and it can be hard to see the possibility of it ever ending.
In the last few years, however, a change has been taking place — a change that is hardly perceptible when looking at the recent Grand Slam champions, but one that is present nonetheless. These three stars, previously virtually untouchable by their challengers, are on the brink of being overcome by a talented roster of young players eager to see their own names etched onto the four prestigious Grand Slam trophies.
The day these young players “arrive” on the tennis scene and take over has long been anticipated, but it may finally be here. Five of the top 10 players on the ATP Tour are 25 or under, compared to just one in 2013 and two as recently as 2019. And these young players are churning out results at big tournaments, progressively sticking around into later rounds and gaining confidence playing against and even beating the Big Three.
A prime example of this success came at the most recent U.S. Open finals when 25-year-old Dominic Thiem beat Alexander Zverev. You may have noticed that neither of those players is Federer, Djokovic or Nadal, and that would be an astute observation. Last year’s U.S. Open broke a streak of 14 consecutive Grand Slam finals in which one of the Big Three was present, and it also broke a streak of 13 consecutive Grand Slam finals in which one of the Big Three won.
In fact, at the 2020 U.S. Open, no member of the Big Three even made it to the quarterfinals, despite Djokovic beginning the tournament as the top-seeded player. The last time no member of the Big Three made the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam was the 2004 French Open, in which Djokovic and Nadal didn’t even compete.
To be fair, Federer didn’t compete in the 2020 U.S. Open because he was still recovering from a knee surgery he underwent earlier that year, and Nadal didn’t compete due to COVID-19 concerns. So this tournament was unlike others in that regard, but the trend of growing success from younger players is still evident.
After the Grand Slams, the ATP Finals is the next biggest and most important tournament, and it happens to have been dominated by young players over the past four years. Players aged 26 and under have won all four of these years, and a member of the Big Three only made the finals once in that span. This would not be as notable if not for the fact that a member of the Big Three had made the finals of this tournament in 13 of the 14 years before that and won 11 of those 13 appearances. It seems that they have recently lost their grip over an event they used to dominate, and this may be a sign of things to come.
As Djokovic said, there is still quite a bit of work to be done before these young players can claim they’ve surpassed the Big Three. In Sunday’s final, the Serbian superstar dismantled one of this next generation’s top talents in Daniil Medvedev. Djokovic reminded fans why he, Federer and Nadal have been on top for the last 25 years, but Medvedev’s mere presence in the final reminded us that change is coming — and probably faster than Djokovic wants to believe.
Zachary Hall writes for Bear Bytes. Contact him at [email protected].