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Feature: Young and Restless

Young and Restless
October 9, 2019
Tennis fans are blessed to be living in a Golden Age of Tennis where not one, but three players will likely end up having legitimate claims on being the Greatest Ever The GOAT. Combined, the “Big 3”, Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, have dominated the tennis landscape, with a stranglehold on the sport’s biggest prizes.

“They’ve dominated these last 20 years, 15 for sure,” noted 23-year-old Matteo Berrettini, who’s risen more than 40 ranking spots since the beginning of the year to his current World No. 13. “They have more experience, they’ve been doing this since a lot of years, so they’re more ready. They’re playing unbelievable. They’re for sure the best ever in tennis.”

Not only has tennis’ mighty trinity claimed 51 of the last 59 majors stretching back to Roland Garros 2005, but they often play each other in the finals, leaving precious little room at the top of the game for anyone born from the ‘90s on.

The tennis world finds itself straddling a chasm with one foot firmly planted on Big 3 and the other in uncharted territory, wondering what the tennis landscape will look like once Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal retire… if they ever do.

The change may not be immediate, but it is happening. Carole Bouchard, who covers tennis for La Dernière Heure in Belgium said: “The players aged 18-23 are really good and they have great personalities as well. It’s on the right track. Will it be as good as with the Big 4? I don’t think so. It’s unreal what we’ve had. But for their generation, it’s going to be great.”

Already, a few have risen above, not just as hopefuls but as legitimate successors: 21-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, 23-year-old Alexander Zverev, and most recently 23-year-old Daniil Medvedev. This week in Shanghai, World No. 7 Tsitsipas recalled winning his very first ATP Tour-level match here just two years ago.

“A lot of things changed,” he said. “I remember myself back then how young and how just, you know, innocent I was compared to now. I have seen improvement in my game. I have seen also growth in me, too, in my life and also in my everything. So, I have seen changes, and I’m learning every single day. I can’t wait to see how things will look in two years’ time from now.”

Coming up together, the current crop of youngsters find motivation in each other’s success. “I think the finals in US Open, Daniil did a great match,” Berrettini, who made the semis, said. “There’s motivation. I was playing with those guys like Daniil, Karen [Khachanov], and Borna [Coric] in the juniors. They started to win titles and I said to myself, ‘I can do that’. The other guys, we are helping each other to get those achievements and it’s really nice to have this kind of competition.”

However, it’s not just the youngsters who are taking stock of what each other are doing. The Old Guard is equally aware, if not more so, of the charge from the rear.

“They’ve got our attention, no doubt about that,” Federer, who lost to Tsitsipas at this year’s Australian Open, said. “What I like is that I’m seeing big improvements now. Not like there were none beforehand, but now they are playing with the big boys, and really able to challenge us, beat us, having good rivalries also within each other, which I think is important for them to improve as players.”

Djokovic, who took out 20-year-old Denis Shapovalov on Wednesday night, added: “There is Felix [Auger-Aliassime] and Denis and [Hubert] Hurkacz and guys like this that are playing really well, and on a given day they can really beat anybody.”

But for many of the next generation, notching a big win here and there isn’t enough; they want to be the ones holding up the tennis’s biggest trophies.

“At some point we will see change. I mean, it can’t be that Rafa, Roger, and Novak win everything,” Tsitsipas noted with a wry smile. “We’re looking forward to learn more, and I hope even before they’re done, we’re trying … but once they’re done, it’s going to be our time,” Berrettini said.
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