Alexander Zverev next in line to end Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer dominance but it has to happen soon

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Friends on and off court: Zverev with Federer and Nadal.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have won the past six Grand Slam titles between them – three each.

The likelihood of that becoming seven when Wimbledon rolls around next month is a distinct possibility, too.

Perhaps Nadal, aged 32, and Federer who turns 37 in August, will toss a coin for it.

Back in 2006, they also shared six consecutive major titles in a row. It’s quite a feat they have repeated the trick.

The fact they have done it again illustrates their lengthy dominance at the top of the men’s game, heightened to a degree by Novak Djokovic‘s decline and Andy Murray’s injury woes ever since the start of the 2017 season when he became World No1.

Stan Wawrinka, a man who has won three major titles but has lost more matches than he has won this year, at 33, looks like a spent force as well.

The career narratives of Nadal and Federer, more so than most, are very well known. The real question is where are the contenders, pretenders, whatever way you want to phrase it, to first challenge tennis’ grandest two stars and overtake them?

Before the Swiss’s resurgence last year and the Spaniard’s freakish ability to battle back from long-term injury, this was the debate in the men’s game on a weekly basis. It’s since gone a bit quiet.

Dominic Thiem, who was faced with the unenviable task of dethroning Nadal’s bid for an 11th French Open title at Roland Garros on Sunday, cannot be criticised for losing to the King of Clay.

However, a straight-sets drubbing, in which he didn’t really seem to land much of a glove until the dying embers, was anti-climatic given at 24, it was his first major final and the first time he had gone beyond the fourth-round of a slam.

The Austrian, who has a winning head-to-head against Federer and has beaten all members of the big four, is a major champion in the making but you fear, if it doesn’t come soon, it may never happen.

In the sport, multiple and serial Grand Slam winners land that knockout blow early. Federer won his first (at Wimbledon in 2003) aged 21 and Nadal was still only a teenager when he triumphed on the red dirt in Paris in 2005. Djokovic, too, was 21 when he secured the title in Australia three years after that.

The greats before them followed similar trajectory in turning potential into the real major deal quickly: Pete Sampras (aged 19), Boris Becker (17) and Bjorn Borg (18). The list goes on. Most careers, particularly on the men’s side, are top-heavy with slams – bar Federer and Nadal – and it is a path you need to tread quickly.

Thiem’s time has to arrive sooner rather than later but Alexander Zverev, who stands at number three behind Nadal and Federer in the rankings, is the man with the all-round package to become that breakthrough champion and perhaps the new face of men’s tennis moving forward. Still only 21, he has time on his side but needs to rise to the occasion more often after some poor major showings.

Elsewhere, Grigor Dimitrov, now 27 and nicknamed ‘Baby Fed’, was often touted to become that man. His triumph in last November’s ATP World Tour Finals seemed like the big moment he was searching for but his 2018 season has been all-but miserable.

PARIS, France:  Spanish Rafael Nadal holds his trophy after his men's final match of the tennis French Open at Roland Garros against Argentinian Mariano Puerta, 05 June 2005 in Paris. Nadal won 6-7(6) 6-3 6-1 7-5.AFP PHOTO / CHRISTOPHE SIMON  (Photo credit should read CHRISTOPHE SIMON/AFP/Getty Images)

A 19-year-old Nadal beat Mariano Puerta to win Roland Garros in 2005.

An 18-11 win-loss ratio for the World No5 has meant he’s been unable to follow that up.

Perhaps the issue for the #NextGen – the tag the ATP World Tour have labelled the new breed of tennis stars with and even named a tournament after – is more mental. Rightly, they should show respect to Federer and Nadal but perhaps, at times, they have shown too much.

You get the feeling – given many of the aforementioned names have got to know the great two well through events like the Laver Cup – that they are happy to share the moment, share the stage with legends, rather than copycat their ruthless cutting edge.

The use of super coaches, like Djokovic and Murray have appointed in the past with Becker and Ivan Lendl, could be a ploy to turn back to and did break up Federer’s monopoly certainly. Let’s not forget the Serbian has won 12 slams and is a legend of the game.

But, that doesn’t work with everyone and they are once in a generation players. Milos Raonic, for all the powerful aspects of his game, could not reach that level. He benefited from the bounce effect of having someone like John McEnroe in his corner for the grass-court summer of 2016 but at the age of 27 looks like a man whose chances have passed.

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 08:  Joh McEnroe, Milos Raonic of Canada's coach, watches on during Milos Raonic's practice session on day eleven of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club on July 8, 2016 in London, England.  (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

Milos Raonic and John McEnroe worked with each other in the summer of 2016.

While the mercurial talents of Juan Martin del Potro should be excused from any lists given his luckless fortune with injuries (he would have surely had many more slams if that had not been the case), he leads a bracket of stars along with Marin Cilic (a US Open champion), David Goffin, Kevin Anderson, Sam Querrey and John Isner all in or entering their late 20s, or early 30s.

Then there’s Nick Kyrgios, another man in the equation. The fact he possesses more talent than most makes it a crime he hasn’t made best use of it.

For all the options, no one stands out to take on the Nadal-Federer mantle. Given the pair look likely to stick around for a bit longer yet, it is a pretty ominous sign for the rest.

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Roland Garros final takeaways: Nadal claims 17th major as race with Federer heats up

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There was a wind of change passing through Court Philippe Chatrier on Sunday as we were handed construction helmets by the tournament to take part in a ‘Demolition Party’ celebrating the past 30 years of that centre court stadium before it gets knocked down for renovations starting Monday.

But as the journalists and Roland Garros staff walked through the halls and corridors of the stadium, scribbling on the walls with markers, and bidding their farewells, there was no escaping the fact that when it came to the tennis that took place in Sunday’s final, nothing really had changed much compared to most of the past 13 years.

Once again Rafael Nadal outclassed the field en route to the final, and overwhelmed his opponent Dominic Thiem on Sunday in straight sets to lift the French Open trophy for an 11th time since his winning debut in 2005.

The Spaniard has dropped just one set of tennis here in three years.

Thiem described Nadal’s record 11 victories at Roland Garros as “one of the most outstanding things achieved in sport”. Thiem, who is the only player to defeat Nadal on clay these past two seasons is yet to take a set off the Mallorcan in three meetings contested against him at the French Open.

Here are three takeaways from Sunday’s final – which, in keeping with the theme of the day, was some form of demolition.

STILL EMOTIONAL

You’d think that standing in the middle of centre court to receive the Coupe des Mousquetaires for an 11th time might feel like business as usual for Nadal but you’d be sorely mistaken.

The 32-year-old was in tears as he was given an extended standing ovation during the trophy ceremony on Sunday. The only man to ever win the same Slam 11 times, and just the second player in history to do so – after Margaret Court – Nadal continues to treat the sport with the same passion he had when he was a teenager.

The older you get, the more you appreciate the special moments in life and probably Nadal feels that every Slam he wins at this stage of his career, could very much be his last.

TOUGH FOR THIEM

The 83-year-old Ken Rosewall, an eight-time Grand Slam champion and two-time winner at Roland Garros, presented the trophies to the two finalists on Sunday and was asked to make some comments about the match.

The Aussie legend admitted he wished there were more sets played and that Thiem’s game was “a bit disappointing”. It probably wasn’t the best moment for Rosewall to drop any truth bombs, but he meant well.

While many thought Thiem would push Nadal in the final, based on the fact that he beat the Spaniard in straights just four weeks ago in Madrid, the reality is that Nadal is a whole different animal on Court Philippe Chatrier at Roland Garros.

As Thiem explained in his press conference, his game plan was the right one, but his execution was not. The Austrian No. 7 seed was aggressive but missed more than he should have, and when you’re facing Nadal, you cannot miss or allow him to get in front, because once he’s in the driver’s seat, he accelerates and never looks back.

Considering it’s his first Grand Slam final, the 24-year-old Thiem has plenty to look forward to. And he sounds confident in his future chances, promising the Paris crowd that his next trophy ceremony speech here would be conducted in French.

RACE FOR SLAM RECORD IS BACK ON

With Roger Federer and Nadal splitting the last six Grand Slams it’s difficult to predict which one of the two players will end up with the men’s all-time record of most majors won.

Federer is obviously in pole position for that record, having amassed 20 compared to Nadal’s 17. They’re both in great shape, are the top two players in the world, and appear to maintain their advantage over their opponents when it comes to competing over best-of-five sets at the majors.

Nadal says he’s not obsessed with the idea of catching up with Federer, insisting it’s not how he operates. But if his body holds up, surely he knows he has a legitimate chance of getting to that record.

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Darren Cahill hails Simona Halep's 'maturity' after 'special' French Open triumph

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Darren Cahill has worked with the likes of Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt in the past, guiding them to Grand Slam titles and the world No. 1 ranking, but the Australian coach admits his success with Simona Halep in Paris on Saturday is “special”.

Cahill, who teamed up with Halep at the start of the 2015 season, said watching his charge’s final against Sloane Stephens felt like “torture” and his animated celebration when she won revealed just how much this maiden Grand Slam title for the Romanian means to him.

“I saw [his reaction], he wrote me, because I didn’t see him much [yet], that it’s his best day. I’m the only girl he has ever coached so maybe it’s special,” Halep said after her win.

Cahill explains why it is.

“This one here was kind of special considering the last three and a half years that I’ve been with her. There’s been a few downs for sure. We’ve had a rocky road as well, because for me to try to educate her and teach her the lessons and try to make sure she keeps improving,” said Cahill, who split with Halep briefly early last season because he wasn’t happy with her attitude.

“We’ve had a couple of clashes over the last couple of years, some of them everybody has seen, some of them not, but it’s all been to the learning process and she’s taken it the right way and she’s become a more mature better tennis player and this is for her, she did all this work.”

Halep knows all too well what the whole team has been through during her journey.

“I can say that half of my desire was for them because I know how much they were waiting for this moment, my family as well, all the people, the team, my coach he told me before the match ‘you go and take it today’ so he put the pressure on me but it was good pressure and he made me feel that I’m strong enough to do it so I was thinking of my people all the time,” said Halep.

Cahill’s role in Halep’s rise to the top spot and Roland Garros victory cannot be understated. The Aussie has figured out the right way to communicate with her, motivate her, and get her back on her feet every time she gets knocked down. He refuses to take the credit though and hails Halep’s maturity and growth, especially over the past year.

“I think she’s matured a lot in the last 12 months. It’s important to learn lessons from defeats, and a couple of stinging defeats. She’s handled them the right the way, the way she’s spoken about those losses, both with credit to her opponent but also going back to the practice court and working out why she’s had those losses and how she can improve. She’s a complete professional and I give her full credit for what she’s been able to achieve,” he says.

Part of Halep’s progress has also been due to her work with sports psychologist Alexis Castorri. The Romanian has been open about Alexis’ role and said she has helped her be kinder to herself.

“I think that addressing your weaknesses, being open with them, if you make a few mistakes just hitting them face on is really important in this sport,” said Cahill.

“I think the sport itself, or sport in general, has changed a lot in the last 15 or 20 years because of social media, the money, the pressure, every team now, every player has a minibus full of people traveling around.

“Just that pressure around the player is much more than it ever used to be so I think dealing with those pressures is really important. Simona has been able to do that, Alexis has been really important for her the last couple of years.

“And if you’re not addressing that side of things – whereas once upon a time in my era maybe admitting to that was a bit of a weakness, you had to suck it up and be tough.

“Now I think players are turning over every stone and making sure they are professional, if you need it, making sure you do it.”

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