Men’s tennis has a problem, and it is one that it is sleepwalking straight into.
For years, the game’s big asset is now becoming it’s greatest concern – and it’s one that shows no real sign of being solved.
What happens when Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic decide to hang up their rackets?
Now, this is by no means an early obituary on the three but, with all three men now comfortably in their 30s, conversations are bound to take place about when these three legends of the game will call it a day – particularly the 37-year-old Federer.
In a perfect world, there would be a stream of young talent ready to step into the void and take their rightful places as heirs to the throne, but this situation is very different.
In sport we will often have a standout superstar, someone who stands above their peers, a modern-day great who takes their place in the pantheon of their respective game.
In men’s tennis, we are arguably in an era where the three best players of all-time are gracing us with their presence at once. Obviously this is up for some debate – but go by Grand Slam wins, not an ideal measure but a yardstick nonetheless, and the names Federer, Nadal and Djokovic top the list.
The last 61 Grand Slam semi-finals have featured either Federer, Nadal or Djokovic. Mind blowing 🤯 pic.twitter.com/rUgQrLOgcc— BenchWarmers (@BeWarmers) July 12, 2019
Their dominance is unrivaled, unknown in most sports, but now we must tentatively face the prospect of losing one, if not all of them, in the not too distant future.
To understand the way in which they have ruled over tennis in the last twelve years, you only have to look at Grand Slam finals. For the sake of this conversation, we are going to look at the three as a collective.
Since the moment Djokovic joined the other two as a Grand Slam finalist there have been only two occasions when his name or that of Federer or Nadal has not been in the final. Since the US Open showpiece of 2007, that is 48 finals with the inclusion of this year’s Wimbledon.
Of the three, Djokovic leads the way with 25 final appearances, Nadal, 21 and Federer 18 – the rest have 32 between them – with just eight of those ending up being wins.
During this time there have been plenty touted to break the monopoly – the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Marin Cilic and Gael Monfils all appeared to have the tools at a young age but their challenge never materialised.
Andy Murray, with 11 finals and three Grand Slams under his belt along with a stint at world number one, was the only player to consistently threaten the big three – albeit his rise was cut short by injury.
The concern for the rest of the tour is even into their 30s, the dominance continues – they have now won the last 11 slams between them.
Names such as Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Denis Shapovalov and Karen Khachanov are entrusted with the future of the men’s game, but to this point have been unable to truly make their mark.
1. Novak Djokovic's record in 2019: 33-6 (85%)— Tumaini Carayol (@tumcarayol) July 10, 2019
2. Rafael Nadal's record in 2019: 37-5 (88%)
3. Roger Federer's record in 2019: 37-4 (90%)
4. Dominic Thiem's record in 2019: 23-10 (70%)
5. Alexander Zverev's record in 2019: 25-14 (64%)
They are playing different sports.
Thiem has a pair of slam final defeats to Nadal at Roland Garros, but other than that hasn’t been past a quarter final – he’s 25.
Zverev and Khachanov have three quarter-final appearances between them, and at 22 and 23 respectively. A caveat for the German is his end of season ATP Tour finals win, but that won’t appear on an epitaph. Tsitsipas and Shapovalov are, in fairness, only 20 – with the Greek having already reached a semi, while the Russian is still to make a quarter.
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic were all slam champions by the age of 21.
This lack of depth on the men’s side is in stark contrast to the women’s game. With Simona Halep’s win on Saturday, there are now 10 active players on the circuit who have won multiple Grand Slams. On the men’s side there are five; Murray, Stan Wawrinka – you know the other three.
For the fair-weather tennis fan this results in a lack of household names, and a potential apathy to the game outside the big three which has to be the biggest worry.
For now though, we must cherish every stroke. One day these incredible careers will come to an end, we can only hope for the sake of the game the torch is passed in time.
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