The false start is a problem not only for sprinters, but also for dopey sportswriters attempting to stake out a position on the cutting edge. This reporter has been burned half a dozen times trying to anoint The Next Big Thing in men’s tennis, only for one young hero after another to be fed directly to the three-headed Cerberus of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.
When the three greatest players ever happen to have been born within six years of one another — and, thanks to the twin miracles of modern medicine and nine-figure wealth, sustain their brilliance deep into their thirties — there’s little room left for a youth movement. No one outside of these three men has won a major since 2016, and very few of them won in the decade prior (just four: Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic and Juan Martín del Potro). It all adds up to the fact that no men’s player currently under the age of 31 owns a major title, which is a very strange reality to reckon with.
Then the 2019 season rolled in, bringing a raft of fresh talent and the possibility of the old guard’s decline, and finally … yeah, no. Rafa-Novak-Roger finished 1-2-3 in the rankings and kept all the major titles to themselves, two apiece for the Serb and Spaniard.
But while the four Grand Slams (rightfully) remain the benchmark for excellence on the pro tennis circuit, there have been other omens of change to come. For the most recent one, look no further than last week’s ATP Finals, the year-end event that pits the season’s top eight players against one another in a round-robin opening round followed by a knockout-style final four. Winning it delivers the most ranking points of any tournament outside the majors, and the player who comes out on top is left standing on a heap of the absolute best talent in the world. Like the majors, it too has been dominated by the usual suspects over the last decade, chiefly Djokovic, who thrives on the indoor hard courts on which it is played.
This year’s ATP Finals, though, doubled as perfect fodder for any marketing executive concerned about the state of the tour after the Big Three eventually bow out. There are real players in their wake — talented ones, with telegenic styles, who pose a genuine threat to their hegemony. After so much blabber about what comes next, the future of the game is taking shape, and it feels like it’s finally possible to mock up the top tier without any reckless tea-leaf prognostication.
Let’s start with Stefanos Tsitsipas, who won the ATP Finals on Sunday. With a one-handed backhand, incisive forehand and clear appetite for net play, the young Greek bears a superficial resemblance to Federer, and his freewheeling style offers similar joys. Given that he is 17 years the Swissman’s junior, there are some obvious differences — like the fact that Tsitsipas is an aspiring YouTube auteur.
His career has moved fast. In 2018, he was the winner of the little-league, under-22 version of this event, which is aspirationally called the Next Gen Finals. Just one year later — which included an Australian Open semifinal berth and victories over all of the Big Three — he came in and won the real thing, beating Federer in straight sets, losing to Nadal in three and conquering his three best contemporaries.
The last of those was Dominic Thiem, who Tsitsipas overcame in a pyrotechnic three-set final. The 26-year-old Austrian is best known for being the unambiguous second-best player in the world on clay. Nobody can really be expected to defeat Rafael Nadal even once over the course of a clay season, but the hard-hitting Thiem is the wisest pick, having done so at least once in each of the last two seasons. Thiem has booked what’s looking like a recurring appointment with Rafa in the final of the French Open; in 2018 he lost in straights, and in 2019 he put up a fight for two sets, stealing one before giving in to the inevitable.
Thiem’s early career results had him pegged as a one-surface specialist. But in principle, there was no reason that Thiem’s gifts — some of the heaviest groundstokes in tennis, a serve with real pop and spin, heroic stamina — could not translate to other surfaces. And it has begun: his growing comfort on hard courts, perhaps best seen in his upset of Federer in the final at Indian Wells this March, has forced me to reframe who he might be as a player. His loss in the final notwithstanding, Thiem had arguably the most impressive week of anyone at the ATP Finals, racking up convincing wins over Djokovic and Federer. He will enter 2020 as real a hard-court threat as any player alive, and remains the closest thing to a nemesis Rafa has on the clay.
Thiem got to Sunday’s final by dispatching Sascha Zverev, the 22-year-old German who won last year’s ATP Finals by unseating Novak Djokovic. He stands 6-foot-6, with the huge serve that figure suggests, and the fluid mobility it does not. Zverev is a technically pristine ball-striker who prefers to linger at the baseline, and in rough profile he’s not far from the just-retired Tomas Berdych, even if the youngster might be praying for more auspicious outcomes. Zverev, a top-ten fixture who has won a bushel of big events, has thus far disappointed at the majors, which is variously attributed to stamina issues or a brittle and disinterested mind, depending on whether you’re an armchair physiologist or psychologist. He has reached the quarters at the French Open two years running, but has not cleared the fourth round at any other major. Whatever the underlying issue, he still has a lot to prove, which is odd to say of a player who has been No. 3 in the world, but still the consensus among pundits.
But if I had to pick just one young player to win a major first of this bunch, it would be the 23-year-old Russian Daniil Medvedev, who had a quiet showing at the ATP Finals but has fashioned a playing style that can beat any and everyone. Also 6-foot-6, Medvedev might be the tallest pure counterpuncher ever to reach this level of the sport. He hits a highly unorthodox flat ball that is difficult for opponents to exploit, and he bides his time masterfully, diligently probing for openings with full confidence that he has the consistency and legs to grind through four-hour odysseys.
His run to the final at this year’s U.S. Open was the stuff of instant legend, involving high-level trolling and stadium-wide boos before culminating in a redemptive five-set marathon against Nadal. That tournament was just one leg of one of the great hardcourt seasons in ATP history: Medvedev played in six straight finals, and demonstrated an uncanny ability to problem-solve and pick apart any style of player in doing so. It won’t be long before he beats seven of them in a row in Melbourne or New York.
These are the major players, but in the spirit of thoroughness, we can round out this cast with some other, more minor characters. Don’t lose sight of Matteo Berrettini, the 23-year-old Italian with the bludgeoning serve and forehand who started 2019 outside the top 50 but wound up in the U.S. Open semifinal before finishing the year at No. 8 in the world. Consider also the ever-present but increasingly nauseating question of whether Nick Kyrgios, a tetchy genius of aces and pure feel, might begin to care about winning tennis matches. And look out to the younger fringes to find Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime, a pair of Canadian prodigies with roving all-court styles and some convincing wins that belie their inexperience. Put it all together, factor in the march of time, and something has to give.
Here is a sentence I have hovered around for a long time, and can finally put to paper with a straight face: a man in his twenties will win a Grand Slam tennis tournament next year.