On the first day of the ongoing Championships at Wimbledon World No 5 Alexander Zverev and World No 6 Stefanos Tsitsipas were knocked out. The next day, still the first round, saw World No 4 Dominic Thiem, the Roland Garros finalist, bowing out as well.
The trio, now firmly in the top six, has long been touted as the future of men’s tennis. Zverev already has three ATP Masters 1000 titles – Rome, Canada and Madrid – won last year’s World Tour Finals, and has already broken into the top three in the ATP rankings.
Thiem won his maiden ATP Masters 1000 title in Indian Wells this year, has now played back to back French Open finals, and is firmly regarded as the second best clay court player as things stand – behind Rafael Nadal. Thiem has three wins over Nadal on clay and has won four of his six matches against Roger Federer – on all three surfaces.
Tsitsipas, meanwhile, played his first ATP Masters 1000 final this year in Madrid, where he beat Nadal in the semifinals. The Greek also has wins over each of the big three, knocking Federer out of the Australian Open this year, and beating Djokovic at the Canadian Masters last year.
However, despite their impact at the Masters level, the early Wimbledon exits for these leaders of the Next Gen – along with the likes of Denis Shapovalov and Alex de Minaur – is the latest demonstration of the gap between the Big Three and the younger generation at the majors.
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have won all of the last 10 majors between them. They have won 49 of the past 67 Grand Slam titles. Since 2003, no one other than Federer, Nadal, Djokovic or Andy Murray has won Wimbledon.
There currently are no male Grand Slam champions under the age of 30. Stanislas Wawrinka, Juan Martin Del Potro and Maric Cilic, the only other active players with major wins are on the other side of 30 as well. And more than the Next Gen not winning any majors, what’s truly worrying is that none of them has looked like challenging for one either.
Barring the French Open finals for Thiem, who will turn 26 in September, the Next Gen have one Grand Slam semifinal between them – this year’s Australian Open semifinal where Tsitsipas was blown away by Nadal.
Zverev might have three ATP 1000 titles and the World Tour Finals, but he hasn’t gone beyond the quarterfinals at any major. Take the French Open out, and he hasn’t even made the quarters at the other three Grand Slam events.
Not only does this show the generation gap between the Big Three and the Next Gen, it underlines that when it truly matters, the most decorated troika in men’s tennis know how to get the job done at the biggest events. What it also delineates is that best-of-five and best-of-three matches are almost entirely different sports, with longevity and consistency counting at the majors.
A classic example was the pulsating encounter between Nick Kyrgios – another talent from the Next Gen – and Nadal on Thursday, which could’ve been a clash of the generations.Unfortunately it was more about the off-field antics of the Australian and his dramatics on it – something which according to the Spanish maestro is what stands between him and a potential Grand Slam title.
At the time of writing, after Round 2 at the Championships, it is almost a shoo-in that Djokovic, Federer and Nadal would be the three semifinalists. Their likeliest remaining challengers, Kevin Anderson and Kei Nishikori – the only other top nine seeds– are also from their own generation.
As of Friday, prominent members of the Next Gen still in Wimbledon are Karen Khachanov and Daniil Medvedev. Felix Auger-Aliassime, who impressed at Queen’s, is still there as well.
All three of them are in Djokovic’s half, with Auger-Aliassime the potential opponent for the World No 1 in the Round of 16, Medvedev in the quarterfinals and Khachanov in the semifinals. It would be great for the men’s game if a couple of those match-ups can transpire, just to give the Next Gen more experience against the greatest, even if the defending champion is likely to be too strong for all of them.
As stated above, given the list of Wimbledon winners since 2003, where the challengers have struggled across majors in general, it is at SW19 that this particular predicament has been even more pronounced.
Outside the Big Three, Tomas Berdych in 2010 was the last male player who made it to the Wimbledon under the age of 25. The only other player outside the Big Three to have made the Wimbledon final under 25 was Andy Roddick in 2004.
That looks likely to remain the case this year as well. It would be the greatest Grand Slam shock of this decade on the ATP tour if anyone other than Djokovic, Federer or Nadal lifts the Wimbledon trophy next Sunday.