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Only injuries will end Federer, Nadal and Djokovic's dominance

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Expert
9th January, 2019
8

In recent years, tennis obituaries have been written for Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – arguably the three greatest players of all time.

Back issues, racket tinkering and a drop in form for Federer in 2013 left many doubting if the Swiss maestro could return to the game’s summit.

Similarly in 2015, when Nadal looked a shadow of his former self, some believed the wear and tear that El Matador had endured over the years had finally taken its toll.

And with Djokovic in 2017 and part of 2018, some said his grand slam-winning days were over, due to an elbow injury, off-the-court woes and his ranking plummeting.

But, somehow, champions find a way. All three have come roaring back, winning multiple grand slams and sharing the number one ranking spot.

Roger Federer. (AAP Image/Tony McDonough)

Since 2003, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have won 51 slams, whilst the likes of Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Juan Martin Del Potro, among others, have picked up a handful of majors between them.

In that time, The Swiss, Spaniard and Serb have repelled two or three sets of tennis generations, with relative ease.

And they have done this at a period of their careers where they should be ‘declining’, as they at the age of 37, 32 and 31 respectively.

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If you fell into a coma more than a decade ago, only to then awake in 2019, you’d be forgiven for asking, ‘Has anything changed in tennis?’

Will Father Time finally catch up with these sporting greats or are we about to finally witness the breakthrough year for the latest batch of next generation players?

Unfortunately for the next generation, I believe the answers to that question, is no.

The men’s tour is not short of talented players, but at present, nobody is good enough to unseat them at the top of the game.

Let’s look at players who are 23 and under.

The likes of Alexander Zverev, Borna Coric, Nick Kyrgios, Karen Khachanov, Hyeon Chung, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Denis Shapovalov and Daniil Medvedev are knocking on the door, certainly.

But in best of five set grand slam matches, not just in best of three contests (where admittedly they have chalked up some big wins), who is going to beat Fedalovic?

Alexander Zverev of Germany. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)

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Winning seven matches in a row and having to topple these three whilst doing so, is a tall order – one that I fear is too great a task.

Zverev has the game to do it. At 6’6”, he moves like a gazelle, has a huge serve and a monstrous backhand. Yet his serve is not the weapon it should be at his height.

There is not nearly enough variation in terms of placement, altering the ball toss and picking his serving spots.

He stands way too far back from the baseline, meaning his heavy groundstrokes are not being used to dictate play nearly enough. All too often, his forehand has a high net clearance, is relatively safe and can be a mere rallying shot.

At 21, he has youth on his side, but I cannot see him beating the big three, unless they face shock exits elsewhere.

Kyrgios, 23, also has the game to take it to Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. He is fantastic when he puts it all together, but that seldom happens.

His head-to-head record against Fedalovic is very impressive, but he often loses to players who he should routinely beat. He himself admits his focus is not what it needs to be.

Borna Coric, 22, made great strides last year in rising to a ranking of 12.

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He is a superb athlete, beat Federer last year and made it to a Masters final.

But can you honestly see him winning seven matches in a row? His groundstrokes have significantly improved in terms of hitting through the court, but can he hit through a Djokovic and a Nadal, for instance, for three+ hours? I am not so sure.

Khachanov, 22, was one of just three players in the last six months to beat Djokovic, when he won the Paris Masters – his first at that level.

His power hitting, good court coverage and ability to maintain that rallying endurance, and not pull the trigger too early, puts him in good stead for the future.

But again, I cannot see him getting through Fedalovic for now. He can run them close, but over best-of-five, doubts remain.

The very underrated Medvedev, 22, has made excellent progress in the last six months.

He stands close to the baseline, which can take time away from opponents, has good serve variation and, like seemingly everyone these days, he covers the court very well.

But… you know where I am going with this.

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Hyeon Chung, 22 fell away after his brilliant run to the semi-finals of the 2018 Australian Open. It appears he is similar to Nishikori, in that he frequently picks up these niggling injuries.

Perhaps his game style, where he puts his body through an awful lot, needs to be altered to prevent this from happening.

The two huge talents in Tsitsipas, 20, and Shapovalov, 19, can beat anyone on their day, because of their huge hitting and outrageous shot-making ability. But that is much more difficult to do in grand slams.

If the Greek can continue on his stunning 2018 season, he could be in the top 10 very soon. He, in my opinion, is one of the ones most likely to challenge the big three.

The teenage Canadian, however, is just too raw. He is a phenomenal talent but his ultra-high risk, attacking game, often leads to his downfall.

Serbia's Novak Djokovic

Serbia’s Novak Djokovic celebrates. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

He may pull the trigger too soon and go for the wrong shot at the wrong time. But he is so young and this will come with time.

This is the most exciting crop of youngsters the men’s tour has had in a very long time – since Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, in fact.

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However, the top three ranked players in the world are not going to be beaten easily. Their legacies continue to go from strength to strength.

Only injury, retirements or a miracle will stop the big three from being surpassed any time soon.

I fear 2019 will be another year where we say, ‘maybe next year the youngsters will break through’. I for one hope it happens at next week’s Australian Open, but I will not hold my breath.