There are only a few more sleeps to go until the Australian Open gets underway and all eyes will be on some of the biggest names of the game as history beckons for the likes of Rafael Nadal, Serena Williams and Ashleigh Barty.
In 2017, fresh after another Wimbledon victory, Roger Federer stated that the “next (generation) hasn’t been strong enough to push all of us out really. So that has been helpful for us to stick around.”
Few disagreed. Few could, really. And while earlier this year at Halle he tempered that statement by saying that it was “not easy to dominate” the sport like he had, it remained a cutting, yet fair statement, especially given the wretched performance of the so-called younger generation at Grand Slams over the past five years.
And Federer himself has the trophies and results to back himself up: namely the 2017 and ’18 Australian Open and the 2017 Wimbledon titles. Another three Slam finals in that time period and it’s fair to say Federer, 37 at the time, was right on the money.
Take Federer out of the equation and the situation is even worse. Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal alone claimed all four of 2019’s Slams (Nadal at the French and US Opens, Djokovic at the Australian Open and Wimbledon) and 14 of the last 20 (that ever-dangerous floater Stan Wawrinka’s titles at the 2015 French and the 2016 US Open along with Andy Murray’s fairytale 2016 Wimbledon run).
And a look at the top ten is no better: rounding it out are Bautista Agut, a 31-year-old journeyman in a career renaissance, and Gael Monfils, the ever-popular Frenchman that has never really delivered on that prodigious forehand. Just outside are David Goffin and Fabio Fognini, talented, but never serious in Grand Slam calculations.
And all four are around (or past) 30.
Statistically, it looks grim for the younger generation. Stefanos Tsitsipas at 21 is the star riser and must be considered the next true force in tennis. Having recently won the end of year ATP Championships, all eyes will be on the Greek to replicate the efforts at the Australian Open.
And there is every reason to be confident that will be the case. Poor results at Wimbledon and the US Open (and his 2019 win-loss record of 5-7 against the Big Three) notwithstanding, he still made the semis in Australia (his arrival on the big stage) and more importantly, he has the necessary all court game along with the capacity to fight back against in-form opponents.
The one quibble is his decision making and sometimes wild shot-making, but many of the errors that he makes (along with his willingness to train and improve) are simply by-products of a young, confident and upcoming tennis player.
Confidences fade thereafter. Dominic Theim at 26 is marginal as young but is the clay court prince, with an imposing clay record with several wins in ATP events over Nadal. However, he barely fired a shot against Nadal in his two appearances in the last two Roland Garros decider and is possibly waiting for the Spaniard’s retirement instead.
His shot-making is too slow to seriously threaten on other surfaces, but on clay, he’s the current heir apparent and the biggest threat of the rest for a Slam.
Alexander Zverev mixes a conceited attitude and inconsistent tennis with a brutal backhand and some scintillating baseline work but so far has failed to make it past the fourth round at any Grand Slam apart from the French Open. Nick Kyrgios has even more tricks up his sleeve and is fun to watch, but he cannot see enough beyond his own media circus and arrogant expectations to ever make use of it.
At 24 and a relative veteran on the tour, it is almost impossible to see him as a genuine threat in Grand Slams anymore. One must wonder if his antics are merely a smokescreen to deflect critics away from the fact he possesses a wildly inconsistent forehand and lack of stamina (his poor five-set record indicating that when the heat is on, Kyrgios’ game melts away).
Russia has reason to get excited. Daniil Medvedev (ranked #5) and Karen Khachenov (ranked #17 after a slight late-season slump) both possess the relative aggression to push the top three. Medvedev in particular looks likely, he captured his first Masters-level title in Cincinnati and made the final of the US Open.
Best of all, his consistency and tenacity (he almost caught Nadal after being two sets down in the US Open final) in the latter half of the year, when players are starting to tire due to tournament fatigue, is a positive sign. His size coupled with his beautiful movement and his evenness on both wings makes him a legitimate dual-threat on grass and hardcourt.
Of the others, Borna Coric remains a tantalising prospect with his toughness and dedication to the game but until he can deal with his ongoing injury issues, he’s not going to be the one to threaten the top dogs. The ‘Speed Demon’ Alex De Minaur is another that can excite and disappoint in back to back performances, but until his backhand develops into a proper shot, at just 20 it’s hard to see him threaten for at least another couple of seasons yet.
The signs are there. It’s almost impossible to see at least Djokovic or Nadal not win one Grand Slam in 2020 at a minimum. Federer has been grand, a legend of the sport, but his Slam days are officially over, retirement beckons and he will be caught and dethroned as the king of tennis soon enough.
None of the trio will give up their positions willingly. But get set to usher in the next wave of tennis in 2020.
Big 2019 predictions
Tsitsipas to make the quarters at every Grand Slam (and make at least one final), Kyrgios to fail again at every Grand Slam (while picking up his usual title or two).
Medvedev to win his first Gram Slam while Thiem unseats Nadal at the French. Youngsters will win at least two of the 2020 Grand Slams on offer.