Australian Open 2019: Encouraging show from NextGen notwithstanding, men's tennis still waits for its 'change of guard' moment

As Tennis’ Big Four — now the Big Three — have aged, the narrative has shifted quickly to tennis’ NextGen. Players, some of whom were not even born when Roger Federer first hit his prime, are now playing alongside — and against — him. Those who were in diapers when Roger Federer set many of his records are now facing him on the opposite side of the net, and winning.

Last week, young Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas pulled off the upset of the tournament, taking out third seed and among the tournament favourites, Roger Federer in a four-set battle. Then, he pulled off a scorcher against Roberto Bautista Agut, rallying after a second-round loss and a strong charge back from the Spaniard.

Following Federer’s loss to Tsitsipas last week, veteran rebel and tennis player John McEnroe caused him to bristle with his remark about watching tennis' “changing of the guard”. Federer was quick to reply that he had “heard that story for the last 10 years”. "John's in front of the mic a lot. He's always going to say stuff. I love John. I've heard that story the last 10 years. From that standpoint, nothing new there," he said.

One might, and many did, in fact, dismiss that as the irritation of a great who had just lost at the Grand Slam stage despite having been one of the favourites. But here, Federer is right. As much as Tsitsipas is reminiscent of Federer himself, he is not exactly a claimant to the title as Federer was 18 years ago, aged only a few years younger than Tsitsipas.

Stefanos Tsitsipas' win over defending champion Roger Federer is being hailed as the 'change of guard' moment in men' s tennis. Too early to make that call?

Stefanos Tsitsipas' win over defending champion Roger Federer is being hailed as the 'change of guard' moment in men' s tennis. Too early to make that call?

Many said last week that Tsitsipas’ win reminded them of a certain match at Wimbledon 2001, when a young 19-year-old Swiss in a ponytail defeated one of the greatest of all time, seven-time winner, four-time defending champion Pete Sampras, on what was all but his turf. Federer would go on to lose his quarter-final match to home star Tim Henman, but it was a hard-fought battle regardless.

There are, of course, several factors reminiscent between then and now; Federer was 19, only a handful of years younger than Tsitsipas is today. Both players were seeded almost identically — Federer 15th, Tsitsipas 14th, and then, of course, come the aesthetic similarities — the shaggy hair and headbands that so many articles and think pieces over the past week have referred to.

But is it really a changing of the guard? A number of young players have managed to progress through the Round of 16 this year — among them 22-year-old Borna Coric, 21-year-olds Alexander Zverev — described by a litany of former No 1s as a “future No 1”, American ace Frances Tiafoe, and 22-year-old Daniil Medvedev, who scalped a set off World No 1 and tournament favourite Novak Djokovic.

Alexander Zverev's loss to Milos Raonic suggests the talented German still has a long way to go - mentally - before he can break into the big league. AP

Alexander Zverev's loss to Milos Raonic suggests the talented German still has a long way to go - mentally - before he can break into the big league. AP

None of the ATP’s current NextGen finals lack in talent, particularly Zverev, who at 22 has a staggering ten ATP Tour Level singles titles, one in the doubles, has hit as high as World No 3, and is the youngest player in the ATP current top 10. Nor does Zverev lack in fitness; with an all-rounded, all-surface game, he certainly is in prime position to be a future World No 1, as so many on the tour have said. However, the Zverev we saw lose in straight sets to Milos Raonic earlier this week was a different beast, one who seemed thoroughly off kilter — not injured or unfit, just off his mental game. We saw that through the Raonic match, when Zverev’s racquet was made to face his wrath. He did attempt to pull it back in the final set in almost spectacular fashion, but it was alas too little too late, and then again, so much of tennis is about timing.

Age may just be a number, and the Big Three may still be exactly that — World No 1, 2 and 3, but wear and tear on the body does, and will take its toll. However, that wear and tear, at least for now, appears not to be affecting Djokovic, Nadal or Federer. Then, of course, what it comes down to is the mental aspect of the game — and there, the Big 3 will likely be unbeatable.

Rafael Nadal was in top physical form against young Frances Tiafoe, making short work of the American for a 6-3, 6-4, 6-2 entry into the semi-finals of the Australian Open. For Nadal, that win was mental, fought silently and subtly. With slight changes in his now more open serve, Nadal has done what so many — younger, or older, have not done — adapt to a changing game and newer opponents.

Many of the young players who today are able to make inroads deep into Grand Slams, have lacked the continuous, resilient consistency that the Big Three have displayed throughout each of their careers, and continue to do even today, bar perhaps Zverev. Many have had good finishes and some high results, but those results have rarely been as consistent as those any of the top 3 achieved at their age, or are doing today.

While several young players have made their mark already — Tsitsipas, Zverev, Pouille and Tiafoe foremost, among them — the “changing of the guard”, at least as John McEnroe described it, does not seem as though it will happen anytime soon. Or at least not until Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal decide, themselves, to step away from the game. The NextGen may have established themselves, but there does not look to be a Changing of the Guard just yet, at least not for tennis’ own royalty.

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Updated Date: Jan 23, 2019 13:48:09 IST

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