Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek usher in new era after Big 3, Serena Williams

For many years, tennis has been wondering, perhaps worrying, over who will pick up from Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Williams? It appears the answer came in New York.

Tanuj Lakhina September 13, 2022 14:46:59 IST
Carlos Alcaraz and Iga Swiatek usher in new era after Big 3, Serena Williams

Carlos Alcaraz (L) and Iga Swiatek (R) won the men's and women's singles titles at the US Open. AP

You’ve read this headline before – with names changed. You’ve heard this opinion before. You’ve seen these claims before. And yet, it hasn’t necessarily worked out.

For Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic do come out of nowhere and sweep their young counterparts aside. The mountain of a best-of-five set win too big to scale. It was only this year that Nadal won Australian and French Opens and Djokovic triumphed at Wimbledon.

Djokovic was prevented from competing at the US Open, just like at the Australian Open, due to his stance against getting the COVID-19 vaccine. Nadal lost in the fourth round to American Frances Tiafoe.

Serena Williams continues to hog the headlines even when she’s not the strongest title contender. It held true when she got back from a year away at Wimbledon. And definitely at the US Open which is expected to be her last major, if not the tournament.

Roger Federer drew a loud ovation when he stepped up on to the Center Court at Wimbledon as part of a ceremony. But the 41-year-old’s last involvement in a match goes back to 2021 quarter-final match at the All England Club.

With none of Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Williams in the last-16, it was the first Grand Slam since 2003 that at least one of the quartet hadn’t made the quarters.

“Some depart, others come and the world keeps going. It’s a natural cycle,” said Nadal on the quartet who have won a combined 86 major singles title, each with at least 20. “It’s always the same. The same one have been up there several years; others are coming and we will be leaving. It’s logical.”

For many years, tennis tournament organisers, sponsors and entities have been wondering, and perhaps worrying, over who next? Who will pick up from Nadal, Djokovic, Federer and Williams in pulling the crowds and eventually keep the sport profitable?

The question, it appears, was answered over the weekend in New York. Iga Swiatek lifted the women’s title for her third Grand Slam trophy and Carlos Alcaraz rose to the occasion among the men.

One can argue that Swiatek should not be a new name for the casual tennis viewer. She has won two majors before, is the World No 1 and went on a rampaging run earlier this season. But the marketing pull of the North American region, over the rest, cannot be dismissed. Case in point, Emma Raducanu.

Swiatek looks more than capable of filling the vacancy created by Williams’ “evolvement” towards other commitments and Ashleigh Barty’s surprise retirement.

The Pole believes the win in New York could be a watershed moment towards newer, unattained targets. She stated “sky is the limit” after beating Ons Jabeur.

“At the beginning of the season I realised that maybe I can have some good results on WTA events,” the 21-year-old said. “I also made it to semi-final of the Australian Open.”

“But I wasn’t sure if I was on the level yet to win actually a Grand Slam, especially at the US Open where the surface is so fast.”

“It’s something that I wasn’t expecting for sure. It’s also like a confirmation for me that sky is the limit,” she added.

Men’s tennis is where the need for next champions was most urgent. Coming into the US Open, Nadal and Djokovic had combined to win 15 of the past 17 overall majors. Add Federer to the mix and it becomes 20 of the last 22. Zoom out even more and it is 63 of 76.

The tide started to turn just after the first week in New York. None of the eight male quarter-finalists were over 30 years old with Nick Kyrgios being the oldest at 27.

Across the field, of the 16 quarter-finalists in women’s and men’s draws, 15 hadn’t won a major – exception being Swiatek.

According to the USTA, this was the first time in the Open Era, that the US Open featured fewer than at least two past major title winners at this stage.

Go a few days further and US Open contest between Alcaraz and Casper Ruud was the youngest US Open final since 1990 and youngest Grand Slam final since 2002.

“It definitely shows that there’s a changing of the guard going on, and obviously some of it has to do with age,” said Mats Wilander on Eurosport.

“… the depth in the men’s game is unbelievable,” he added.

The quarters and semi-final line up would attest to that.

Tiafoe, who sent Nadal packing with an exciting and energetic game in front of a packed crowd said, “It’s cool to see a new era. I think Nick (Kyrgios) playing great tennis is great for tennis. You see him packing stadiums when he’s playing singles, doubles, whatever. Alcaraz is a great personality. Sinner. Myself. People get behind me.”

Alcaraz not ready to say it’s ‘done’ for the Big 3

19-year-old Alcaraz, the new World No 1, opted against rushing into calling time on the Big 3’s career or ability to win yet another Grand Slam.

“As long as Rafa, Djokovic, Federer are there, they will be the best and the rivalry they have between them will always come first,” said the Spaniard after beating Jannik Sinner in a gruelling five-hour 15-minute match.

“But Jannik and I have shown that we are the present and we also have long careers ahead of us,” added Alcaraz, who has become the youngest World No 1 in ATP history.

Roll back the years and one notices Federer’s first triumph came under a year after Pete Sampras won the US Open in what was the American’s final match.

“Before this generation, we lost another great generation. Obviously, there will not be a Rafa or a Roger or a Serena. We know that. There are always ups and downs. But there were great champions in the past and there will be again. I’m not worried. It’s part of sports. It’s part of life,” said Frenchwoman Caroline Garcia who beat 18-year-old Coco Gauff.

“Great champions leave and others arrive,” Garcia said. “You have to give young players the time to get to the top of the game and get mature and everything. The fans have to be ready for a new generation, as well.”

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