...Maybe This Time Around?
The Struggle of Tennis' Next Generation
It is the Australian Open Men’s Singles Final, 2022. The competitors are Daniil Medvedev and Rafael Nadal. The latter of these figures needs no introduction to tennis fans- he is ‘Rafa’, the King of Clay, one of the famed Big Three, and a 19 time major champion. The other, Daniil Medvedev, also needs no introduction to tennis fans, but he has achieved nowhere near the same accolades as the man on the other side of the court. He won his first grand slam mere months earlier, at the US Open. Medvedev is a hard court specialist, the no.2 seed for the tournament, and the favourite to win the final. He is ten years Nadal’s junior, and Nadal is better known for his clay-court prowess. All signs are fortelling a Medvedev victory.
Half way through the match, and Medvedev is completely overpowering the famous Spaniard. The Russian possesses a powerful serve which can reach close to 140 mph, and his ‘counterpunch’ game has proved effective against his decade-older opponent, exhausting Nadal in lengthy, punishing baseline rallies which steal the air from the lungs. He is two-sets up and 0-40 on Nadal’s serve. As Medvedev slams away a backhand winner to bring up these three break points, a commentator declares the following: ‘that, surely, is the decisive point, and the defining moment for Daniil’. In almost any reality, you would be foolish to bet against Daniil Medvedev emerging victorious.
But this is not ‘any reality’. This is the reality of tennis: a sport which, almost inconceivably, remains dominated by two men in their late thirties. Time and time again, the two remaining members of the big three, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, have overcome the supposedly unassailable boundary of age by beating opponents who should quite literally run circles around them. In the match in question, Nadal would proceed to come back from the two-set deficit and defeat Daniil Medvedev to claim his 20th major crown.
This was rightly hailed as one of the most staggering comebacks of all time, but this doesn’t tell half the story. For in truth, it was also staggeringly predictable. Tennis observers are so used to seeing Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic win that even when their opponent has match point, and perhaps even converts, a part of them still believes they will emerge victorious. This shouldn’t happen, but time and time again, it does. One year earlier, a 22 year old Stefanos Tsitsipas had been two sets up against a 33 year old Novak Djokovic in the French Open final. He went on to lose the match. This is discounting the innumerable times when younger talents haven’t each managed to accumulate a lead, and instead lost in straight sets to the old guard. This is the seemingly perpetual struggle of the ‘Next-Gen’: to lose to the Old Gen. To be the bridesmaid, and not the bride, until Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are in their late forties. One would think the Spaniard in particular could win the French Open on crutches, wearing a blind-fold and without holding a tennis racket.
This is often interpreted as a stunning testament to the longevity and the sheer gobsmacking talent of the Big Three, all of whom have won at least 20 grand slam titles. There is Roger Federer, with his apparently effortless elegance, and Novak Djokovic with his relentless defence (interspersed with vaccine-related controversies), and Rafael Nadal with his indomitable fighting spirit. Each of them have defined what it means to be a tennis player. It is also interpreted as a damning indictment of the Next-Gen’s ability. How many times can we produce excuses before admitting they’re simply not as good as the Old Gen?
But this close-minded thinking is, perhaps, exactly why the New-Gen keep losing. All of these players grew up studying the Big Three. All of the new generation idolise the players they now find themselves stepping on court against. Of course, the novelty of playing your hero must wear off once they beat you half a dozen times, so why do the losses keep coming? This, combined with the pressure of playing an opponent infinitely more experienced on the big stage, has had obvious effects. Over and over, we have seen a New-Gen player snatch defeat against Rafa or Novak from the jaws of victory.
Despite what some may claim, the talent of the new generation of players like Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Jannik Sinner and Carlos Alcaraz is real. Sport is ultimately meritocratic; you cannot reach its pinnacle without the same aptitude and hard-work the Big Three convey in abundance. Each of these ‘Next-Gen’ players have beaten the Old Guard, and often numerous times, but these victories are usually at Masters or some other less prestigious level of the game. In other words, not at the slams. Not on the biggest stage.
The solitary win by a ‘Next-Gen’ player against Nadal, Djokovic or Federer in a grand slam final was at the aforementioned 2021 US Open. But within this victory lies the heart of the problem. For the Big Three facing a ‘Next-Gen’ player in a major final, the pressure is arguably lessened. After all, their legacy is already secure. They have likely already won the major in question half a dozen times. If they lose… well, they were ten years older. They would never lose in their prime, after all. For the ‘Next-Gen’ player, the pressure is always greater than vice versa. And their solitary success, achieved by Daniil Medvedev over Djokovic, was in circumstances that alleviated this pressure. Djokovic was aiming to complete the ‘Calendar Slam’, which has only been achieved once in the history of the men’s open era. For once, Medvedev could play without the ten-tonne weight of Next-Gen expectation on his shoulders- and he won in straight sets.
Pro sport, at the elite level, is as much a mental game as it is a physical game. Never is this clearer than with the Next-Gen’s struggles to overcome their heroes. Maybe this time, they’ll be lucky…?
Image: Wikimedia Commons