Rafael Nadal begrudgingly joked that the next generation of stars doesn’t need any help from him during an on-court interview at the Australian Open.
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It was the biggest lie of the event so far.
Nadal, Rodger Federer and Novak Djokovic have already laid waste to one generation of tennis stars, winning 50 of the last 60 grand slams between them, stretching back 15 years. Now they’re turning their attention to the so-called “next generation” of stars — highlighted by Greek sensation Stefanos Tsitsipas and the man he beat in the 2018 ATP Next Finals, Aussie Alex de Minaur.
For all the fanfare of Tsitsipas’ win over Federer — which included John McEnroe’s declaration that the victory was a “changing of the guard” — the gap between the big three and everyone else has never been greater.
It is just as easy to argue that the gap is widening then it is to argue that the combined might of the tennis world is making progress against the three men that have tormented it for so long.
Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have split the last eight slams between them and it will become nine on Sunday night when the Serb and the Spaniard face off in a replay of their epic 2012 decider at Melbourne Park, won by Djokovic after almost six hours.
Djokovic’s ruthless straight sets demolition of France’s Lucas Pouille 6-0 6-2 6-2 in just 83 minutes means he has dropped just two sets on his way to the final — one against Denis Shapovalov and one against Daniil Medvedev.
On Friday night he crushed 25 winners and five unforced errors. He didn’t face a break point and he broke Pouille’s serve seven times. Flawless victory.
Nadal’s clubbing of Tsitsipas on Thursday night should also have been rated adults only for the amount of bloody carnage unleashed by Nadal’s racquet head. He was on and off court in 106 minutes in a 6-2 6-4 6-0 victory that left the man supposed to be on the verge of challenging the tennis establishment a broken wreck.
The fact that there was 10 players 22 years of age or under in the final 32 of the men’s singles draw was celebrated as a generational shift.
We were so wrong.
Alexander Zverev (21), Borna Coric (22), Tsitsipas (20), Shapovalov (19), Karen Khachanov (22), Medvedev (22), de Minaur (19), Frances Tiafoe (20), Taylor Fritz (21) and Alexei Popyrin (19). All gone.
Nadal and Djokovic still stand.
As pointed out by tennis commentators in the wake of Djokovic and Nadal’s semi-final blitzkrieg’s, the Australian Open has shown the next gen is nowhere near it.
Tennis legends Lleyton Hewitt and Jim Courier drew the same conclusion — the next gen is kidding themselves.
“At the moment they are just making up the numbers,” Hewitt told Channel 9.
“When you talk about the main contenders for the majors, it is the three main guys that are still contending. You have got to throw Roger in obviously. He is the two-time defending champion here at Rod Laver Arena at Melbourne Park. But these two guys are taking the game to a new level.”
Courier said the door has been shut on the next gen for now.
“There is a discussion, and we will continue to have it — when is the changing of the guard coming,” he asked.
“I think it is pretty clear it is not here yet. And it is still the big dogs on top at the moment.”
Other tennis commentators, including ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert have also declared it’s time for tennis scribes to change the narrative of the 2019 ATP season. This year will not be a year of change. It will be another year of struggle for everyone outside the Big Three and another year where the tennis world gets to marvel at the majesty of three all-time legends still holding sway at the top of the game.
It’s a year where the main conversation again shifts to the impossible question of which of the three will be remembered as the Greatest Of All Time.
The Australian Open semi-finals show Federer’s record 20 slam crowns will unlikely be enough for him to keep that record with Nadal (17 slams) and Djokovic (14) appearing certain to continue their dominance at least in 2019.
The next gen simply doesn’t feature into the main talking point of the tennis world this year. They are irrelevant in many ways. Tennis remains the Big Three — and has for 15 years.
Thursday night and Friday night shows that the next gen will not beat them. Only father time can break their stranglehold.
The scary thing is that with Djokovic, 31, and Nadal, 32, learning and following all of Federer’s insane professionalism, there is no reason to think they too can’t be winning grand slams when they hit the age of 37.
It means up to six more years of Djokovic blunting the next generation.
By that time tennis will be welcoming a new emerging crop and players like Tsitsipas and de Minaur may well end up exactly like the poor, unfulfilled, wretched casualties of the Big Three’s war on the so-called “lost generation”.
Players like Bernard Tomic, Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori and perhaps even Nick Kyrgios form an entire generation denied the chance to win a major because of their Big Three tormentors.
The scary thing is that Djokovic and Nadal’s bullying semi-finals suggests it’s already started with those emerging stars. It still remains a very real possibility that in the current next gen talents, we are actually looking at a second “lost generation”.