On a warm January day in Melbourne, a 36-year old Swiss magician and a 31-year old Spanish wizard wielding tennis wands, wage a battle of the ages across the net. The magician is aiming for a mind numbing 18th Grand Slam crown and the wizard his 15th.

Melbourne Centre is packed. A day earlier finals tickets have been sold for 16,000 Australian Dollars – more than it cost to buy a house in Melbourne when Rod Laver won his last title. ESPN ecstatically declares a day later that it is the most watched program at that hour in the history of the network. In Australia alone 4.4 million people, a stunning 18% of the country’s population, tunes in to the broadcast.

The two friends and lifelong rivals do not disappoint.

At the three hour mark with the scoreboard reading 6-4 3-6 6-1 1-3, Roger Federer makes his move. In a stunning come-from-behind display of vintage tennis he wins his 18th crown leaving a bemused Rafael Nadal shaking his head in admiration.

In June it would be Nadal’s turn to make history. On the red clay of Roland Garros, the man the French embrace as their own would win his 15th Grand Slam and achieve La Decima - an astounding 10th French Open title.

Rohit Brijnath writing in the Straits Times would put Rafa’s achievements on clay in perspective: “Tennis’ highest winning rate on carpet is .853 by John McEnroe, on hardcourt it is .840 by Novak Djokovic, on grass it is .912 by Don Budge, but on clay it is .917 by Nadal. To call him the greatest player on clay is insufficient. In fact, he is greater on clay than anyone else has been on anything else in the history of tennis.”

Federer would then take home his 19th title at Wimbledon, and Nadal his 16th at the US Open. Rafa Nadal would end 2017 as the oldest men’s tennis player and the first above the age of 30 to hold the year-end Number One position.

The phenomenal achievements of two men who six months before the Australian Open were barely able to walk and uncertain about playing top level tennis again, begs the question about what happens when they lay down their racquets. At 31, both injury plagued Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, notwithstanding their talent and achievements, are no spring chickens even if they have a few Grand Slams left in them.

So is there a future for men’s tennis in the coming years? Will 18% of a country’s population ever again switch on their TV sets to watch a game of tennis once these men have retired?

The Next Generation – Is there One?

While the Big Four of Tennis were taking turns warming their hospital beds over the past couple of years, fresh legs were taking their place on court, but only a few were actually making an impression on the increasingly disillusioned tennis loving public.

Nick Kyrgios of Australia has been around for a few years now. Phenomenally talented, he has long wavered between being a genius on court and appearing mentally unhinged on and off it. He is still only 22, but after 4-years on the circuit, 4 titles, a few bans, multiple fines and a highest ranking of 13 achieved two years ago, the patience of even his most ardent fans is wearing thin. One suspects that 2018 will be no different from his previous years. He will flatter to deceive.

Dennis Shapopalov of Canada is an exciting prospect. At just 18, he has just made the transition from the junior ranks straight into the limelight with victories over Rafa Nadal and Juan Martin Del Potro at the Canadian Open last year and become the youngest player to reach an ATP 1000 semi-finals. This is a future Grand Slam winner, but not this year.

In Jack Sock the United States has finally found a male player they can wave the flag behind. At 25, Sock is a late bloomer from a tennis perspective and burst into reckoning in 2017 climbing rapidly to No. 8 in the world by the end of the year. He needs to prove himself on the big stage and will have to use this year to notch up a few good wins against the best.

Andre Rublev and Karen Khachanov of Russia, Alexandr Dolgopolov of Ukraine, and Jared Donaldson of the United States are three other players that bear watching. Each of the four have the talent in them to eventually rise to the top, but whether they do so in the coming years, we shall have to wait and watch.

What about 2018 - Can any of the new generation make that leap into the firmament where Grand Slam winners reside?

One of four men who are approaching the top of their game have, in the opinion of this analyst, the best chance of laying their hands on one of the big trophies. The base assumption here is that for one of the four to win a Grand Slam this year, he will need to beat one of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in the final to do so. It is not the only scenario, but a good base case to work with.

Alexander ‘Sascha’ Zverev from Germany had a phenomenal 2017. Ranked No. 4 in the world, he goes into 2018 with a 117-70 win loss record. He has met Rafa Nadal 3 times in his career including once at the Australian Open and never beaten him. He has played Federer 5 times, although never at a Grand Slam, and won twice, once each on grass and hard court. Sascha and Djokovic have met once with Sascha winning the encounter at Rome on clay. Of the 6 titles that Sascha has won in his career thus far, 3 have been on hard courts and 3 on clay, the two surfaces which seem to suit his game the best. So logically, Sascha Zverev’s best chance of winning a Grand Slam in 2018 is either at Melbourne this month or New York in August, on hard courts. On clay, in Paris, unless Nadal has an injury, Zverev has no chance if he is honest with himself.

Ranked one slot above Zverev, at No. 3 is Grigor Dimitrov. Often called ‘Little Fed’ because of his Federer like game, with a 259-162 record and 8 titles against his name, the 26-year old Bulgarian has been around for 10-years on the circuit, but has never been ranked this high nor looked more likely to be a Grand Slam winner. Dimitrov has played Nadal eleven times in his career including twice at the Australian Open and has a sole victory in a hard court tournament. He has played Federer 6 times and lost on every occasion including Wimbledon and the Australian Open. Against Djokovic his record is not much better with 1 win in 7 attempts, the French Open and Wimbledon included in the losses. 6 out of Dimitrov’s 8 titles have been on hard courts, so like Zverev, the Australian Open and US Open appear to be his best bets this year.

Rounding off the Top 5 is Austria’s Dominic Thiem. At 24, having spent 7-years on the circuit and earned 8 titles, Thiem is a serious contender in this list. Although he has lost 5 encounters of the 7 against Nadal, it has to be said that the fact that each of these encounters was on clay, raises his stature among this group, but does not necessarily make him a cinch for Roland Garros, but does make him a contender. Against Federer, Thiem is the only next gen player with a positive win-loss record. He has beaten Federer both on grass and clay. That by itself makes him a contender at Wimbledon. Against Djokovic he has won at the French Open in 2016 but lost 5 other encounters against the Serb on clay and hard courts.

Finally, coming into the fray is Belgium’s David Goffin, raked No. 7 in the world. 9-years on the tour, 4 titles and a 201-128 win-loss record and a current career high ranking accords Goffin the credibility to join this elite group. In 2017, while Nadal was picking up his 10th titles each at Monte Carlo and Barcelona, Goffin inflicted a rare defeat at Madrid on the ‘Emperor of Clay’. He beat Nadal again at London at the ATP Tour Finals. Against Federer, Goffin’s record is rather more modest, losing 6 times out of 7, the only victory coming in London in the same week last month when he beat Nadal. Against Djokovic, Goffin’s only victory in 7 attempts was on clay. If Goffin is to be a contender for a Grand Slam this year, a miracle in Paris is his best bet.

So will they make it big this year?

That indeed is the Four million Dollar (the Winner’s Purse at the Australian Open) question for 2018. The best chance we have of seeing one of the Next Gen players hold aloft a Grand Slam trophy in 2018 appears to be at one of the two hard court tournaments – the Australian or the US Open. Sascha Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov would be the best picks for these two crowns.

None of the four have the kind of record that would make them a real threat to Federer or the other two big guns at Wimbledon. Thiem probably comes the closest to fitting the bill of a contender. One suspects that at Roland Garros if Nadal falters for whatever reason, it would be most likely Djokovic or Federer (if he chooses not to stay away) who would be best placed to claim the title, but Goffin would be in with a real chance in such a scenario.

So while we would all love to see a new Federer, a new Nadal, a new Djokovic emerge from this group and capture our combined imaginations, if we are honest with ourselves, there is at best only an outside chance that this will happen in 2018.

And while we wait, the prospect of another Roger-Rafa epic (or two) along with a magnificent comeback Slam from Djokovic will have to be enough to warm the cockles of our hearts.