Over the last couple of years the GenNext of players have been narrowing the gap with the Big Three of tennis. The gap became even closer this year and there are indications that the quartet of Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev could well take over from Messrs Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic the mantle of the sport’s leading players in 2022.

This can be stated despite Djokovic winning three of the four Grand Slams this year and coming tantalizingly close to equaling the feat of a calendar Grand Slam last achieved only once before in the Open era - by Rod Laver in 1969. Djokovic lost in the final to Medvedev after getting the better of Zverev in five sets in the semifinals and while this in no way affected his No 1 ranking it meant he could not overtake Federer and Nadal to reach the all time record of 21 Grand Slam titles.

Over the year Djokovic was clearly the leading player in the world as he won the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon to race to a career record of 20 Grand Slams to join Federer and Nadal on that number. He was no doubt helped by the fact that both of them had an indifferent season for different seasons. Federer withdrew from the Australian Open as he was still recovering from last year’s knee surgery. At the French Open he advanced to the fourth round and then withdrew citing knee problems. He then advanced to the quarterfinals at Wimbledon making him at 39 the oldest quarterfinalist at the tournament in the Open era. But then he was upset by 14th seed Hubert Hurkacz in straight sets 6-3, 7-6, 6-0. It was the first time in 19 years at Wimbledon that Federer had lost in straight sets and only the second time he lost a set 6-0 in the 21st century. Last month even as he turned 40 Federer underwent another knee surgery and withdrew from the US Open adding that would be off the tour for ''many months’’ though he hoped to make a return in 2022. After all the surgeries following which there has been a marked decline in his play there must be serious doubts as to how effective the Swiss maestro would be on the tour. Certainly his winning titles at Grand Slams can be written off the ultimate proof being that his last Grand Slam triumph was at the Australian Open in 2018.

Nadal too was not without his problems. He started the season reasonably making the quarterfinals at the Australian Open before going down to Tsitsipas despite being up by two sets to love. It was only the second time that he had lost a Grand Slam match after being two sets up. At his favourite Roland Garros he entered the semifinals and looked set to be the first to win 21 majors. Here however he was beaten by Djokovic in only his third ever loss at the French Open. Following this Nadal withdrew from both Wimbledon and the Olympics citing schedule reasons. And then just ten days before the start of the US Open the Spaniard announced he would be ending his 2021 season due to an issue with his left foot which he said had been troubling him for most of the year.

However it was generally smooth sailing for Djokovic. Comparatively fit and at the peak of his game the Serb not only won three of the four Slams failing at the last hurdle at the US Open but also stretched his lead at the top of the ATP rankings. He has been No 1 for a record total of 338 weeks but at 34 he too is getting on in years and is just a year younger than Nadal. Indeed age is a major factor in favour of the GenNext for all of them are between 23 and 28. And then the quartet has already displayed their skill and artistry in winning tournaments. Hitherto even while they were winning Masters 1000 events or the year-ending ATP Tour finals the Grand Slams were always the property of the Big Three. Last year Thiem broke their monopoly by winning the US Open and this year it was Medvedev who won the same title. Thiem is also a three time runner-up at Grand Slams while Medvedev besides winning the US Open was a finalist at the Australian Open this year and Zverev was the losing finalist at the US Open last year. Even Tsitsipas who had an indifferent Grand Slam record so far was a finalist at the French Open this year.

Viewed from any angle the GenNext of players could take over at the top next year. Djokovic still fit and agile may score a point or two on behalf of the Big Three but the quartet hot on their heels for some time now could well dominate in 2022. Already Medvedev, Tsitsipas and Zverev occupy positions 2 to 4 in the latest ATP rankings with Nadal having slipped to No 6 and Federer to No 9. The year-ending ATP Tour finals could well be a pointer towards what to expect on the tennis circuit next year.