A Change of Guard on the Court
The ‘Big Three’: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, is now the Big Two
The reign of the 'Big Three': Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who have dominated tennis for about 15 years, is likely to end next year. Certain events have driven home this point though it may seem odd that this has to be said during a year when Nadal won two Grand Slam titles and Djokovic one.
The Big Three had become the Big Two in the last couple of years with Federer virtually being in semi-retirement, before formally announcing his retirement on Thursday. The 'Gen Next quartet' which had been closing the gap over the past few years was the first threat to their supremacy.
And even as Dominic Thiem fell away by the wayside, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev maintained the challenge. The only blot was that their performance at the four Grand Slams was not in keeping with their showing in various other tournaments including Masters 1000 events and ATP Tour finals.
Sure there was the odd Grand Slam triumph that was notched up. Before his form fell away Thiem won the US Open in 2020 while Medvedev won the same tournament the following year besides rising to No 1 in the ATP rankings. But when it came to the Majors it was still Nadal and Djokovic who dominated which led to the former reaching the all time record total of 22 while the latter is one short. Federer of course had won his 20th and last Major at the Australian Open in January 2018.
The riveting contest between the Big Two and the GenNext is reflected in the current ATP rankings which has Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas at 4, 5 and 6 and they are sandwiched between Nadal (3) and Djokovic (7). But a big change has occurred at the very top.
Carlos Alcaraz and Casper Ruud are the top two and they have been the surprise packets of the season. As if from nowhere the two players from Spain and Norway have performed so sensationally that they finished winner and runner-up at the just concluded US Open with the No 1 spot in the rankings awaiting the winner.
And to think that about a year ago Alcaraz was considered to be just another talented young player on the circuit. At the start of last year he was ranked 141. At the end of the US Open during which he defeated Tsitsipas then world No 3 in the third round he had worked his way up to 38 in the rankings and finished last year at 32.
This year, however, his record has been nothing short of stupendous, capping a great 2022 by winning the US Open in the process becoming the youngest ever world No 1 and at 19 years and four months the first teenager in the Open era to top the men's rankings.
This kind of steep rise and for one so young has hardly been heard of before in the highly competitive field of men's tennis.
Clearly Alcaraz is already the next big thing, and the sky's the limit for him, particularly after coach Juan Carlos Ferrero has said that Alcaraz's game is still a work in progress. "I think he is at 60 percent of his game and can improve on a lot of things. He knows and I know that we have to keep working,'' said Ferrero.
That's the kind of ambitious approach and the hunger for success that takes a player to the top. If all goes well and there are no serious injury issues there is every reason to believe that Alcaraz can rise to the level of his tennis idol Nadal.
The tennis world is full of prodigiously gifted players and even among them there are those who stand out. Alcaraz is clearly in that category. One just cannot see him as a meteor who will fade away. He has everything,talent, temperament and stamina.
He played three successive matches, the fourth round, the quarterfinal and the semifinal, which went to five sets, surviving a couple of match points and several service breaks along the way. He said, "I don't know how I came through these tough matches.'' Sheer will power, that's how.
At 19 he is remarkably mature in his statements and goals. While admitting that to be a winner of a Grand Slam and to be No 1 in the world were his childhood dreams he also made it clear that he was not one to rest on his laurels. "I am going to work hard after these amazing two weeks and I am going to fight for more of this,'' he said following his remarkable triumph. Clearly already a potential all time great can be the immediate verdict.
Right now the cynosure is Alcaraz who in his brief career besides the US Open has won five other ATP Tour titles and two Masters 1000 titles. But even he cannot take things easy for there are several other players who are swiftly climbing the ranks. Ruud obviously is one for besides being a finalist at the US Open he also entered the title round at the French Open this year.
Andrey Rublev, Jannik Sinner, Taylor Fritz, Karen Kachanov and Matteo Berretteni are the other young players with proven records around the ATP Tour as well as at Grand Slam events who can be marked for bigger things.
With age catching up with them, Nadal is 36 and Djokovic a year younger, and in the face of such competition it is going to be very difficult for the two legends to maintain their place near the top of the rankings or even perhaps win another Grand Slam title. The transition period which has been ongoing for some time now is likely to be formalised next year with a new set of GenNext players taking over.