Will The “Big Three” Of Tennis Be Replaced This Year?
There are now several young talents who have entered the fray in real earnest
Will 2023 see the formalisation of the GenNext ending the reign of the “Big Three”’? This engrossing duel for supremacy between the young challengers and the established superstars has been going on for some time now but the gap appears to be narrowing with every year and there are indications that in 2023 the transition could finally be completed.
Not that Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic currently ranked second and fifth and who now constitute the “Big Two”’ in the absence of the retired Roger Federer are prepared to concede much ground to the increasing challenge from the younger players. Initially the challenge to the “Big Three”was from the GenNext quartet of Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem.
They remained hot on the heels of the superstars, won numerous titles around the circuit including Masters 1000 events and ATP Tour finals and rose in the rankings. But they generally faltered in Grand Slam events. This meant that Nadal and Djokovic remained slightly ahead even as Federer faltered.
Last year, Nadal won the Australian Open and the French Open to make it record 21st and 22nd titles of his Grand Slam career while Djokovic remained in hot pursuit by winning his 21st Grand Slam title at Wimbledon. Federer who won his last Grand Slam title at the Australian Open in 2018 retired with 20 such titles.
The year, however, marked a shift in the challenge from the younger stars. Among the GenNext of players Thiem slid so badly, thanks to injury and consequent lack of form that he is now ranked No 102. A sharp fall for a player who was ranked as high as No 3 in 2020 the year he won the US Open and reached the final of the French Open.
Zverev after a fairly indifferent 2022 is ranked No 12 which also signifies a fall for the talented German who was as high as No 2 in the middle of last year. Tsitsipas whose performances in the Grand Slams have stalled his progress somewhat is No 4 thanks to his consistent showing otherwise around the circuit.
Medvedev has the best record among the quartet in Grand Slam events – US Open winner in 2021, Australian Open runner-up in 2021 and 2022 – and this run was enough to propel him to the No 1 ranking briefly at the start of last year. Now he is at No 7.
The point to note however is that while the trio still poses a challenge to Nadal and Djokovic there are now several young talents who have entered the fray in real earnest. They have been around for some time but last year they really made an impact and right now it is a crowded field at the top.
Leading the challenge will inevitably be Carlos Alcaraz. A sensational run last year by the 19-year-old Spaniard saw him end the year at the top of the rankings. It was a stupendous feat for at the start of the year he was ranked 35 and there was no indication of him making much of an impact in a hotly competitive field. But he just went from strength to strength during the season pulling off one incredible achievement after another.
Alcaraz struck a golden phase in mid-season when a day after his 19th birthday at the Madrid Open he shocked five-time champion Nadal in the quarterfinal becoming the first teenager to defeat him on clay. The following day he went on to beat the world No 1 and top seed Djokovic in the semifinals for his sixth straight top – ten win, becoming the youngest player to win a match against a world No 1 since 2004.
He also became the first player to beat both Nadal and Djokovic in back to back matches on clay. In the title clash he defeated world No 3 Zverev thereby defeating the top three seeds in three consecutive matches.
The young Spaniard’s superb run culminated in his remarkable triumph at the US Open that saw him climb to the No 1 spot in the rankings, quelling the challenge from Casper Ruud in the final. Interestingly enough both Alcaraz and Ruud were in the running for the No 1 ranking depending on the result. At 19 years, four months and six days Alcaraz became the youngest No 1 in the history of ATP rankings established in 1973.
He also became the first teenager in the Open era to top the rankings and the youngest US Open champion since Pete Sampras in 1990.
Alcaraz, however, is not the only challenger who can end the dominance of Nadal and Djokovic. Other players too have surfaced in Ruud, Andrey Rublev, Taylor Fritz, Holger Rune and Felix Auger – Alissmie. Most of these players were not considered as those who could make it big time.
But consistent performances around the circuit has propelled them into the top ten and they can be counted upon to maintain their climb in the rankings this year. And who knows? Like Alcaraz there may be some other player ranked much lower who can make a swift rise and emerge as a genuine challenger for the top spots.
The year has not started well though for Alcaraz who has withdrawn from the Australian Open commencing from January 16 after injuring his right leg in training. Defending champion Nadal has been promoted to top seed and Djokovic will move into the top four among the seeds.
Unable to compete last year in the Australian Open due to Covid vaccination issues Djokovic has already received a rousing welcome ``Down Under’’ and has started off well by winning the Adelaide International. The stage is set for another engrossing duel for supremacy between the leading players and the first Grand Slam of the year could well indicate whether the young challengers can end the reign of the ageing superstars or whether Nadal and Djokovic have it in them to cling on to the top.