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The big three’s reign at the top of the charts could soon be coming to an end thanks to an insurgency of a crop of young players climbing the ATP Rankings.

Roger Federer Wimbledon Champion, you better get used to that” BBC sports presenter Sue Barker said as she handed the Swiss champion his first-ever grand slam title.

Coming into the match as an underdog, Roger Federer wowed spectators on Centre Court to defeat Mark Philippoussis in the final of the 2003 Wimbledon Championships. 

I don’t think Pete (Sampras) ever got bored of holding this trophy” Federer exclaimed before hoisting the trophy high into the air to receive a belting roar from the Centre Court crowd. 

And it certainly looks as though Federer hasn’t got bored of it either.  

Marking the dawn of a golden age of tennis, Roger Federer was the first, of what’s now coined ‘the big three’, to win a major trophy, sparking 17 years of sporting dominance, shared between himself, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic. 

There hasn’t been such dominance in tennis since the battles of the 80s with Ivan Lendl, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, and Jimmy Connors, trading major championships like a deck of Pokemon cards. 

They were the pioneers of the sport and the original legends of the game, but Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal have gone one better, becoming perhaps the best players tennis has ever seen, breaking nearly every record there is to achieve in the sport. 

And their dominance is unrivaled, having won an incredible 57 of the 69 grand slams that have taken place over the past 17 years.

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Even as they’re getting older, the trio are still playing their best tennis, with Djokovic and Nadal both claiming major championships in 2020. 

But it seems their reign at the top of the charts could soon be coming to an end thanks to an insurgency of a crop of young players that have been on the march over the past 4 years. 

The Coup Has Begun

Ascending to the top of the ATP rankings, this crop of young players have lit the tennis world alight. 

Notably, their recent dominance at the ATP Tour Finals has proved that the new challengers are here and are ready to take the baton from the big three. 

And it’s been an impressive few years for the new crop of players, with young guns Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and now Daniil Medvedev all sweeping past the big three to win the Tour Finals over the last three years. 

Following his triumph at the Paris Masters this November, 24-year-old Daniil Medvedev is the latest to win the tournament. 

After coming back from one set down to beat Dominic Thiem in London last week, Medvedev became the first player in the history of the tournament to beat the top three ranked players on the ATP Tour, brushing past both Nadal and Djokovic on his way to the final. 

Medvedev poses a huge threat to the big three and will look to springboard off his Tour Finals success to challenge for his first major championship in Australia next year.

But perhaps the most notable achievement from this new age of players is Dominic Thiem’s 2020 U.S. Open victory. 

While none of the big three were in attendance at Flushing Meadows, Thiem’s achievement is no less of a statement, cracking the big three’s grand slam monopoly to become the first player outside of the three to win a grand slam since Andy Murray in 2016. 

And with Thiem now coming into his prime, the Austrian’s experience winning a grand slam perhaps makes him the biggest hazard to Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal. 

Next come Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Andrey Rublev. 

With three ATP 1000 championships under his belt 23-year-old, Alexander Zverev also poses a devastating threat to the old guard and was the first of the new generation of players to win at the ATP Tour Finals in 2018, shocking the tennis world after he battered Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the final.

Tsitsipas followed his lead and at 21-years-old, he proved that the fearlessness of youth can overcome experience, demolishing Roger Federer 6-4 6-3, to go on to claim the 2019 ATP Tour Finals. 

Meanwhile, Andrey Rublev has quietly racked up an impressive 5 titles on tour this year, starting the season with an 11 match winning streak that saw him become the first man since Dominik Hrbaty in 2004 to win 2 tournaments in the first two weeks of the season.

With Rublev’s superb season culminating in him finishing tied with world No.1, Djokovic, for the most wins on tour, it’s safe to say that the new generation has arrived and are poised to challenge the big three.

These guys are starting to believe, more and more, that they can actually fight for the biggest trophies with the other guys,” said Novak Djokovic. “So I think it’s a matter of time, it’s a matter of when things come together in terms of experience.” 

But it remains to be seen if they will achieve the same heights as Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal. With very few major championships between them, it seems they still have a long way to go to get to that level. 

How do they compare to the big three?

From a statistical point of view, each of the new age players aren’t that far off the big three in their technical abilities when they were their age. 

The graphs below show a comparison in the ELO ratings (otherwise known as the relative skill levels) of each of this new age of players against the average ELO ratings of the big three, before and up to when they won their first grand slam.

This graph shows a comparison of the player ratings of the next generation of young players against the average ratings of the big three up until Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer had all won their first major championships.
The data in this graph shows a more detailed account of the ratings of the big three, up until they won their first major championships.

Generally, the data shows that the new age of players aren’t far off the skill level of their elder compatriots despite Thiem and Medvedev showing a slightly more staggered development in the graphs. 

What separates the two groups of players is that by the time the big three had all reached 23-years-old, they had all won at least one major championship unlike this new generation of players. 

Nadal had even grasped his first major when he was 19-years-old. 

And we can’t argue that the big three didn’t have a tough time achieving this success, having to battle against greats like Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt, and Andy Roddick in their rise to the top. 

To win majors at such a young age, against such stiff competition, proves the difference in quality between the groups of players.

And despite their age, the big three have just not stopped winning.

After going 5-0 against their younger challengers at the major championships this year, they’ve proved that this almost everlasting hegemony will be a tough one to crack.

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What do they need to do to overcome the big three?

I think it’s called maturity,” Boris Becker said to Eurosport, I think that mentally they can’t cope with the pressure.” 

The young guns are missing a bit of guts. A bit of balls. A bit of ‘okay, I’m here and I want to win and I’m going to do whatever it takes.’

Technically they have shown they can beat the best. But when it comes to a five-set major championship, mentally it seems the newer generation of players are all lacking. 

“You want to see (Dominic) Thiem beat Nadal on clay, you want to see (Stefanos) Tsitsipas go and win a major, but right now he just looks totally overwhelmed mentally,” 7-time grand slam winner John Mcenroe concurred.

Perhaps it will take the new players more time to hone in on their ability to read the game, play intelligent tennis, and suss-out how to beat their opponents by capitalizing on their weaknesses. 

After all, they are trying to overcome 3 of the greatest players to ever grace the sport, and fair enough, Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic had to overcome some great players to get to the top, but this may be a different challenge mentally, because of the continued dominance of the big three over the past 17 years. 

For now it is the big three’s ability to out-strategize their opponents that sets them apart from the next generation of players and is why the new generation have struggled to accrue the same number of major titles as Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic did at their age.

The Future

2021 will be a huge year for tennis. Not just because we are likely to see the tennis circuit return to some normality following the coronavirus pandemic, but because of the sheer talent coming through across both the men’s and women’s game

With a crop of young players, primed and loaded to assault the next grand slam in Australia, it will be interesting to see how the big three cope with the advances of this younger generation of players. 

We proved that we can play with the legends, that we can also beat them and can also win the biggest tournaments,” said Daniil Medvedev after his ATP Finals win. 

It is now no longer a question of if, but rather when the next generation will take the baton from the big three, and after a breakout year in 2020, it’s likely we could even see them dominate next year.

The only question left unanswered is whether they will go on to achieve the same level of success that Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic have achieved? 

To be continued…

Featured Image: “I’m in the final!” by Carine06 // https://www.flickr.com/photos/43555660@N00/5935139063 // Licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

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