Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal have together amassed a level of dominance sport has never seen.
After winning 57 of the last 65 grand slam championships since 2003, the trio are perhaps the best players tennis has ever witnessed.
But the time is fast approaching for the next generation of players to take their place at the top of the world rankings.
As we discussed two weeks ago, Dominic Thiem, Andrey Rublev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, and Daniil Medvedev are all poised to snatch the reins from the clutches of the big three.
But one question we left unanswered is whether they will go on to achieve the same success as Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic?
It’ll be no mean feat for this new generation, but is something that is definitely attainable.
Although there are some significant obstacles in their way.
Age is just a number
I took some time to understand why the big three have been so successful in their careers.
Frankly, they are all just freaks of tennis.
Their mental resilience, fitness, and skill level are unparalleled.
Even compared to the greats of the 80s, the number of records the big three have broken simply outclasses the accolades of greats like Rod Laver, John McEnroe, and Bjorn Borg.
“You look at a guy like Rafael Nadal, who is perhaps the modern-day Jimmy Connors, and the guy brings it every point,” John McEnroe spoke to Eurosport.
“I don’t see those other players (next-generation players) – every point – bringing it, and you have got to.”
And their rise to the top of the ATP charts has been as meteoric as any.
Nadal’s winning percentage against the legends of the naughties like Andy Roddick and Lleyton Hewitt are all above 60%.
Meanwhile, Federer too caused upsets when he was young. One of his most notable triumphs was defeating reigning Wimbledon champion, Pete Sampras, at the All England Championships in 2001.
These guys didn’t have it easy at the start of their careers. Bear in mind they also had to play against each other!
But players like Medvedev and Thiem are giant slayers in their own right, taking down both Djokovic and Nadal in this November’s ATP Finals.
Although there is a difference between the big three and the new generation of players, that is age.
From an early age, the big three and their predecessors like Bjorn Borg, Rod Laver, Pete Sampras, and Andre Agassi, all won their first grand slam championship between the ages of 18 and 23.
This enabled them to go on to garner an overflowing cabinet of trophies.
The Graph below shows the trend that the majority of tennis greats were winning at an early age. Do also note the extended career span of the big three compared to their predecessors – I’ll come back to this point.
While our new generation of stars are all fairly young, 27-year-old Dominic Thiem is the only player in the new generation to win a grand slam tournament.
In comparison, Nadal had already claimed 13 grand slam championships before he turned 27.
Perhaps this is how the big three have gone on to sustain and build such success, breaking almost every record in the book.
Iga Swiatek, Sofia Kenin, Bianca Andreescu
Comparatively, the changing of the guard has already happened in the women’s game.
Young stars like Iga Swiatek (19), Sofia Kenin (22), and Bianca Andreescu (20) are already taking the women’s game by storm, with each having won a grand slam championship in the past two years.
In fact, 7 players under the age of 24 have dominated the last 8 women’s major championships.
That is conceivably the difference between the new generations of male and female players.
“On the men’s side, I think it’s called maturity. They come to the Grand Slams, expectations are high, everyone wants the young generation to win, and I think that mentally they can’t cope with the pressure,” McEnroe said.
“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.’”
“They think it’s about tennis; it’s not about tennis, it’s about attitude and putting it out there on the line.”
We saw glimpses of this during Dominic Thiem’s emphatic win over Rafael Nadal putting on what was a two tiebreaker spectacle of tennis.Embed from Getty Images
The question is, can they replicate these performances over five sets?
That is yet to be seen against the big three.
“The other problem is that these three players – Federer, Nadal, Djokovic – are the three best players that have ever lived, they are better than these other guys. That is the part you cannot escape,” said McEnroe.
As with most sports, tennis careers are now being prolonged.
With the advancement of sports science, players are able to continue playing and win games at a high standard later on in their careers.
The number of players over the age of 30 in the ATP top 100 rankings has soared from 6% in 1990 to 40% in 2020.
Players can optimise their nutrition, employ better physios, and take greater care of themselves to prevent fatigue and prolong their careers.
That has allowed Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal to combine their playing experience, with superb nutrition, fitness, and recovery programmes to help them stay at the top of the game for longer to suppress their younger challengers.Embed from Getty Images
Look at Federer, for example. Despite a couple of recent setbacks, at 39 years-of-age, he’s set to return to the ATP Tour in 2021 after undergoing knee surgery.
Most pros would have called it a day by now!
“Of course it makes sense that older athletes are better,” said sports science analyst and writer Jeff Bercovici.
“The advantages that accrue from experience and maturity are so great that if you can subtract physical decline from the equation — or push back that horizon — it makes sense that the best players are going to be 35 or 40.”
The silver lining for the next generation is that it means they will peak slightly later in their careers as they build more experience over the 5-set format. And while sport science technologies are also evolving, the young guns will be able to go for as long, if not longer than the big three.
Another reason why the next generation aren’t winning majors is that they are well behind the big three in earnings.
It’s no question that Tennis players are handsomely remunerated.
Medvedev will have picked up $1.5 million (USD) for his win at the ATP finals, while Tsitsipas won $2.8 million at the tournament the year before him.Embed from Getty Images
But Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic are the ATP’s all-time top earners, with Djokovic having raked in $125.7 million throughout his career, including $6.5 million in 2020.
If we’re looking to create a level playing field in tennis, the mega-bucks the big three have earnt gives them a serious advantage over their challengers to afford better coaches, better equipment, and not have to participate in as many tournaments, aiding in large parts to their success over the years.
As prize pots have increased over the last ten years, once players reach the top, it’s more likely they’ll stay there for longer, amassing trophies and suppressing those looking to challenge them.
Perhaps the ITF needs to look at reducing prize pots which have been increasing rather astronomically over the last few years. We don’t want tennis to be measured by how much money each player has in the bank.
Will the next generation be as successful?
As tennis fans, we are privileged to have lived through this golden era of tennis.
We’ve watched greats like Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic dominate the tennis circuit over the last 20 years. And truly they have been the best the sport’s ever witnessed.
We’ve also now been blessed with a new generation of players who have the skill level to topple the big three.
And as much as we have been basing success on the age at which tennis players win trophies, nowadays, age is now just a number in sport.
The truth is our next-gen players are still relatively young, and It’s no question that they have the potential to become the best game’s ever seen.
Unfortunately, they’ve been cursed with several obstacles from how incredibly good the big three are, to the issue of disproportionate earnings in tennis, both of which could slow them down on their quest for success.
Whether that will be the same success as the big three, only time will tell.
But one thing is certain; we are in for a fascinating decade of tennis.
Dominic Thiem by Carine06 // https://www.flickr.com/photos/43555660@N00/14523555506 //Licensed with CC BY-SA 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Download permissions