Greatness spanned a generation during the era of Roger Federer and the ‘Big Three’

The ‘Big Three’ era in men’s tennis ended last week farewell function On the Instagram account of Roger Federer. To tell you how long he’s been around, Federer had 16 headlines by the time Instagram was invented.

The Swiss master’s exit portends a period of dominance unlike anything tennis has ever seen – a period in which Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic won 63 of the 75 potential Grand Slam tournaments over the course of two decades. During that time, the Big Three delayed asking who might succeed them once they turned around. Federer won the Australian Open at the age of 37. Nadal and Djokovic – 36 and 35 respectively – have won three of four Grand Slam tournaments this season.

But at this month’s US Open, tennis got its first look at a group of players who seem intent on setting the men’s course for the future. It was easy to deduce that in men’s tennis, the greatness that overtook the world might have bypassed an entire generation.

There was impressive tennis from Italian Jannik Sinner, who is now a mainstay in the second week of the slam. There was the Norwegian Casper Ruud, who reached two major finals this season. Canada’s Felix Auger-Aliassime was eliminated early on, but will soon become a contender. And of course there was the new US Open champion Carlos Alcaraz of Spain. All four are 24 years old or younger.

Carlos Alcaraz beat Casper Rudd in the 2022 US Open final.


picture:

Peter van den Berg / Zuma Press

It also helps that this group will not spend its early years being defeated by the Big Three, who have sent out entire classes of elite players during their reign. For example, France’s Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga were players who rose to be the next big champions of the Federer era. Tsonga retired after this year’s French Open while Monfils has slowed down due to injuries in recent years.

Then came what tennis fans called “the next generation” – a title group with 20 players such as Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev. They also largely failed to stir up trouble with the Big Three.

Djokovic said in early 2021: “There was a lot of talk about the new generation coming in and taking charge of the three of us. But realistically, that hasn’t happened yet. We can talk about it all day if you like. But with all due respect to others, they still have a lot of work to do.”

“They will certainly be the leaders of the future of tennis, without a doubt,” Djokovic added. “But I will not stand here and hand it to them. I will make them work for it.”

This spring, 5-seed Zverev went toe-to-toe with Nadal on the mud of Nadal’s spiritual home at Roland Garros, but retired after he rolled his ankle. Tsitsipas, now seeded No. 6, went better and pushed himself to the 2021 French Open final, but squandered a two-set lead and lost to Djokovic.

Medvedev was the only one of that group to have a breakthrough, beating an exhausted Djokovic in last year’s US Open final. He and Dominic Tim are still the only NextGen members to win major titles.

Now, just as they seem to have survived the toughest of the three majors, another threat to playing full tennis irresistibly comes in at Carlos Alcaraz. The most frustrating part for his mid-career rivals is that Alcaraz is only 19 years old.

“Carlos, I think he was born to play this kind of tournament, he was born to play this kind of match,” said coach Juan Carlos Ferrero. “From the moment I started with him, I’ve seen some things that were different from other guys his age.”

However, Alcaraz’s biggest advantage over NextGen players is that he won’t spend his early years being defeated by the Big Three.

“It’s disappointing that I couldn’t play against him,” Federer said. “I always said that there will be new stars in the game, and he is one of them. The game is shining.”

Roger Federer during a training session before the 2022 Laver Cup.


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Cliff Brunskill / Getty Images

The same dynamic seems to play a role on the women’s side as well. Although Serena Williams’ reign was far from her at the time she rode In expected retirement After the US Open, no clear successor emerged, with the exception of Ashleigh Barty, who abruptly retired in the spring. Instead, the player currently flexing her muscles on the tour is three-time Polish lead champion Iga Swiatek, 21.

When Williams won her first Grand Slam, Swiatek wasn’t even born.

“The new generation, I think it’s going to be great,” Federer said in London on Wednesday before bidding farewell to the Laver Cup. “The best movers are the best players. It has been that way for the last 10 or 20 years now, and it will remain that way.”

For the best engine of the bunch, Alcaraz, Federer will take on a strange new role: the legend of the game that is primarily in the record books. And the Caraz knows that the other two are not far from joining him. The target in his sights now is Nadal’s all-time mark on major titles.

“Well, I have one,” said Alcaraz in New York. “He has 22. I’m in class.”

PHOTOS: Roger Federer takes the field for the last time

Write to Joshua Robinson at Joshua.Robinson@wsj.com

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