A new era? Well, hopefully
Well before it becomes so blatantly obvious, I will state it at the onset. The writer of this blog is a huge, die-hard, at times illogically tuned and ultimately crazy Rafael Nadal fan. I cry when he loses critical matches and I cry even more when he wins titles.
30 out of 32 sets won. Record equaling 30 Masters 1000 titles. Impeccable defense. Outstanding offense. And more importantly, seemingly fresh, excited and having that killer instinct and extreme mental edge that has differentiated him from all his opponents over the last decade and a half. Rolland Garros now seems a foregone conclusion to a small, yet beautiful period for all Rafa fans (especially since the only player who beat him consistently this year and has had an equally better year just opted out of the entire clay-court season).
Well, I can go on and on about him. But no, this blog isn’t about him. It is about a time that we all have long feared about. When our current legends, the ‘big 5’ (Roger, Rafa, Novak, Andy and Stan) will choose to leave the tennis stage and hand over the mantle. It is about a generation that has to do what talented and skillful players like Dimitrov, Nishikori, Cilic, Tsonga, Monfils and Berdych haven’t yet managed to ; consistently challenge for the top honours and beat the ‘big 5’, stay injury free for long and hold that mental edge in key moments. All they have managed to do is battle between themselves, make it to those critical stages and then when it suddenly feels that they have it in them what it takes to be at the top and stay there, they throw it away.
That is all about to change!
This year in particular has given me enough reason to believe that there is a change of tide. And I will now embark upon my reasons (one major one for each) and the individuals who make me feel that a new era in world Men’s tennis is upon us.
A lot has been written, albeit the hashtag #NextGen, about the glorious future that beholds us with players like Nick Kyrgios, Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev, Borna Coric and a late but deserved entrant, David Goffin. They not only have flawless technique, raw power and exuberance that youth brings. They have, what I think matters most, a belief that they have it in them to be make it past the hurdles and win Grand Slams.
Kyrgios showed us this year that with discipline and mannerism, he can channelise his excessive energy into making his game even more devastating, which on any day threatens to blow away anything and everything in its path. He literally bossed Nadal at Wimbledon 2014. He bullied Novak at Acapulco and Indian Wells this year. He has beaten all of tennis’ ‘big four’, joining his predecessor and his current Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt, to be the only players to beat Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in their first tour-level meetings. While he continues to be freakish, audacious and at times downrightly stupid, he is maturing and becoming a more complete player and I believe that it is this lack of fear that gives him that killer edge over everyone else in Men’s tennis and his coaching team needs to ensure that in the process of getting him to sober up, they don’t let his aggression fade away. Well, for a change, here is a player who doesn’t have to worry about competency. All he needs is to ensure he quickly grows from a boy to being a man. And learn from the legends on how humbleness and gratitude has carried them to greatness over the years. And he doesn’t have to look too far on the ATP circuit.
Thiem is a player who got noticed the most in the last few weeks. He has the ability to fight through pain. He fought through not just Nadal’s forehand in Madrid but also the blisters. It was his dogged intent, hardwork and desire that left even Nadal impressed and eventually claiming that he sees Thiem fighting for the topmost titles in the next few years. He has a ferocious forehand, second only to Kyrgios, and has developed what Federer struggled for most throughout his clay-court with Nadal, a versatile backhand. He can hit it flat like most single handed backhand players but what was on show was what he can do with the top-spin looping backhand. It tested Nadal and did not give him time to use his weapon, the off forehand, to open up the court. Nadal had to resort to using the drop shot and vary the angles and the length of his shots to shift momentum in the match. What Thiem needs to build upon is his all court game since the majority of the season will be played on hard surfaces and he has a few shortcomings that need to be ironed out.
A revelation of this year is Zverev, or Sascha, as he is popularly known. He is only 20 years old. Has already cracked the World’s Top 20, being the youngest to do since Nole did it in 2006. He has a strong serve and a more orthodox and complete two-handed backhand. He has a strong tennis influence in the family with father and mother both former players and elder brother, Mischa Zverev, achieving a career high ranking of 30 this year. What has differentiated Nadal, Djokovic and Murray in their resounding success over the years and forms key to Sascha’s game is incredible defense and ability to make the opponent go for an extra shot every point. Zverev, unlike Kyrgios (who may struggle on clay) and Thiem (who will have to adapt to grass), looks destined to establish an all-round, all-court game and will probably end the year at a much higher ranking than his current ranking of 17 in the world.
Coric has struggled a bit over the last couple of years since coming into prominence in 2014 when he entered world’s top 100 for the first time (at no. 93), becoming the youngest player to do so since Nadal in 2003. He has had a knee surgery since then and has looked at coming of age in the last two months. His weapon, funny though, is that he has no one weapon. He has an all-round game like Murray and Djokovic did in their growing years and will look to learn from them on how to make good from it.
Goffin has been a surprise all along. After his fourth round run in the French Open in 2012, losing eventually to Roger in 4 sets, he was touted as a player to look forward to. Every now and then he brought about a performance and result that got a lot of critics to praise him but then just simply vanished off the radar. He has slowly moved his way to the top 10 with consistent results since 2016 and is now a regular in the later stages of Grand Slams. His strength over his peers is his experience and learnings developed over the years having worked so hard in matches against the ‘big 5’.
We are truly honored to have witnessed arguably the greatest rivalries in World Tennis that revived hopes of millions of fans who felt that a certain Roger Federer will run away with almost everything there is to win year-on-year, as he was doing from 2003 to 2007. Then came the war horses; Nadal and Djokovic — who epitomise hard work, dedication and impress on us this belief that gift and talent isn’t all; Murray — showing us what it takes to perform under pressure of an entire nation (4, if you think of it as Great Britain); and Wawrinka — signifying that once you reach a final after all the struggle, you don’t lose it, no matter who is on the other side if the net.
This is me, signing off, hoping for some magic from these young kids. Fingers crossed.