Wimbledon remains, as it has been for many years now, no country for young men. While the ‘Big Three’ continue to flourish – having comfortably secured their place in this year’s last eight without sustaining so much as a scratch – their younger rivals, the so-called ‘NextGen’, are nowhere to be seen. It’s a narrative that seems to be caught on a loop, delivering the same outcomes over and over again.
It is now 17 years since anyone other than Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray won here at the All England Club. Murray aside, the trio’s dominance is unprecedented; together they have carved out a glorious sporting epoch that spans two decades, and which threatens to run into a third.
That one of them will emerge triumphant at this year’s Championships is almost beyond doubt. One glance at their quarter-final opponents suggests as much. Sam Querrey, Kei Nishikori and David Goffin are likely to offer little resistance; the latter two in particular belong to a generation of players that was meant to inherit the throne. Instead, they’ve passed by without any real note. The ‘LostGen’, as some have dubbed them, now looks poised to fade into irrelevance, a minor footnote in their rivals’ illustrious careers.
The hope this year was that one of the sport’s promising youngsters could finally step up and pose a genuine challenge to Nadal, Djokovic and Federer. But when tennis needed them most, they once again withered under the weight of expectation. As such, this is the first Wimbledon in the professional era when players aged 30 or over outnumber 20-somethings and teenagers in the men’s round of 16.
What, then, happened to the NextGen? Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Frances Tiafoe, and Denis Shapovalov all fell in the first round; Andrey Rublev and Taylor Fritz in the second; and Felix Auger-Aliassime and Daniil Medvedev in the third.
It was a disappointing return from a group of players who have showcased encouraging form in the wider men’s tour. Tsitsipas’ early exit struck a particularly disheartening note. The Greek headed into the tournament against a backdrop of high hopes and anticipation, with fans eager to see the 20-year-old upset the apple cart with his dynamic attacking game and fearless shot-making.
It’s been a whirlwind 18 months for the youngster, who showed much promise during this period. Djokovic, Federer and Nadal were all beaten by the player – in Toronto, Melbourne and Madrid respectively – as he slowly but surely climbed to a career-high position of world No 6.
But his Wimbledon campaign failed to progress beyond the first day. A five-set defeat at the hands of 30-year-old Thomas Fabbiano, the world No 378, shattered all notions of a Greek-led revolution, with his peers following suit in exiting the tournament.
“It felt like I was lost, going for too much or going for nothing,” Tsitsipas said afterwards. “I was really disappointed. I am disappointed now. People expected things from me. I didn’t deliver. When you get so much support, so much energy, so much positivity from everyone, just ruin everything by yourself, it’s devastating.”
His words are likely to resonate with those who have similarly shouldered the burden of expectation placed upon the sport’s rising stars. Zverev is another to have threatened change in the game. But this pressure has worn hard on the German. Despite reaching as high as No 3 in the rankings, Zverev has yet to make it past the quarters of a slam. Here at Wimbledon he lost in the first round to Jiri Vesely, 25 years old and ranked No 248. Afterwards Zverev revealed that personal issues have been taking their toll.
Still, at 20 and 22 respectively, the future remains bright for the likes of Tsitsipas and Zverev. They have much to learn, experience to earn. And as the years pass, and the Big Three’s powers wane, their opportunity will come. For now, it’s a case of biding their time and realising that Nadal, Federer and Djokovic cannot go on forever.
In the meantime, we must make do with the might and glory of the Big Three. It’s something hardly worth complaining about. The winds of change may not have not blown for years, leaving the game caught in a state of gold-tinted stasis, but let’s not will this era to end. Instead, let’s drink it in, savour it, remember it for what it is: sport in its purest, most brilliant, most celestial of incarnations. So, as Federer, Nadal and Djokovic once again take to court, let’s cherish these moments while they last.
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