Stretching the limits of consistency, longevity and determination, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic head into the 2019 US Open at Flushing Meadows, NY as the three favorites to lift the men’s title. What, again?
Yes, again. It’s been going on for fifteen long years now, this vice-like grip the Big Three have held on Grand Slam titles ever since Federer began the whole amazing journey by winning Wimbledon in 2003. The Swiss won it again the next year; Nadal took control of the French Open in 2005 and Djokovic joined the club by winning the Australian title in 2008.
Insatiably hungry for success, this trio, along with Andy Murray—who is the only other player to reach the No 1 ranking, in 2016, during this period—have set standards that will probably never be emulated. Although followers of the game are in awe of their achievements, many are starting to thirst for a new face to grab the limelight at Grand Slam level.
John McEnroe is one of them. “I’d like to see one of the young guys break through. The Big Three have taught us so much about the art of winning and what it takes to remain at the top and that is what the younger guys have to learn.”
Happily the US Open Series that has been played across North America this summer enabled that younger generation to display their talents to the full and, on occasion, what they offered was startling. It is not often you see a player throw tactical caution to the wind; change strategy in mid-match and come out the winner but that’s what Daniil Medvedev did on his way to winning the ATP Masters 1000 title at the Western & Southern Championships at Cincinnati earlier this month.
He was playing Djokovic, the defending champion in the semifinal and, in his own words, “he was killing my second serve.” So Medvedev decided to do something about it. He started serving first serves as second serves with all the risk of doubles faults which that entails. And it worked. By going full blast with second serves sometimes exceeding 120 mph, the lanky Russian attacked the Serb’s strength—his return of serve. Remarkably keeping the double fault count down to a total of just 4 for the match, Medvedev turned the contest around to win it, 3-6, 6-3, 6-3.
Going full blast on second serves is one of the few things Medvedev has in common with Nick Kyrgios on a tennis court—in every other respect they could have arrived from different planets. This was clearly evident as Kyrgios slashed, sliced and diced his way through the field in D.C., eventually beating Medvedev in the final after coming through a semifinal against Stefanos Tsitsipas, 6-4, 3-6, 7-6.
In another departure from the norm, the Aussie, as he did in the final, selected a court-side spectator when he reached match point and asked, “Which side should I serve to?” Whether this novel tactical approach can be considered coaching is open to question but as no one had thought of it before, the umpire let it go—obviously coming up blank in his rule book. The spectators received a hug for offering winning advice!
Kyrgios just about managed to keep himself under sufficient control to claim a rare title at the Citi Open, something he failed to do while facing another of the big Russians, Karen Khachanov, in Cincinnati. His incessant baiting of the umpire and deliberate smashing of rackets off court at a change over, all seen on TV, earned him a huge fine of $113,000.
Even his friend Andy Murray had stern words with the volatile Australian afterwards and it is to be hoped he listened because it would be so sad for the sport if the 24-year-old never did full justice to his talent, which is as outrageous in its way as his frequently appalling behavior.
Whether you choose to look at the bad side of Kyrgios or the good—of which there is plenty—the fact is that he offers entertainment with bells on. His semi-final with Tsitsipas, another major young talent, was as exciting and dramatic an encounter as I have seen on a tennis court in years. It reminded me of the hey day of McEnroe, Jimmy Connors and Ilie Nastase—three players who had that “what next?” factor that keeps viewers literally on the edge of their seats. Like that notorious trio from another age, Kyrgios brings people in off the streets and fill stadiums. If only he could get his temperament under control, he could prove the perfect counter-point to Medvedev, who could play the Bjorn Borg role—a steely eyed champion who never let any chaos being created on the other side of the net get to him.
Tsitsipas, who has started to look a little fatigued recently, is another young player blessed with exceptional ability. His film-star looks and variety of interests—photography, among other things—will ensure a growing fan club in the coming years.
In the meantime, the fascination on the men’s side of the US Open lies in tracking this new generation in the hopes that one or two can burst through into the second week and make a genuine run for the title. Medvedev, who is in Djokovic’s quarter, would seem to be the best equipped to do that right now. If he can regain the form he displayed earlier this season, Tsitsipas would be another contender, although he will find Andrey Rubelev— the third young Russian—a tough first round opponent. If he survives, the Greek could meet Kyrgios in the third round.
It is sad for Canadian tennis that their two young stars—Denis Shapovalov, who re-discovered some of his best form in reaching the semi-final at Winston Salem; and Felix Auger-Aliassime, who has just turned 19—meet in the first round. Both players will do big things in the future.
This exciting generation includes bright prospects for American tennis, too, in 26th-seeded Taylor Fritz, who opens against the veteran Spaniard Feliciano Lopez; Frances Tiafoe, who will have to deal with that evergreen giant Ivo Karlovic; and the even taller 6’ 11” Reilly Opelka, who meets the diminutive but talented Italian Fabio Fognini first up.
Will we see more pile-driver second serves or under-hand serves (a Kyrgios specialty)? The Big Three may provide stability but look to the Next Generation for innovation and daring. It should be fun.
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