ABOVE: Rafael Nadal is interviewed after his season-opening win in Melbourne.

BELOW: As we approach the start of the new tennis season, we'll answer 10 thought-provoking questions that may define the game in 2022.

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Anyone who has put money on the demise of the Big Three over the last decade or so surely went broke a long time ago. I remember writing a column in the spring of 2008, after Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal recorded a couple of mediocre results, wondering if their time at the top might soon be up. Federer was about to turn 27, the equivalent of a senior citizen on the ATP Tour in those days. And while Nadal was just 22, his weekly physical pounding seemed destined to bring his career to an early end. Plus, there were two younger stars, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, hot on their heels.

So what happened? Three months later, Roger and Rafa played the Greatest Match of All Time, at Wimbledon. You bet against the Big Three at your own risk.

But this is 2022, not 2008, and—finally, it seems—change is in the air at the top of the men’s game. For me, that change began 12 months ago at the Australian Open, when Stefanos Tsitsipas came back from two sets down to beat Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals. By itself, this result wasn’t a shock. Nadal hasn’t won the Aussie Open since 2009, and Tsitsipas had already beaten him elsewhere, including on clay. But this was the first time I could remember Rafa losing because he got tired. In most times and places and sports, a 34-year-old running out of gas against a 22-year-old wouldn’t be a big deal. But we had grown accustomed to the Big Three never showing any signs of age, and never caving, physically, to their younger opponents.

With Nadal finally showing those signs, it was left to Djokovic to carry the flag for the old guard, and he carried it extremely well. He won the first three majors of the season for the first time in his career; he set the all-time men’s record for weeks at No. 1; and, with his victory at Roland Garros, he became the first man since Rod Laver to win all of the Slams at least twice. In the process, Djokovic single-handedly kept the increasingly self-assured Next Gen from taking over the tour. He beat Daniil Medvedev for the Australian Open title, Tsitsipas for the French Open title, and Matteo Berrettini for the Wimbledon title. By July, it was possible to imagine Djokovic fending off all challengers until he was 40.

Daniil Medvedev ended the biggest season from a member of the Big Three, and has more major wins in sight.

Daniil Medvedev ended the biggest season from a member of the Big Three, and has more major wins in sight.

But then July turned to August, and a second, very different half of the 2021 season began. Now the Next Gen began to break down the world No. 1’s defenses. Alexander Zverev ended Djokovic’s chance at a Golden Slam at the Olympics. Medvedev ended his chance at the Grand Slam at the US Open. Zverev ended his chance to win a record seventh title at the ATP Finals in Turin. By year’s end, the Russian and the German seemed to have drawn level with the Serb on hard courts. They hadn’t broken down the dam, exactly, but they had punched a few holes in it.

So is a changing of the guard finally here? We can start by saying that, as the season begins, the Big Three guard is considerably less formidable than it has been for most of the last 15 years. Along with turning 40, Federer underwent another knee surgery this past summer, and says he’ll be amazed if he’s ready to play Wimbledon. Nadal, who will turn 36 in June, is recovering from Covid and making a comeback from a foot injury; he has played just two matches since Roland Garros. By the end of 2021, even Djokovic found himself needing to shorten points and charge into the net in his matches against the ultra-consistent Medvedev and Zverev.

Now Djokovic has an even bigger problem for 2022: The unvaccinated world No. 1 likely won’t play the Grand Slam event where he’s had his most success, the Australian Open. Until this week, the Aussie Open looked as if it would be a clash of generations, with Djokovic representing the 30-somethings and Medvedev and Zverev representing the 20-somethings. Now the field is clearer for the Russian and German to stake their claim to the year’s first major, and perhaps set a transitional tone for 2022 as a whole.

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Alexander Zverev will be one of the favorites to win the Australian Open.

Alexander Zverev will be one of the favorites to win the Australian Open.

After Australia, the season becomes less predictable as it moves to different surfaces, and different contenders come to the fore. Nadal will bring his best for the clay season, but this time he won’t be the defending French Open champion, and he might not have quite the same aura of invincibility at 36. Tsitsipas, Casper Ruud and perhaps Carlos Alcaraz will be the young players to watch on clay, while Berrettini and Hubert Hurkacz could contend on grass at Wimbledon. Where will Dominic Thiem, once Nadal’s heir apparent in Paris and a major champion in his own right, fit in when he makes his return?

As for Djokovic, his vaccination status will likely continue to be an issue. Will he be welcomed at the other Slams and Masters events? And if so, what will the psychological effects of his Australian experience be? I wouldn’t be surprised if it served as fuel to get him over the 20-Slam hump and set the all-time men’s record for majors.

On January 1, I would have said that 2022 was going to be a year of parity between the Big Three and the Next Gen, one where they split the big titles, and went back and forth in their head-to-head encounters. Now the balance would seem to be tilted to the young guns. You probably still shouldn’t bet against Djokovic and Nadal, but this time, for the first time, you might not go broke if you do.