HIGHLIGHTS: Recapping Day 8 at the BNP Paribas Open at Indian Wells

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A remarkable streak ended this month, when the Indian Wells Masters draw was made for the first time in 20 years without featuring Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer.

Those men, a “Big Three” who comprise the most successful generation in tennis history, did more than show up reliably in the California desert over two decades. One or another among them won the event 13 of the 19 times (remember, the 2020 edition of the tournament was canceled due to COVID-19). Federer was first to appear in Indian Wells—and take an opening-round loss there—in 2001.

Not only were the Big Three absent this year, none of the six players who slipped in to bag the odd title at Indian Wells during their reign was in the draw either. Three of the five—Andre Agassi, Lleyton Hewitt (who won twice while Federer was still a pup) and Ivan Ljubicic—aged out long ago. Though Ljubcic reappeared in recent years as the coach of—wait for it—Federer. Another titlist, 2018 champion Juan Martin del Potro, is 33 and injury plagued. Dominic Thiem, the defending champion, is still at the peak of his career, but out with a bad wrist.

Someone new is going win the tournament, often referred to as the game’s “fifth major.” Who it will be is anyone’s guess. None of the quarterfinalists has won a Grand Slam title, and just four of them have won a Masters 1000 title. (Grigor Dimitrov, who upset the last Grand Slam champion in the field, Daniil Medvedev, last won a Masters event over four years ago.)

The Big Three have taken it to a level where there isn’t anyone else who’s a star. We can weather it for a while, but at some point you need stars. Jimmy Arias

The transition away from the Big Three era has been a glacial process. The pandemic has also slowed that process further. But with the game in recovery, this Indian Wells tournament is looking like a genuine pivot point for men’s tennis.

“It’s like going from 100 miles per hour to zero with those three out,” says Craig Boynton, who is coaching Miami Masters champ Hubert Hurkacz, one of the eight quarterfinalists. “In the next step forward, we’re going to see a lot of fresh faces.”

We have been seeing some of those faces, or at least glimpses of them, for some time now. The ATP’s rolling Next Gen campaign has produced, among others, Medvedev, Olympic gold medalist Alexander Zverev (still in the field), flamboyant Stefanos Tsitsipas (still in the field), and Italian powerhouse Matteo Berrettini. But that group, with just one Grand Slam singles title and one Olympic gold medal among them, is already hearing the footsteps of an even younger cohort, led by Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner.

Looking down the road, the game’s landscape is shrouded in a considerable amount of mist. There is uncertainty about what the future holds. Will the ATP go the way of the WTA in recent years, with a dazzling variety of fresh faces winning big titles, or will a select few emerge to dominate the tour? The question has some practical, market-share implications as well.

Jimmy Arias, the Tennis Channel analyst and head of the IMG Academy’s tennis program, is concerned that the game has failed to produce new stars, or at least none with whom the general public has the same cozy familiarity as it enjoys with the Big Three.

“The Big Three have taken it to a level where there isn’t anyone else who’s a star,” Arias says. “We can weather it for a while, but at some point you need stars. The only way you get stars is by people seeing them do it, over and over. And you have to have some emotional attachment to the people you are watching.”

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Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev have enjoyed breakthrough seasons and appear to be the successors to the Big Three. To what degree that success amounts to is a different story.

Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev have enjoyed breakthrough seasons and appear to be the successors to the Big Three. To what degree that success amounts to is a different story.

Arias likes what he sees among the current players. He believes Medvedev has the talent as well as the mindset to put a little more daylight between himself and those racing to catch up with him, but thinks that among all the players heralded by the Next Gen campaign, the one with the best game to flummox Djokovic is Zverev.

“He’s the one guy that, if both are at their top level, he still has a chance. He’s like a bigger version of Djokovic, but he gets so tight at big moments with his second serve and forehand, so that he’s not like Djokovic.”

Zverev made his big breakthrough in 2017, winning five titles—two of them Masters events—at the age of 21. His ascent was so swift that he was deemed a can’t miss Grand Slam champion, sooner rather than later. But he hasn’t accomplished that yet. Nor have some of the other high-value prospects of recent years.

“One of the things that bothers me a little bit is the lack of this natural progression of players forcing a changing of the guard,” Arias says. “New guys beating the old guys, establishing themselves firmly as the new best players.”

Arias added that tennis continually evolves and improves, and age becomes a factor for elite players, gently ushering them to the sidelines. But the Big Three, he says, are going out in “a different way.” They haven’t really been losing as much as some expected to the younger players. The disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have played a role in that, limiting upset opportunities. Injuries to Fedrerer and Nadal have also played a part.

“Naturally, they would start losing to these younger guys,” Arias says. “But look at Federer, it’s like he’s being phased out without really losing or having to hand it over.”

That detail could have an interesting impact on younger players. If the Big Three are such a rare entity, why even try to set your sights at comparable heights? Coaches may find themselves having to deal with the poverty of low expectations in an environment where the historic goal of equaling or surpassing the previous generation will seem delusional at best, supremely arrogant at worst.

Tommy Paul was one of many men that reached the fourth round of Indian Wells without a significant title to his name.

Tommy Paul was one of many men that reached the fourth round of Indian Wells without a significant title to his name.

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Brad Stine, another veteran coach, is currently working with 24-year-old American Tommy Paul, who lost in the fourth round on Thursday to Cam Norrie. He sees the prospects for the generation following the Big Three in terms of that proverbial glass that is either half empty or half full.

“They will have the dubious pleasure of constantly being compared to those guys, and how could they not? We’ve lived a generation—really two generations, given the longevity of those guys, with their greatness,” Stine says. “But the players need to be aware that there’s a door that has opened for others to win majors and 1000s. Those opportunities were very limited in the last 15 years.”

Now, the catch: Djokovic will likely be here for at least a few more years to keep that door locked, dead-bolted, and secured with an interior chain and burglar alarm. But the idea of having only one titan to dispatch, instead of two or three, should inspire contenders.

Also, while the Serbian star is still the top-ranked player, he’s fast approaching 35 and likely to play a limited schedule. That will leave juicy opportunities on the table. And nobody really knows what Djokovic has left in his motivational tank after his dream of completing a calendar-year Grand Slam—and moving ahead of Federer and Nadal in the all-time Grand Slam singles title derby—was laid to waste in Arthur Ashe Stadium in September by Medvedev.

Tennis certainly needs whomever it can muster out of the Big Three for the near term. The relatively sparse attendance through the early days at Indian Wells was a warning sign, suggesting that spectators have not yet been convinced that there is life after Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. If the three icons return to play a full slate of majors and Masters events next year, it will trigger a bonus trove of “comeback” headlines. But it will amount to kicking the can down a road that is quickly running out.

A variety of different things might happen in the coming years. The only thing that appears to be off the table is a repeat of the Big Three era. Or is it?

“I have no idea what lies ahead,” Boynton says. “But did anyone see what was coming 15 years ago, when Pete [Sampras], Jim [Courier] and those guys were transitioning out of tennis? I don’t think that anyone would have predicted that we would end up with three guys who got 20 (majors) each.”