INTERVIEW: Karen Khachanov wins in Toronto on Wednesday, and will take on Stefanos Tsitsipas today.

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After finishing runner-up twice at Roland Garros, Dominic Thiem finally conquered a Grand Slam tournament at the 2020 US Open. Injuries notwithstanding, he’s 9-9 in 2021, including a first-round loss at the French Open.

At that same Roland Garros, Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the final—and then fell in the first round at Wimbledon.

Alexander Zverev just had the best tournament of his life at the Olympics, winning singles gold. But the real question is, what happens next?

The oft-called Next Gen of ATP players, including Daniil Medvedev and Matteo Berrettini, has been unsuccessfully striving to break the stranglehold that Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have steadfastly held. And while the disparity is most obvious in their Grand Slam and ATP Masters 1000 title counts, what’s equally impressive—and often overlooked—is how rarely the Big Three lose during the opening rounds of tournaments.

That relentless consistency stands in stark contrast to those who wish to inherit their throne, yet who often seem vulnerable against lesser lights.

“Their consistency is outrageous, week in and week out,” says ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert.

“These younger players are just not as good as the Big Three,” adds Tennis Channel analyst Martina Navratilova. “Those three are just on another level. They are amazing.”

In his prime between 2004 and 2014, Federer lost early only 19 times over 80 Masters 1000 tournaments. And Nadal has been even more dazzling, with just 15 early exits in 108 Masters 1000 tournaments since 2006.

Since Federer’s first full year in the Top 10 in 2003, he has lost only twice in the first or second round of a Grand Slam. (Losing in these rounds will be referred to as losing “early.”) Since 2006, Nadal’s first full year in the Top 10, he has taken just four early losses at Slams. Djokovic has flamed out early just twice since attaining Top 10 residence early in 2007, and only once since the end of 2008.

Gilbert points out that you’d have to go back to the legendary 1970s and ‘80s stars to find an equally unstoppable group: Bjorn Borg had only one early Grand Slam exit between 1974 and 1981, while John McEnroe (1979-1985), Ivan Lendl (1982-1991) and Jimmy Connors (1974-1986) never fell during the first two rounds of a Slam in their (parenthetical) primes.

That said, only Connors had a staying power that even is within shouting distance of the Big Three.

By contrast, Thiem, the only active ATP player under 30 to win a Grand Slam singles title, has been ensconced in the Top 10 since 2017, but has dropped four first-round Slam matches since. Tsitsipas has failed to win a match at three of his last eight Slams.

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Thiem and Zverev battled for the US Open title last September, but are still searching for consistency across the board.

Thiem and Zverev battled for the US Open title last September, but are still searching for consistency across the board.

While Zverev and Medvedev have bombed out early just once each at a Slam since their Top 10 ascensions (2018 and 2019, respectively), the Masters 1000 level is a different story. Since Montreal in 2017—the first Masters event Zverev was ranked in the Top 10—he has failed to win at least two matches in 14 of his 27 Masters 1000 tournaments. Medvedev has similarly flopped in two of his last five Masters 1000s. (Since highly ranked players often receive first-round byes, this story counts a players' first and second matches—which could be in the second and third rounds, respectively—as an "early" Masters exit.)

Those Masters 1000s woes hold true for Tsitsipas (went home early in four of his last 10 Masters events) and Thiem (nine of his last 14) as well as Wimbledon finalist Matteo Berrettini, who has been in the Top 10 since last year but has had early exits in four of his last six Masters 1000s.

This erraticism demonstrates that it’s not just about the physical and mental stamina required to win best-of-five-set matches that separates the Big Three from their occasional challengers.

The greatness of the Big Three was that they learned how to win when they are not quite right, and playing at only 60 to 70 percent. Brad Gilbert

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In his prime between 2004 and 2014, Federer lost early only 19 times over 80 Masters 1000 tournaments. He has dropped off since, taking seven early losses in 24 tournaments since 2015—yet that’s still a better percentage than most of the Next Gen. And Nadal has been even more dazzling, with just 15 early exits in 108 Masters 1000 tournaments since 2006.

What might give younger players hope is that Djokovic struggled at the Masters 1000s early on in his Top 10 days, with early exits six times in 2007 and 2008. But since then, he has taken just 12 early exits in 91 tournaments.

“The chasm between them and the 20th or 30th-ranked player is that much bigger than it is for these other players…even on days when they are a little off,” says Navratilova.

Gilbert says everyone among the Top 20 or 30 may have "five days a year" where they’re almost unbeatable, “but the greatness of the Big Three was that they learned how to win when they are not quite right, and playing at only 60 to 70 percent."

Gilbert adds that toughing out a win on an off day is more meaningful than playing flawlessly and dominating 6-1, 6-1.

“I used to tell Andre Agassi that the best result is just moving on,” Gilbert says of his former charge. “If you don’t feel good, the key is to give yourself a chance to play tomorrow. Then you feel like you’re playing with house money in your next match and you’re more relaxed.”

"He's the Italian Hammer," Djokovic said of Berrettini.

"He's the Italian Hammer," Djokovic said of Berrettini.

Navratilova doesn’t believe the Next Gen are “mental lightweights,” or are not pushing hard enough or crumbling under pressure. Rather, “If you had all these players try to hit a target on a practice court where there’s no pressure, Rafa would just hit the target more than them. These guys have to play slightly above their level just to get to finals, and so their average day is not as good.”

But Navratilova believes most of these players can still raise their games and go deep consistently in big tournaments.

“If you’ve been in the Top 10 without improving for four or five years then maybe you have found your level,” she says. “Otherwise, it’s not too late for them to keep improving. And as their games grow, their confidence will grow and then they may be the ones with the mental edge.”

Ultimately, Navratilova sees the mental toughness the Big Three display as coming “from the confidence of knowing you’re better.”

Still, it is possible to occasionally bomb out at major tournaments and become a legendary player. Pete Sampras was bounced early in six Grand Slams between 1991 and 2000, and wiped out in his first two matches with astonishing frequency at the Masters level. Yet he’s remembered as the sport’s greatest major champion—before the Big Three came around, of course.