Tsitsipas, Thiem, Medvedev, Zverev: Four big threats to the Big 3

Tsitsipas, Thiem, Medvedev, Zverev: Four big threats to the Big 3

Right behind the towering trio at the top of the sport’s ladder in the ATP Rankings is the foursome poised to make significant progress in the year ahead.

As the 2019 season concludes this week with the Davis Cup in Madrid, it is apparent that the Big 3 remain the pace setters in the men’s game and will not easily relinquish their authority. Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer have secured 12 consecutive major titles among them. The last time anyone took a Big 4 prize in singles was Stan Wawrinka at the 2016 US Open.

But the feeling grows that the stage is set for a compelling 2020 campaign. Right behind the towering trio at the top of the sport’s ladder in the ATP Rankings are none other than Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev. That remarkable foursome is poised to make significant progress in the year ahead. One of them is almost surely going to win a major next year, and perhaps two of these players will get on the board at Grand Slam events in the coming season. They are all formidable competitors with varying styles and strengths. They are immensely ambitious, determined to make their presence known on the premier stages, and eager to make inroads swiftly. They are no longer intimidated by the enduringly preeminent players from Spain, Serbia and Switzerland.

After losing a stupendously fought final-round clash with Tsitsipas at the ATP Finals on Sunday—that was locked at 4-4 in a final set tie-break before the Greek competitor took three points in a row—Thiem was strikingly upbeat about what might be on the horizon for not only himself but some of his foremost rivals as well when it matters most next year.

Thiem said, “I think for sure we can do it next year. We are all playing great tennis, Sascha, Stefanos, me, some other guys. I’m pretty sure that we’re going to see a new and young Grand Slam champion next year.”

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That view is shared by many authorities. And among the experts, Tsitsipas’s name is often at the top of the list of potential breakthrough winners. He commenced 2019 with a fourth-round triumph over Federer at the Australian Open and reached the semifinals there. He had some injury and confidence concerns in the middle of the season, but came on strong at the end to capture the ATP Finals with wins over Federer and Thiem.

Tsitsipas and Thiem both toppled every Big 3 member during the course of productive 2019 seasons. The young Greek also upended Nadal on clay in Madrid and ousted Djokovic on hard courts in Shanghai. The Austrian defeated Federer in the Indian Wells final on hard courts, on clay in Madrid, and again indoors in London. Also, he had a clay-court win over Nadal and toppled Djokovic in the semifinals of the French Open as well as at the season-ending event.

Thiem has been in the last two French Open finals and his play on fast surfaces—not to mention his court positioning—has improved immeasurably across the past season, largely because he has shortened his backswing on the forehand. He will be considerably more dangerous at both the Australian and US Opens in 2020 than in the past, and a wide range of experts would make him the second most likely player to succeed at Roland Garros.

To be sure, Thiem is a prodigious ball striker, and one of the most fearsomely big hitters in the sport. He can blast anyone off the court on any surface with the possible exception of grass. This Austrian workhorse will be fascinating to follow all through the year ahead.

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And yet, as mighty as Thiem is from the back of the court, as breathtaking as he can be when he is in full throttle, as deftly as he implements the slice backhand, the fact remains that he is not as versatile as Tsitsipas. The 21-year-old Greek is the most complete player of this rapidly advancing contingent. He has the tools to get the job done on any surface, and the gumption to play his best tennis when it counts the most. He can almost taste a Grand Slam title, and he has the game to back up his hunger.

As Tsitsipas said in London, “I feel like my game is getting better over time, and I believe I’m really close to being crowned a Grand Slam champion. I know those are strong words that I say, but I feel I belong there.”

Heading into 2020 after his uplifting London triumph, he may be particularly tough to beat on the hard courts of Melbourne. What sets him apart from Thiem, Medvedev or Zverev is his net game. He has far more feel on the volley and better technique than any of the other aspirants of glory at the Grand Slam events. If I had to pick the man with the best chance of making a seven-match run at a major next year, I would unhesitatingly go with Tsitsipas.

But Medvedev must not be underestimated after his astounding 2019 campaign. He won 59 of 80 matches, took four tournament titles, and reached his first major final—bowing out to Nadal in five tumultuous sets at the US Open. In a scintillating stretch from the middle of summer into the heart of autumn, Medvedev advanced to six consecutive finals, securing three titles in that span, playing top of the line tennis all the way through.

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That improbable stretch took its toll, and Medvedev lost his last four matches of the season at the Masters 1000 event in Paris and the ATP Finals in London. Temperamentally, he was off his game. When he is in the right frame of mind, the combination of an insatiable appetite to win and an impenetrable backcourt game make Medvedev an authentic candidate to win a major title. His court coverage and alacrity for a 6’6” player are arresting.

At his best, he hardly misses from the baseline, finds every corner in both boxes on his first serve, and is audacious on his second serve. It was his second serve that carried him past Djokovic from a set down in the semifinals of Cincinnati. He will be in the thick of things at the Grand Slam venues all through 2020. I like his chances the most at either Melbourne or Flushing Meadows.

And what of Zverev? All in all, his 2019 season was disappointing. He won 58 of 77 matches in 2018, secured four titles, and finished the season by winning the ATP Finals with triumphs over Federer in the semis and Djokovic in the title round contest. He slipped to 44-25 in 2019 with only one title. He was too frequently his own worst enemy, allowing his extreme negativity to define who he is, regularly getting far too down on himself. He is a perplexing character, who could be so much better than he is. And yet, he is the seventh-ranked player despite his many woes in 2019.

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Another outstanding all-surface player, the young German matches up well with most of his leading rivals. Zverev’s two-handed backhand is one of the finest in the game. In London, he served Nadal and Medvedev off the court. He is prone to costly double faults that are difficult to comprehend, but his first serve is one of the best in the sport.

Zverev could win a major next year, but he has not been beyond the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam event yet. That is inexplicable to me. Is he too vulnerable in best of five-set competition? To a degree he is. He wastes too much energy in the early rounds and has nothing left for the homestretch. But the 6’6” German is too good to not get out of his own way one of these days. Along with Tsitsipas, Thiem and Medvedev, he is a viable candidate to take one of the premier prizes in 2020.

As Zverev says, “After the US Open I started playing much, much better. I hope I can take that into next season. We will see. I think next year will bring a new Grand Slam champion. We’ll see who that will be because I think the young guys are playing incredible tennis. You know, it could be Daniil, it can be Stefanos, it can be Dominic. I’m in the mix as well I hope. We’ll see what the next year brings but I think for the young guys it’s going to be an exciting year.”