There have been a lot of comparisons between the 2020 US Open and the 1973 edition of Wimbledon over the last 10 days. That’s mainly because both tournaments played host to the creation of a new men’s player union—the ATP in 1973, and Novak Djokovic’s PTPA (Professional Tennis Player’s Association) in 2020.
But there’s another possible parallel between the two tournaments: At Wimbledon in 1973, the temporary absence of the men’s elite helped two young, soon-to-be superstars get a foothold at the top of the game. Now, at the 2020 US Open, a similar absence looks like it’s going to give a new generation of male players its first taste of Grand Slam glory.
In 1973, 80 men boycotted Wimbledon, to show support for their colleague Nikki Pilic of Yugoslavia, who had been suspended by his national federation for choosing to enter a pro event rather than play Davis Cup for his country. Seven of the top eight seeds didn’t compete, including Stan Smith, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Ken Rosewall, Tom Okker, Marty Riessen and Roy Emerson. This created an opportunity for 21-year-old Jimmy Connors and 17-year-old Bjorn Borg, neither of whom was part of the ATP yet. The Swede and the American had each made an impression on tour—Connors with his bellicose demeanor, Borg with his long blonde hair, both with their then-rare two-handed backhands—but they were still neophytes at the majors.
A young Bjorn Borg, at the All England Club. (Getty Images)
Despite his cocksure attitude and fearsome two-hander, Connors had lost in the first round at the last two Slams he had played. As the fifth seed at Wimbledon in ’73, he pummeled his way to the quarters, where he exited to eventual finalist Alex Metreveli. A year later he won Wimbledon, along with the Australian Open and the US Open, went 99-4, and rose to No. 1.
Four years younger, Borg had made the round of 16 at Roland Garros in ’73, but it was at Wimbledon where the “Teen Angel” was born. Borg became the Open era’s first heartthrob during that fortnight. He was chased across the grounds, and onto the court, by half of the teenage-girl population of London, it seemed. Long hair flying, he also reached the quarters, where he lost to Roger Taylor in five sets.
Borg and Connors were the first pure products of tennis’ professional era. Unlike most of the boycotters, neither knew what it was like to scrounge out a living on the amateur circuit. They were the beneficiaries of the boycotters’ efforts, and they spent the rest of the decade making them pay for it. Borg and Connors won 19 majors from 1974 to 1983. The last hurrah for the boycott generation came with Ashe’s win over Connors at Wimbledon in 1975.
The dynamic at the US Open in 2020 is obviously quite a bit different, and in some ways it’s reversed. Today there’s a small elite fending off a horde of hopefuls. There are just four key absentees this year: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Stan Wawrinka and, now, Novak Djokovic. But those four players account for virtually major title—59, to be exact—since 2004.
Laboring in their shadows is the Next Gen, a large and ever-growing group of potential heirs to the Big 3 throne. Having failed to overthrow the kings, they’ll now have a chance to wear one of their crowns while they’re away. This doesn’t mean we’re about the witness the elusive changing of the guard, or the rise of the next Borg and Connors. At Roland Garros later this month, Nadal will still be the favorite, and Djokovic the second favorite. But it does mean we’ll almost surely get to see a Next Genner in a Grand Slam winner’s circle for the first time.
Who’s going to take that first, long-awaited step? Of the eight quarterfinalists, seven could qualify as “next generation.” At 29, Pablo Carreño Busta is a little old, and at 27, Dominic Thiem is on the border. But Denis Shapovalov, Borna Coric, Alexander Zverev, Andrey Rublev, Daniil Medvedev and Alex De Minaur are all 24 or younger. Here are three questions worth considering as their vie for the trophy over the next week.
Denis Shapovalov has already taken out David Goffin, while Borna Coric defeated Stefanos Tsitsipas, who many consider to be the game's best young player. (Getty Images)
Who could spring a surprise?
Denis Shapovalov has looked like a much more mature player at this tournament, and has gained momentum and confidence with each match. With help from coach Mikhail Youzhny and girlfriend Mirjam Bjorklund, he’s figuring out the best ways to use his variety of shot-making skills. He’ll have a difficult, but passable, test against Carreño Busta in the quarterfinals.
Borna Coric is also a player to watch. He followed up his miracle comeback win over Stefanos Tsitsipas with a straight-set victory over Jordan Thompson. Coric has played more aggressively than normal, and would seem to have a chance to ambush Alexander Zverev in the quarterfinals, especially if the German’s chronic case of double-faultitis returns.
With wildly different game styles, a semifinal between Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev would be tantalizing. (Getty Images)
What’s the best potential match-up?
The two favorites, Thiem and Medvedev, could meet in the semifinals, which will likely feel like a de facto final. Thiem is the highest seed left and the one with the most experience in the later rounds of majors. Medvedev was the runner-up in New York last year. The Russian and the Austrian were both in top form on Monday, in blowout wins over Felix Auger-Aliassime and Frances Tiafoe, and they’ll be favored in their quarters—Medevdev to beat Rublev, Thiem to beat de Minaur. Thiem is 2-1 against Medvedev. A semifinal match between them would be an intriguing, and difficult to predict, clash between Thiem’s straight-ahead power and Medvedev’s shrewd shifts of pace and spin.
Who’s the favorite?
It should come down to the Thiem-Medvedev winner. Thiem would seem to be the heir apparent, but I’ll take Medvedev. As we saw last year, the Russian can be virtually unbeatable when he’s on a roll. He hasn’t lost a set so far in New York. I’d say he’s on a roll.