For a really long time, a select group of players dominated the tennis circuit. These players were fondly dubbed the “Big Four”. It comprised of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. But now, the upcoming tennis youth generation are loosening their vice-like grip.
On the face of it, it does not seem that much has changed. Rafael Nadal still tops the rankings and possesses two grand slam titles, while Federer sits one place behind and holds the other two. The other half of the Big 4, Djokovic and Murray missed large chunks of the season with injury and therefore couldn’t claim their share of the prizes.
But, from mid-May onwards something changed the dynamic. At the Rome Masters, it was the younger generation that presided over the ATP Tour’s biggest three-set titles. 20-year-old German, Alexander Zverev brushed aside Djokovic and Federer to win successive Masters 1000 titles in the Italian capital and Montreal. Bulgaria’s Grigor Dimitrov, 26, took home the next Masters trophy, in Cincinnati, defeating 22-year-old Australian Nick Kyrgios in the final.
Federer and Nadal reunited for the Shanghai Masters final in October, but that proved their last hurrah for 2017. American player Jack Sock, 25, was victorious in the Paris Masters before Dimitrov rounded off the season by clinching the ATP Finals title. It isn’t surprising that the younger, fresher legs were able to sustain the long, arduous tennis season. By comparison, Nadal’s body started to break down in the final weeks, while Federer, who had already played a selective season, limped over the line.
The tennis youth generation are itching to grate-crash the “Big Four” at grand slam tournaments and they are certainly closing in. But who from the emerging group of players will disrupt the status quo first? Leading the charge is Dominic Thiem, the world No 5 from Austria. Thiem is arguably the second-best clay court player in the world. Dominic Thiem believes the time has arrived for the next generation to move up to the same level.
He said, “I think we should. We did it already at the Masters 1000s and also other tournaments. But at the majors, Roger and Rafa were just too strong. This year we just had to accept that. But at one point we have to make the breakthrough and I think 2018 is time for it.”
Thiem is already among the elite on clay but, there is one impediment. Rafa is as close to invincible as it gets on a tennis court, making it near-impossible, for now at least, to win the French Open. It is difficult to upstage Nadal on his clay but Thiem was the only player in 2017 to defeat Nadal on the red dust. He comfortably dispatched the Spaniard in the Rome quarter-finals.
Thiem said, “He is by far the best player ever on the surface and I beat him during his peak. It was probably the best match of my year but still, to know that I can beat somebody in his best shape on his best surface, for sure gives me a little bit of confidence.”
A number of players are finding their feet from various injury absences. The most notable player was 12-time major winner – and potential final opponent in Abu Dhabi this week – Novak Djokovic and former world No 1 Murray. Swiss player Stan Wawrinka, Japan’s Kei Nishikori, and Canada’s Milos Raonic are set to return as well.
The Austrian said, “For sure it’s going to be tougher to stay in the top 10 than it was to get there last year. But we all had a good year, and for them it’s not going to be easy. Some of them were out for a long time. Maybe Novak, but I don’t think anybody else will make the same sort of comeback that Roger and Rafa did. It’s too tough, so I think everybody can look forward to a great and tense start of the season.”
Thiem’s off-season preparations will conclude at Zayed Sports City’s International Tennis Stadium. He is one of the two top seeds, alongside Djokovic. Irrespective of his performance in the UAE capital, Thiem has prepared himself as best as possible for 2018. He said, “The off-season was good – no injuries, no problems. I worked a lot on fitness and a few things when there is no time during the year. I think, and I hope, I am ready for the new season.”
Can the Tennis youth generation actually take over from the Big 4?