Battle joined: Daniil Medvedev says “We are here because of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic & Murray”
The triumph at the Nitto ATP Finals by Daniil Medvedev took the takeover at the top of the men’s game by a new generation of players a step closer. However, the Big Three, who have dominated for so long, will not be toppled without a fight, says Paul Newman
After their remarkable seasons in 2020 it might seem foolish to suggest that we are coming to the end of an era, but Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal will understand, better than most, that the takeover by a new generation of players at the top of the world game will soon prove irresistible. The symbolism of Daniil Medvedev’s stunning victory at this year’s Nitto ATP Finals, where the 24-year-old Russian overcame 27-year-old Dominic Thiem to claim the title for the first time, was clear. Both younger men had beaten the world’s top two players en route to the final as 33-year-old Djokovic and 34-year-old Nadal were worn down by their opponents’ relentlessly consistent aggression.
“We are a new generation of tennis, even if we’re not young any more,” Medvedev said in the wake of the biggest triumph of his career. “Both of us managed to beat Rafa and Novak, which is an amazing accomplishment.”
There has of course been plenty of talk before about a changing of the guard at the top of the men’s game, especially at the season-ending Finals, where young pretenders toppled the ancien régime in each of the previous three years. Grigor Dimitrov (aged 26 in 2017), Alexander Zverev (21 in 2018) and Stefanos Tsitsipas (21 in 2019) all made major breakthroughs with their London triumphs but, to varying degrees, have failed to go on to ultimate Grand Slam glory, although time is still clearly on the side of the German and the Greek.
What makes the last edition of the season-ending championships to be held in London before next year’s move to Turin feel more significant is the fact that the excellence of Medvedev and Thiem was part of an ongoing pattern of improvement by the Russian and the Austrian.
Last year Medvedev won two Masters Series titles during a run in which he reached the final at six tournaments in a row, including the US Open, where he went desperately close to denying Nadal the title. Having claimed another Masters Series victory this year with his triumph in Paris in his last tournament before London, Medvedev gave the impression during the final weeks of the campaign that he would have extended his winning run even further if the season had not come to an end.
Meanwhile Thiem’s emergence as a contender for major honours can be traced back to his first appearance in the French Open final in 2018. After three disappointments in Grand Slam finals (he also lost at Roland Garros in 2019 and in Melbourne this year), the Austrian finally triumphed at the US Open this summer. He has also appeared in three Masters Series finals, having won at Indian Wells last year and twice finished runner-up in Madrid, and has played in the last two finals at the O2 Arena.
Medvedev gave the impression during the final weeks of the campaign that he would have extended his winning run even further if the season had not come to an end
The year-end world rankings reflect the current state of play at the top of the men’s game. Djokovic and Nadal, who between them have won nine of the last 10 Grand Slam titles, are still No 1 and No 2 in the world and 39-year-old Roger Federer is hanging on at No 5, but the rest of the top eight places are filled by Thiem and four members of the “Next Gen” group in the shape of Medvedev, Tsitsipas, Zverev and Andrey Rublev.
“Hopefully all of us young guys will keep continuing to push and will have some great rivalries,” Medvedev said. “Hopefully we can be there for a long time and maybe hold the other generations back, because that’s how we can be like the [current] top three. They probably went through two or three generations without dropping their level.”
Thiem, who is the only player other than Andy Murray to have beaten each of the Big Three at last five times, agrees. “We still have many years ahead of us,” he said. “We proved that we can play with the legends, that we can also beat them, that we can also win the biggest tournaments. I think in the next few years the Big Three will play for every big title, but there’s going to be a time when those guys retire in, I don’t know, three, four or five years. Then I guess we will be the favourites for all the big titles. I think for tennis there are some exciting times ahead.”
However, Thiem rejects any suggestion that he should now be considered in the same category as the Big Three. “If you compare the big titles especially, I’m far away from them,” he said. “I have one Slam, one Masters 1000 – and that’s it. That’s a little bit less than the other three players! But I love to play against them. It’s such a huge thing, every single match against them. We younger players can feel super happy that these three living legends are still around and we can compete with them. Every match against them is a great opportunity.”
For all their excellence Medvedev, Thiem, Tsitsipas, Zverev and Rublev have won only one Grand Slam title between them – and even that had an asterisk beside it
He added: “Roger, Rafa, Nole and also Andy have done so much for the sport. I think they brought so many new fans to tennis. There is going to be a time when they are not around any more, and then it’s going to be so important to keep all the tennis fans in this great sport. I think that’s our challenge: to perform well and to play great in the big tournaments so that we become huge stars ourselves.”
Medvedev has similar respect for his elders. “We are here because of Novak, Roger, Rafa and Andy [Murray],” he said. “We used to watch them on TV and we thought: ‘OK, we want to be out there playing against them, even if we’ll probably lose.’ Then you play them and although you don’t lose all the time, it’s tough. Then you want to continue to work harder to beat them. I finally beat Rafa [in London], which was an amazing feeling. I haven’t beaten Roger yet, but hopefully I can have some more chances.”
All nine of Medvedev’s titles have been won on hard courts. He has not won a match in four visits to Roland Garros and has not gone beyond the third round at Wimbledon, but insists: “I think I can play really well on grass. It’s not an easy surface. I don’t know how Novak and Roger are capable of being so consistent there, because you can always get tough opponents in the early stages, like Vasek Pospisil, Reilly Opelka, Kevin Anderson or Milos Raonic. Then you’re like: ‘OK, maybe I won’t have one break point in the match. I need to win the tie-breaks, need to be consistent on the serve.’ It’s not an easy surface, but with my game I think I can play really well there.”
While Medvedev, Thiem, Zverev, Tsitsipas and Rublev have enjoyed plenty of success at tour level in the last year or two, their big test is to perform consistently well in the Grand Slam tournaments. For all their excellence, they have won only one Grand Slam title between them – and even that had an asterisk beside it as Thiem won the US Open when Nadal and Federer were absent and after Djokovic had been taken out of contention when he was defaulted for accidentally hitting a line judge with a stray ball.
The Big Three are not going away. Federer is set to return in the new year after taking time off following knee surgery, Djokovic will be chasing his ninth Australian Open title in Melbourne and Nadal’s determination typifies the continuing commitment of all three of them. After all, they have history to play for: one of them (or maybe two or even all three of them) will go down in history as the greatest of all time as Djokovic (currently 17 Grand Slam titles) chases Federer and Nadal (20 titles each).
After his defeat to Medvedev in the semi-finals at the O2 Arena, Nadal was asked about his hopes for 2021. “My goal is always the same: to go to every tournament and to give myself a chance to compete well and to try to win it,” he said. “That’s the goal every year. My motivation has always been the same. Next year is going to be an important year. I hope to be ready to fight for the things that I want to fight for. I’m going to work hard during the off-season to be ready for the beginning.”
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