Have the ‘Next Gen’ Come of Age at the Shanghai Masters?

NextGen star Alexander Zverev

It was a dramatic day in Shanghai on Friday as the top two seeds Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer fell in the quarterfinals, defeated by Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev respectively, both of whom number amongst the ATP Tour’s ‘NextGen’. Tsitsipas went on to lose his semifinal to fellow young gun and US Open finalist Daniil Medvedev, whilst Zverev proved too strong for 23-year-old Italian Matteo Berrettini in the last four. Clearly then, there is real promise in this cadre of young players. But are they ready to finally supplant the old guard?

When Federer was breaking through on tour he was part of the ‘New Balls Please’ promotional campaign. This involved other young guns such as Andy Roddick, Gustavo Kuerten and Lleyton Hewitt. The idea behind the campaign was to highlight the talent coming through behind Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, who the ATP were concerned about replacing. The NextGen is now saddled with that same target. The problem has been that there actually hasn’t been any changing of the guard.

Instead, in the last three years, Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic have won every single Grand Slam between them. They also occupy the top three places in the rankings, just as they did a decade ago. But Federer is now 38 years of age and Nadal and Djokovic are also both now comfortably on the wrong side of 30. All have spent significant amounts of time away from the tour in recent years and magnificent as they remain, their powers are collectively, albeit slowly, on the wane.

Tsitsipas & Zverev Create Excitement in Shanghai

It is a rare enough thing to see Djokovic lose a tennis match, rarer still after taking the first set. But Tsitsipas showed the hunger, focus and desire to stay with the Serb in the second set. Of course, up against  a player of Djokovic’s quality there were moments where Tsitsipas struggled, but he hung tough to break Djokovic at the death and steal the set. It was a display of that demonstrated that Tsitsipas has self-belief in abundance and a winning mentality. So too did the way he pressed his advantage in the decider.

Zverev looked to have won foot in the semifinals when he found himself holding three match points up 6-3 6-5 in his last-eight clash with Federer. But Federer can never be counted out, particularly when he is serving. The Swiss reeled off five consecutive points in the blink of an eye, playing shots that almost defied belief, to wipe out the German’s advantage and send the second set into a tiebreak.

Zverev forced two more match points in that tiebreak and yet still found himself playing a third set. But where many would have faded away, Zverev produced an inspired spell of tennis of his own at the beginning of the third set to put himself firmly back in control of the match. And this time he clearly had no intentions of relinquishing his advantage. Federer battled to stay in contention, but Zverev never wavered, completing a 6-3 6-7 6-3 win with a triumphant roar that it was his time now.

It’s possible that Federer actually had a hand in his own downfall. At the Laver Cup in September, he hit the headlines for his pep talk to Zverev in between matches. At the time the Swiss was encouraging the German to be more positive on court, with Zverev rewarding him by closing out Team Europe’s third straight win in the fledgling competition. But little did Federer know that Zverev would draw on that new well of self-belief to end his Shanghai Masters campaign less than a month later.

A NextGen Semifinal Line-up

It cannot be anything but good for the game that despite both Djokovic and Federer, alongside a host of other established stars, competing at the Shanghai Masters, the oldest player to make the last four was Medvedev, born on 11th February, 1996. Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas have all qualified for the NextGen Finals in the past, with Tsitsipas winning in Milan last year. But although it is easy to look at the roster for the semifinals and conclude that the future has arrived and that the youngsters are finally stepping up, that would perhaps be a step too far.

It remains exceedingly rare to see a top-level tournament without Nadal, Djokovic or Federer in the semifinals. At the Grand Slams, the NextGen have still collected just one win against that august trio, which came in January when Tsitsipas stunned Federer in the fourth round at the Australian Open, although Medvedev did come close in the US Open final. And it is ultimately the Majors that do most to define this sport. So whilst Shanghai might be another reminder that the future of the men’s game is bright, that future is not here yet.

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