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Could Djokovic’s Default Prompt Changing of the Guard?

Dominic Thiem ATP Finals London

Novak Djokovic’s disqualification from the US Open for hitting a lineswoman with a ball has unsurprisingly dominated the headlines this week. In its wake, it will leave something that many tennis fans would feel is long overdue: a Grand Slam winner born in the 1990s.

A long time coming?

Indeed, such has been the remarkable dominance of the “Big Four” over the past decade, that there have only been three Grand Slam finalists born in the 1990s (Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev, and Milos Raonic), let alone winners. However with Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer all well into their 30s, rumblings about the passing of the mantle have grown. In January 2019, John McEnroe claimed that Zverev’s capture of the ATP finals trophy would catalyze it. However, since then Djokovic and Nadal have swept up all the Major trophies a continuation of the years preceding McEnroe’s comment.

Nonetheless, it is arguably too reductive too merely look at the Majors. In fact, the Masters 1000 series perhaps suggest some change has been happening for the last few years. Between 2011 and the start of 2017, the “Big Four” captured a ridiculous 50/54, or 93%, of Masters series titles. Since the start of the 2017 season, this has dropped to 57%. Whilst the Majors undoubtedly remain the hallmark for the pinnacle of the game, this gradual shift in the 1000s is perhaps more reflective of their schedule management in order to prolong their playing career in the Slams as opposed to any change in who dominates the top of the men’s game.

A watershed moment

Monumental shifts in the narrative often entail a watershed moment to trigger them. The 1973 Wimbledon tournament was missing seven out of the eight top ranked players following the creation of the ATP. It eventually led to the unearthing of none other than Bjorn Borg and Jimmy Connors. Interestingly, the controversial PTPA formation set for this year, runs another parallel to the 1973 storyline. Despite movements towards a changing of guard emerging from the past few years, there has never been a Grand Slam with such a clear favorite as this year’s US Open. Prior to Djokovic’s disqualification, he had reached unexpectedly higher levels than ever before. He seemed unbeatable in any match, let alone in a best-of-five set encounter. Even in his match against Carreno-Busta, although he was frustrated at conceding the break after missing his own chances, Djokovic’s first-serve numbers were his best since 2012. He still would have been favorite, even if he lost the first set.

Although Djokovic’s disqualification will have certainly rattled his camp, I would not expect it to affect his unerringly efficient level. He will enter the 2021 season with a target on his back for the chasing pack, despite this result. Rather, it may lead to a confidence boost for the younger guys knocking on the door of the Majors. Despite the unfortunate circumstances with COVID and Djokovic’s disqualification, a deep run in the US Open this year could propel one of the “almost there” to believe the time is now. In many ways, such a remarkable run of domination might have needed a simply bizarre tournament such as the 2020 US Open to open the gates for new future stars.

Who can capitalise?

The two favorites of the remaining eight will be Thiem and Medvedev. Both have played their way into form nicely, with Thiem’s dispatch of the rising Auger-Aliassime particularly impressive. The two of them have been leading the resistance against Djokovic and Nadal for the last couple of years. They have both won Masters series titles, and reached a Grand Slam final (Thiem has two). Moreover, Alexander Zverev has attracted less media attention than usual. He has moved through the draw fairly serenely, importantly without enduring a five-setter yet. Nonetheless, in two of his four games he has gone into double-digits with the double fault counter. It is widely-spoken about and something he must address if he wants to regularly challenge for titles. A wild card pick for the title would be Andrey Rublev. His mouthwatering quarterfinal tie against Medvedev is definitely one to watch as Rublev has added mental strength to a plethora of weapons.

Regardless of who advances in the tournament, the quarterfinal line-up is studded with NextGen talent. Hopefully some of these stupendously talented youngsters can use this tournament as a springboard for the future years. Whilst good performances and improvements are always desirable, never underestimate the impact of winning. Even for the likes of Auger-Aliassime and Tsitsipas, who are no longer still in the US Open, seeing someone other than the “Big Four” win a Grand Slam might instill some added belief that 2021 could be the year. This is certainly not the end for the usual suspects as they will almost irrefutably win more Slams. In fact, the level Djokovic has been playing still makes him unquestionably the man to beat in 2021. However, this strange tournament could be monumental in transitioning the men’s game into a new era.

Main Photo from Getty.


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