It finally happened. For the first time since 2016, someone not named Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer won a Grand Slam title. Granted, Djokovic had to get himself disqualified for it to happen, but it happened nonetheless. That, followed by Daniil Medvedev’s scintillating unbeaten run to victory in the ATP Finals in London gives rise to an important question. As the 2021 tennis calendar kicks off in earnest, we must once again ask whether it is finally the start of the end for the “Big 3.” So, has the new generation finally arrived? Or was 2020 simply a slight lull for three of the greatest men’s tennis players of all time? We take a look at what you can expect this year.
2021 Men’s Tennis Predictions
The old guard still going strong
In 2021, the “Big 3” won two of the three Slams available (Wimbledon was cancelled due to coronavirus). This was despite the fact that Federer missed two and Nadal chose not to defend his US Open title. Only two other Grand Slam finals since 2004 haven’t featured at least one of the “Big 3.” (The 2014 US Open final saw Marin Cilic defeat Kei Nishikori. In 2016, Andy Murray defeated Milos Raonic in the Wimbledon final.) As such, you could be forgiven for thinking their vice grip on men’s tennis might be loosening slightly.
However, Djokovic didn’t lose a tour-level match in 2020 before defaulting at Flushing Meadows, so I think it’s fair to say that a bit of luck played its part in ending that streak. The question is: Will 2021 bring the start of a new dominant streak for the “Big 3,” or will more newcomers make their debut in Slam finals in the near future? To answer that, we need to understand just how difficult it is to win a Slam off the “Big 3.”
Since 2004, only five men (Thiem is now the sixth) have won a Grand Slam outside of the “Big 3.” In fact, the timeless trio account for 56 of the 67 Slams titles since then. They won at least three every year except 2016, when they won two. Of the five men to best them in that time, only Andy Murray was a consistent threat to their rule. The fact that there was, for a time, the concept of a “Big 4” is a testament to just how effective his challenge was. Stan Wawrinka also won three Slams, but is not his unplayable best consistently enough to be considered a regular threat. The fact is, only Murray upset the status on a regular basis over the last 17 years. How close then are the next generation to doing the same?
New kids on the block
Of the new generation, those considered likely Slam winners in the near future are Alexander Zverev, Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, and Dominic Thiem. I also want to give special mention to Jannik Sinner and Felix Auger-Aliassime, who both show heaps of talent. Both look like safe bets to be contenders for big trophies in the years to come. However, they are not quite ready to be in this conversation just yet. A good place to start when assessing the four contenders listed above is to compare where they are now with where the “Big 3” were at their age. Let’s start with Zverev. Of the 4, he showed the most promise at the youngest age.
Zverev won the ATP Finals at 21. He won his maiden Tour-level title at 19, and many had him tipped as the next big thing in tennis. He appeared to be the first real threat the “Big 3” would face since Murray was sidelined with injury prior to the 2018 Australian Open. Relatively speaking he’s done well, with three Masters 1000 titles and an ATP Finals win. However, he underperforms in Slams, only reaching his first final last year at the US Open. Before that final, he had made only two quarterfinal appearances and one semifinal appearance. Pretty poor returns for someone ranked consistently in the top five or six in the world for the last four years. In comparison, each of the “Big 3” had won a Major by the time they were 21, and they carried on winning them.
By the time they reached 24–the age Zverev turns in April–Djokovic had two Grand Slam victories to his name. Nadal had six already, and Federer had five by 24. Nadal and Federer had reached No.1 in the world by then, with Djokovic first earning top billing a few months later. I think it’s safe to say then that Zverev doesn’t stack up to them when comparing the early years of their careers.
Thiem, Medvedev, and Tsitsipas
As for Thiem, he is already 27 and won his first Slam four months ago. He was a relatively late bloomer, considered a clay court specialist until recent years. He has shown he can go toe-to-toe with the “Big 3” on occasion. However, his recent battle with Djokovic at the ATP Finals shows there is still a gulf in quality between Thiem and the “Big 3.” Thiem won the match, but Djokovic was massively off his game and still had a 4-0 lead in a third set tiebreak he should have won. The same was true in Australia earlier in the year. Once Djokovic found his game, Thiem couldn’t keep up. It appears, then, that Thiem and Zverev are unlikely to be serious challengers for Grand Slams. What about other two challengers in Tsitsipas and Medvedev?
Medvedev turns 25 in February and is yet to win a Grand Slam, having made only one final. He does have 3 Masters 1000 titles and an ATP Finals to his name, but doesn’t seem to possess the game required to regularly be in the mix for Grand Slam titles, particularly given how hard-court oriented his game is.
Tsitsipas does little to change the narrative either, as he is yet to reach a Grand Slam final. He has an ATP Finals win to his name, but little else of significance. In fact, like Zverev, he has developed a reputation for underperforming at the four big tournaments (see his first-round exit in Wimbledon 2019). It looks like this crop of young talent is unlikely to change the Grand Slam narrative in the near future. Perhaps hope can be found in the fact that the old guard are starting to ease off the gas?
Change in the near future?
Unfortunately, on closer inspection, that line of thinking only brings more bad news for the young hopefuls. Federer won in Australia in 2018 at 37, and should have won Wimbledon in 2019 at 38. (Sorry, Djokovic fans. Federer choked, but that’s a matter for another time). Djokovic and Nadal are six and five years his junior, respectively, and there is no reason to think they cannot continue dominating the game for three or four more years at least.
In reality, that means three of the four Slams available are essentially locks (Australia for Djokovic and Roland Garros for Nadal are mere formalities, and you can ask Federer how hard it is to put Djokovic away at Wimbledon). That leaves the US Open. The Slam that has seemed the most open in recent years, but a Slam each of the “Big 3” have still had success on and so still no easy feat to win. Where does that leave the future of men’s tennis then?
Well, if you’re a fan of exciting tennis then keep watching. New players like Jannik Sinner, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and Dennis Shapovalov have bought flare and personality to the sport in bunches. If, however, you’re hoping to see an end to the dominance of the “Big 3,” I suggest you come back in three or four years and try again then. Otherwise you can pray that Andy Murray makes it back to his peak level. Once he shakes of the recent setback of a positive COVID-19 test, hopefully we’ll then have a “Big 4.”
For now, sit back and enjoy what should be another year of brilliance from three of the best ever to step onto a tennis court. 2021 may not be different, but it will still surely be spectacular.
Main Photo from Getty.