Opinion: New Balls Please

Opinion Piece Artwork Featuring several different athletes from various sporting codes

Our tennis writer takes a look at the players who are most likely to break the dominance of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

With Alexander Zverev and Grigor Dimitrov winning the last two consecutive Masters 1000 tournaments, there is a definite sense that the long hegemony of the so called ‘Top 4’ in Grand Slam tennis could be nearing its end. I mean, it clearly was eventually going to happen, notwithstanding the possibility of a fountain of eternal youth- which I’m not entirely sure hasn’t been discovered by a certain Swiss maestro.

It just took that much longer this time round, with the likes of Gael Monfils and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga unable to make that final telling step into the pantheon of Grand Slam champions. The question remains, is this just another false dawn, or could we be in for a maiden Grand Slam winner?
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First and foremost, I want to debunk this myth of the ‘Top 4’ quickly. Stan Wawrinka has won three Grand Slams, the exact same amount that Andy Murray has. That ‘other’ Swiss champion has actually competed in a Grand Slam final this year, albeit losing in a rather sadistically one-sided French Open to Nadal. Perhaps he hasn’t had the consistency that Murray has had throughout his career, but let’s be frank here: Murray has some way to go to reach the mythical status of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. There’s a false equivalency here that Donald Trump would envy.

Perhaps the greatest indicator that we could be in for a changing of the guard is that old chestnut: injury. Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka missed out on Flushing Meadows. Rafael Nadal’s perennial knee issues are always an issue - although it didn't stop him claiming the US Open, while Federer’s withdrawal from his beloved Cincinnati event a few weeks ago was a direct result of injury concerns. So Father Time seems to be loading the dice more firmly in favour of a new champion. Yet why is it that 36 year-old Federer was able to come back from the brink of extinction this year and dominate the slams alongside his arch-rival, clay court connoisseur Nadal?

Firstly, these are amazing, once in a lifetime players that are operating in the same generation. So you would expect that inherent competitive spirit to make the, less prone to relinquishing hold of the reins of a sport that they have literally reinvented. But also, the five-set format- well on the surface seemingly favourable to the younger, more energetic players- actually probably works to the advantage of the old masters. The Masters events ordinarily involve back-to-back, frenzied best-of-three set matches. So although the five-set matches may require more court time, they also allow those vital rest days that enable the likes of Federer and Nadal to reenergize those batteries.

Secondly, the best of five-set format is essentially the tennis equivalent of test match cricket. There is room to lose a set (a session), only for the cunning player to come out on top. Nadal and Federer are more vulnerable to the likes of Kyrgios and Zverev when there is less time to negotiate an opponent. Their experiences have given them that psychological edge, a kind of muscle memory when the games become protracted.

Having said all that, there are three players that I think have the capacity to claim upcoming Majors and capture their first Grand Slam. Alex Zverev perhaps benefited from an early exit in Cincinnati following his back-to-back triumphs in Washington and Montreal. He still hasn’t imposed himself in a Slam, with his relatively slight stature leaving some to question his durability. But the manner in which he won that event in Montreal was imperious, and he could be dangerous should he pick up some comfortable straight-set victories early doors.

Grigor Dimitrov’s victory in Cincinnati was perhaps one of the most comprehensive ones you are likely to see. The power he was able to generate on both sides are exceptional, while his serve was metronomic and helped him build pressure. I think he is ready to emerge from the ghetto of that unfortunate ‘Baby Fed’ moniker. And lastly there is Nick Kyrgios. Every great story needs one: a wildcard, a joker, an enigma. Will he prove to be a red herring this year, or could he emerge from the role of villain and become an unlikely hero?

I think that we will see a changing of the guard in the next year. Although Rafa managed to regain the World Number 1 spot and indeed the US Open, he was soundly beaten by Kyrgios in Cincinnati on the back of that shock defeat to Shapovalov in Montreal. And while the purist in me would like to see Roger Federer capture that 20th slam, I think that the performances of the next gen players in recent weeks have moved the parameters of the conversation. It’s no longer a question of when- queue exasperated groan- will a young gun break the wheel, it’s a question of when- queue expectant nod- will a young gun break the wheel.

Written by Damien Kayat for @Hollywoodbets.net

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