In one split second moment, everything in the tennis world turned. After a scrappy performance to break living legend and world #1 Novak Djokovic by Pablo Carreno-Busta to give himself a chance to serve for the first set in a benign Round of 16 match, Djokovic decided to do something now famous across the tennis-sphere. Djokovic angrily hit an extra ball from his pocket in the direction of the wall as he headed towards the bench for a change-over and the ball nailed a linesperson in the throat, causing a quick medical emergency and due to a US Open rule, disqualified Djokovic from a tournament he was heavily favored to win. Just a few shocking milliseconds later and the US Open had been turned on its head, its course dramatically altered. With Djokovic out and Federer and Nadal not participating, suddenly someone new was going to win a Grand Slam.
Yesterday we found out who that person is: Dominic Thiem. After an epic, four hour and five set duel with Alexander Zverev, Thiem claimed the title by a final score of 2-6, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3, 7-6 (8-6). It was a match worthy of the stage and was as good of tennis as you will ever see, on par with the three legends that this next crop of players have been trying to catch for years. Though the Big Three aren’t done, Djokovic and Nadal are 33 and 34, respectively, and Federer will probably try to give it one more go next year, this year’s US Open couldn’t help but feel like a sea change in the tennis world. Thiem is the first of his generation to win a Grand Slam title, and after 2019 saw a considerable narrowing of the gap between the Next Ones and the Great Ones, we may be entering a period where the final group has fully arrived. With that concept in mind, I wanted to drill deeper and take a look at the current state of the tennis landscape after this watershed tournament.
The Big 3’s Dominance
We know all about the greatness of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic. They are the three best men’s tennis players ever in some order- that much has become apparent thanks to the last three years, where the three won every Grand Slam from 2017-pre-COVID-2020 despite them all being in their 30s. 30 was traditionally the expiration date of a tennis player, with Pete Sampras retiring at 31 and even the durable Andre Agassi made only three Grand Slam finals after the age of 31. This run of dominance from the Big Three is bizarre historically and it is a testament to their greatness as players, their determination, and of course, the modern training/conditioning regimen. But the fact that no players were ready to take the titles away in 2017 is also a factor.
Just turn the clocks back to the 2017 Australian Open, which featured what may go down as the last great Federer-Nadal clash, where Roger beat Rafa in five to mark his return to glory. Of the 8 quarter finalists that year, they were born in 1981, 1987, 1985, 1985, 1986, 1990, 1990, and 1991. There was not a single player under age 25 to make it to the quarterfinals that year (!). How about the French Open in 2017? Looks familiar: 1987, 1989, 1986, 1988, 1991, 1986, 1993, and 1986. Wimbledon that year? Same story: 1987, 1987, 1983, 1988, 1990, 1981, 1985, and 1987. Oh and guess who the only player 25 or younger to make the quarterfinals in those three tournaments was? Dominic Thiem, the man we are all crowning today, who semifinaled at the French Open that year at 23 years old.
The point of this exercise is to note that the second wind of greatness from the Big Three (2017-now) was as much about their legendary play as it was about the lack of viable competitors. Competitors still existed, but the best ones were also rather old, like Kevin Anderson, Juan Martin Del Potro, and Marin Cilic. They were all extremely good players in their prime but Novak Djokovic at 30 is going to beat Marin Cilic at 30. But what if there was a Marin Cilic-caliber player at age 23? Now that’s another story. Which is where the past three years come in.
The next generation begins to rise
Though 2018 and the beginning of 2019 was mostly the same story as 2017, we did begin to see some bright spots on occasion. Dominic Thiem made the finals of the French Open in ‘18, establishing himself as the best *mortal* clay court player in the world and then took Nadal to the brink at the quarterfinals of the US Open that fall. The next year Stefanos Tsitsipas upset Federer at the 2019 Australian Open and made the semifinals of the tournament, and Thiem then made the French Open final again and this time actually took a set off of Nadal, which should be worth a small trophy in and of itself. 2019’s Wimbledon was much of the same and it gave us another all-time classic between Federer and Djokovic in the final, but since that point, things have begun to change.
In the 2019 US Open we were introduced to Daniil Medvedev, a tall and lanky Russian who looks like if Kevin Durant was white and learned to play tennis at an elite level. Medvedev had introduced himself to the tennis world at the hard court tournaments in August, making the final against Nadal in Canada and then winning the whole enchilada in Cincinnati, beating Djokovic in the semis to do it. In Flushing, NY, he got a bit of a gift with Djokovic’s injury problems but then dispatched Stan Wawrinka and Grigor Dmitrov before meeting Nadal in the final. After falling down two sets, Medvedev battled the Spanish superstar and took it the distance, losing in a heartbreaking 6-4 decision in the fifth set. Though he came up short that afternoon in September, Medvedev’s performance was by far the most spirited effort from any up-and-comer against a Big Three player since a different tall and lanky kid shocked the world on a similar night in NYC a decade earlier, when Juan Martin Del Potro knocked off Roger Federer in ‘09.
Medvedev’s performance took us into the 2020 Australian Open, where Dominic Thiem stepped up and showed his burgeoning talent. After taking home five titles in 2019, tied for the most on the tour with Djokovic, the Austrian defeated Nadal in five sets in the quarters, defeated fellow youngster Alexander Zverev in the semifinals and then had a two sets to one lead on Djokovic in the finals before letting it slip away and the Nole claimed another major. Still, it was the second consecutive major that a Next Ones member took a Big Three player to the brink in a major final and Thiem’s hard court improvement was on full display at that tournament. Heading into the full swing of the 2020 season it seemed as if this was finally the time for the Next Ones to eclipse the Great Ones after a calendar year of knocking on the door.
COVID makes us wait and Djokovic opens the gate
Of course, then the hectic events of the past six months happened and we didn’t get to see what the swing of the season would actually bring. We waited and waited, with Wimbledon getting canceled amid a revelation that they had purchased a "pandemic insurance" policy 17 years earlier (maybe the most underratedly insanse sports business story of the year). Finally the spell was broken with an abbreviated Western & Southern Open held in NYC instead of Cincinnati and then the US Open. The tourney was set to be a test of whether Medvedev, Thiem, Zverev, or Tsitsipas could topple Djokovic, the only legend playing the tournament. We never did get to see that though, thanks to Novak’s disqualification on the hit-the-lines-lady play. Yet, what we got was a real opportunity to see what the next generation of players bring to the table and with it came simply phenomenal tennis.
At times it felt like an experiment, removing the three players who have dominated the men’s sport for the last 15 years from the equation all at once, and you could sense the opportunity. The semifinals on Friday featured a gutty comeback from Zverev, who made his first major final by defeating Carreno-Busta in five sets and then a grueling three hour, three set slugfest between Thiem and Medvedev. That set the table for yesterday, Zverev against Thiem, the 27 year-old Austrian against the 23 year-old German. And it was simply a classic.
Dominic Thiem, heart of a champion
The ascent for Thiem has been slow and persistent. An excellent junior player, he first entered the radar at 22 as a clay court specialist, making the semifinals of the French Open in 2016 and propelling himself into the top ten of the ATP rankings, where he has stayed ever since. For a while, a “clay court specialist” is all Thiem really was, with your author writing the following in my 2018 Wimbledon preview:
“Thiem is the #7 seed in the tourney and he’s also in this quarter, though he struggles on any surface that isn’t clay, going 26-5 this year on it, and 10-5 off of it, frequently bowing out before his seed would suggest when on hard or grass courts”
Thiem still struggles on grass courts but what changed is he went from That Guy Who Nadal Will Curbstomp In The French Open Finals to a serious contender on hard courts and I remember when it happened. It occurred in spring 2019, when Thiem upset Federer at the 2019 Indian Wells tournament, one of the premier non-major hard court events of the season. As a longtime Federer fan, I had been very pleased with that matchup in the finals, because Thiem had yet to prove it. He showed it there though, and followed it up with his strong French Open effort, taking Nadal to four. That was followed by a rough Wimbledon and US Open but it all came together back in January in Melbourne, nearly defeating Djokovic in his most favorite event. It was a legitimately impressive performance, even if it came up short, and at that point it was hard to deny that Thiem was on the precipice of greatness. As previously stated, he had won five titles last year and had made two of the last four Grand Slam finals entering this US Open. Medvedev, Tsitsipas, and Zverev all have great talent but I told several people after Djokovic DQ’d himself that Thiem was the favorite at that point.
Indeed he was. Though lacking in great height, Thiem delivered thundering serves and blistering ground strokes, showing off total mobility to cruise into the semifinals where he ran into Medvedev. That was the aforementioned Friday night slugfest, where Thiem simply beat the hell out of the ball and showcased his one-handed backhand, a stroke powerful enough to get a nod from even Federer and David Ferrer themselves. Unfortunately, Thiem rolled his ankle during the match, limiting his ability to move around the court but he still closed out the big Russian and booked his ticket to his fourth Grand Slam final, and his third out of the last five major tournaments.
Entering yesterday it was hard not to cheer for Thiem over Zverev. Though tennis players, like US politicians, are staying relevant longer into previously advanced age than ever before, Thiem turned 27 during this tournament, which is no spring chicken in tennis terms (compared to Zverev’s 23). And a loss would put him in Andy Murray territory, losing his first four major finals, whereas this was Zverev’s first taste of a major final. Sascha’s time will come but Thiem’s years on the tour made him the most likable of the two. At first it was Zverev who had everything going, easily taking the first set and up a double break in the second, with Thiem struggling to find his compete level. But then he was able to break back and though it wasn’t enough to salvage the second set, he used it to springboard into a strong third and fourth, which ended in Thiem sending the match the distance.
The fifth set featured both players breaking down physically. They labored and Thiem’s ankle clearly began to flare up again, while conditioning problems seemed to wear on Zverev. Sascha was broken to begin the fifth set but Thiem gave it right back and later in the set it was Zverev who broke again and had a chance to serve for the match. By this point, serving had become a disadvantage for both players, unable to get much lift or power as the match rolled up on the four hour mark. Zverev struggled with double faults and began to just tap the second serve over and Thiem’s first serve percentage tailed. Zverev went to serve for the championship and Thiem broke him and then held to even the match at five apiece. Zverev was broken again and this time it was Thiem's turn to serve for the championship, but he too was broken. Of the twelve service games in the fifth set, six resulted in holds and six resulted in breaks.
The tiebreak was a decently similar story, as Thiem got two championship points but lost both on unforced errors to even it at 6-6. However, Thiem would claim the next point and then get to serve on his third championship point and this time it ended, with Zverev’s backhand floating wide and after years of hard work, Thiem had summited the mountain. He collapsed onto the court and would claim the trophy, putting together an epic effort to win the tournament. There is no such thing as an “unearned” Grand Slam championship, even those that go to random one-off winners whose glories are fleeting, the Gaston Gaudios and the Marion Bartolis, but this title was truly and completely earned. To rally from two sets down in a final, to do it with a nagging ankle, and to still win even after going up a break twice in the fifth set, just to give it right back, takes immense physical and mental toughness. The one thing we learned yesteday was that Dominic Thiem has the heart, the mind, and the body of a true champion.
The next chapter begins?
So where are we now, after this tumultuous and spectacular US Open? For one, the French Open begins in just two week’s time and that event seems likely to feature both Nadal and Djokovic, as well as the crop of younger players that showed out in New York. Obviously 12 time champion Nadal will be the favorite for that event, because he will be favored at Roland Garros every year until the day he retires, though it will provide Thiem a chance to break through again, having finaled there the last two years. Speaking more broadly though, it definitely feels like we’ve reached the point at which we can begin to expect at least one of the Next Ones to put up a considerable challenge to a Big Three member at every Grand Slam. It was already that way before this US Open, but Djokovic’s disqualification solidified the reality that this group is ready.
Men’s tennis has waited a long time for a few 1990s-birthday players to become contenders, and we have arrived there at long last. The Big Three will still likely be tough to beat, but as they continue to age, expect more and more younger players to step up and take the mantle. If nothing else, this tournament showed us that the post-Big Three world that we’ve wondered about for so long will probably be pretty damn fun. The past 15 years have been a glory age for tennis globally, with the sport booming around the world and spurred on by internationally marketed superstars who could draw big crowds and TV ratings. The fear for the game had been that after the Big Three fade away we would return to that small window of time between Sampras and Agassi and Federer’s rise, when the sport struggled to find big names and guys like Albert Costa, Thomas Johansson, and Goran Ivanisevic were winning majors. That doesn’t seem likely at this time. There’s a strong core of young players already and others are on the way. And over this past week the young players demonstrated that they are perfectly capable of playing phenomenal and exciting tennis. It just took Novak Djokovic and a ball to the throat to make it happen.
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