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Younger challengers now for Nadal and Djokovic

The challengers to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic are getting younger, with Carlos Alcaraz leading the way, says Partab Ramchand 

The fascinating duel for supremacy between the Big Three and the GenNext of players continues much to the joy of tennis followers. Okay, so it is no longer the Big Three but only the Big Two following the retirement of Roger Federer and there is a whole new set of GenNext players that is now challenging Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic for their places in the sun. But if the duel for supremacy which has been going on for the last couple of years is far from over, it is mainly due to the resilience shown by Nadal and Djokovic in staving off the challenge from the growing number of younger players. 

True that Carlos Alacaraz is the No. 1 player in the year-ending ATP rankings and the remaining players in the top ten chiefly consist of the GenNext generation. But Nadal is still No. 2 and Djokovic is No. 5, which is pretty creditable considering that the Spaniard is 36 and the Serb 35. More to the point when it comes to Grand Slams, it is still the two superstars who continue to dominate.

Nadal won the Australian and French Open and Djokovic Wimbledon, in the process winning their 22nd and 21st Grand Slam singles ttitles. Alcaraz broke their monopoly by emerging triumphant at the US Open. And at the ATP Tour finals – considered in tennis circles as the fifth Slam – it was Djokovic who beat back the challenge from the younger brigade and won it for a sixth time, equaling the record of Federer. 

Indeed, a lot of significant events occurred during the season. The retirement of Federer was probably the most significant. It has to be when it involves one of the greatest players of all time and in the eyes of many, the GOAT. It didn’t matter if his decision was not surprising for one felt it was always round the corner. For starters, he had not won a Grand Slam since the Australian Open in 2018. Second, he was bothered by injuries and, at 41, it was clear that even a supreme athlete like him could carry on no further at the highest level. In September, following the Laver Cup, Federer announced his retirement.

By then, even with Nadal and Djokovic still around to carry on the flag on behalf of the older generation, there had arrived on the scene several prodigiously gifted youngsters who climbed into the top ten with their consistent performances on the circuit. A couple of years ago, the first challenge to the Big Three had come from the quartet of Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem.

Over the last year or so, Thiem, a US Open winner in 2020 and a finalist at the Australian Open (2020) and French Open (2018 and 2019), has slid so sharply that he now is out of the top 100. Zverev, a two-time winner at the ATP Tour finals in 2018 and 2021, a finalist at the US Open in 2020 and a former world No. 2, is now ranked 12, following a rather indifferent season. But Tsitsipas and Medvedev still maintain their challenge, underlined by their year-ending ranking of No. 4 and No. 7, respectively. 

More to the point, the challenge is growing with the emergence of players like Alcaraz, Casper Ruud, Andrey Rublev, Taylor Fritz, Holger Rune and Felix Auger-Alissmie. Most of these players were not considered as those who could make it big time. But consistent performances around the circuit have propelled them into the top ten and they can be counted upon to maintain their climb in the rankings in 2023.   

The most sensational success story of the year is clearly that of Alcaraz. He made his main draw debut at the age of 16 in February 2020 and won the first of his six ATP titles last year. A series of notable victories over top players saw him climb to No. 35 in the rankings by the year-end, in the process setting all sorts of records as the youngest player to achieve a number of feats. This year he made the kind of rapid strides unheard of by a teenager in a highly competitive field.

The notable victories over top players continued, only this time there were in bigger events like the Masters 1000. He struck a golden phase mid-season when, a day after his 19th birthday at the Madrid Open, he shocked five-time champion Nadal in the quarter-final, becoming the first teenager to defeat him on clay. The following day he went on to beat the World No. 1 and top seed Djokovic in the semifinals for his sixth straight top-ten win, becoming the youngest player to win a match against a world No. 1 since 2004. He also became the first player to beat both Nadal and Djokovic in back to back matches on clay. In the title clash, he defeated World No. 3 Zverev thereby defeating the top three seeds in three consecutive matches.  

This stupendous run propelled Alcaraz to No. 6 in the rankings but, never one to rest on his laurels, the Spaniard continued his great form, culminating in obtaining the No. 1 spot, thanks to his remarkable triumph at the US Open. Besides his talent and skill, Alcaraz exhibited his staying powers by winning three consecutive five-set matches before quelling the challenge of Ruud in the final. Interestingly, enough both Alcaraz and Ruud were in the running for the No. 1 ranking depending on the result.

At 19 years, four months and six days, Alcaraz became the youngest No. 1 in the history of ATP rankings that were established in 1973. He also became the first teenager in the Open era to top the rankings and the youngest US Open champion since Pete Sampras in 1990. He missed the ATP Tour finals due to an abdominal injury.

Clearly it is going to be Alcaraz who will spearhead the GenNext challenge in 2023 but going by Djokovic’s victory in the ATP Tour finals where he defeated Ruud for the title, the last has not been heard of the Big Two yet.

October – December 2022