US Open 2013: Grip of Federer & co squeezes out young pretenders

Aside from the Masters and Grand Slams, 14 other titles have been won by the over-30s this year. Marianne Bevis asks why?

roger federer
Roger Federer is a five-time champion at Flushing Meadows Photo: Marianne Bevis

The second round of the men’s draw of the US Open has still to play itself out, but already the old guard is showing just what a formidable task lies ahead for the young guns before they can break through the glass ceiling of men’s tennis. And that is ‘old’ both not just in physical years but in years of dominance.

For while Roger Federer has made more headlines at this final Grand Slam of 2013 for holding his lowest seeding in a Major since this tournament in 2002—a full 11 years ago—the five-time former champion has had no trouble in dispatching his first two opponents in 2013.

In beating Grega Zemja, he made 12 aces, won 20 points out of 21 at the net, and made more than twice as many winners as errors, to win in straight sets in an hour and a half—and this against a player ranked 62.

In his second, he faced fellow over-30 Carlos Berlocq, dropped even fewer games, and won almost three-quarters of his 40 net approaches. He threw in a hot-dog, even the odd smile, so much fun was he having against the world No48.

Meanwhile, one of the young men tipped to be Federer’s heir, No25 seed Grigor Dimitrov—also a junior Wimbledon champion, with a rare single-handed backhand, and a lithe, attacking game that, if not in Federer’s class, certainly has echoes—lost in his first match against the 95-ranked Joao Sousa.

Dimitrov was seeded to meet Novak Djokovic in the third round but now the world No1 is lined up to meet first the 32-year-old Benjamin Becker and then, possibly, the 32-year-old Jarkko Nieminen.

Another young player who has made even more of a splash in the last year is the powerful, all-round talent of Jerzy Janowicz, 22 years old, 6ft 8in tall, and up more than 200 places since the start of last year. He reached his first Masters final in Paris last October, falling to David Ferrer, then reached his first Grand Slam semi-final at Wimbledon, losing to Andy Murray.

But the Pole of such promise also fell quickly in what many saw as the easiest quarter, topped by Ferrer. Apparently hampered by a back problem, he was despatched in straight sets by a qualifier ranked at 247: Maximo Gonzalez is 30, and this was just his fifth Grand Slam main draw win.

As for Ferrer, 31 and enjoying one of the best 18 months of his career, he has reached the third round of this his 44th consecutive Grand Slam. Since his first Major, Ferrer advanced to the quarters just five times until 2012—twice advancing to the semis—but has not fallen short of that since: seven Majors, three quarters, two semis and a final.

In fact a quick scan through the seeds who fell in the first round in New York shows a mass exodus of young players variously tipped for great things: As well as Dimitrov and Janowicz, the firebrand Ernests Gulbis, the charismatic Benoit Paire, the creative Kei Nishikori all went out.

Meanwhile, the remaining seeds are packed with names who have been around the block a few times: Not just Federer and Ferrer but Tommy Robredo, Feliciano Lopez and Dimitry Tursunov have all advanced to the third round, and several who are not far short of 30—Janko Tipsarevic, John Isner, Philipp Kohlschrieber—have joined them.

And this is one of many problems that the rising stars face. In the US draw, there are 33 men over 30, and many of them are playing as well now, if not better, than they were a decade ago. Ferrer is one example. Tommy Haas, at 35, was No2 more than a decade ago and is back to his highest ranking in over five years at No14. He won his opener, in short order, in his 16th US Open appearance.

Lopez, seeded 23, is playing in his 47th consecutive Grand Slam this week, and will meet the young player who has come closest to his fulfilling his precocious talent, Milos Raounic, in the third round.

The 22-year-old Canadian is ranked 11, and has proved to be the most consistent of this new guard since he hit the headlines at the Australian Open in 2011 with a fourth-round run. He made the same stage here last year, and in Australia again, and reached his first Masters final in Montreal.

But on his home soil, he was given, as he put it, “a little bit of a clinic” by Rafael Nadal, a 6-2, 6-2 rout.

And here is the other old problem for these undoubted young talents: It is their ill fortune to rise through the ranks in what the US Open tournament describes as “the most dominant era in the history of tennis”.

The claim is based on the statistics of the last six years of Grand Slams. Since the 2005 French Open, when Nadal won his first Major, the ‘big four’ of Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray, have combined to win 33 of the last 34 Grand Slams, with the only exception being the 2009 US Open won by Juan Martin del Potro.

And their dominance extends to the ATP tour, as well. Since Nadal won in Monte Carlo in 2010, the same quartet has won every Masters title except two, 30 out of 32: Ferrer claimed Paris last year, Robin Soderling—also a mature champion, though now sidelined with illness—in 2010.

So if it is not the durability and experience of the burgeoning ranks of over-30s who are thwarting the inroads of the young players, it is the glass ceiling at the very top, though there is a considerable overlap between the two. And there is also a glass ‘buffer’ below them that is almost as impenetrable as the ‘big four’.

Tomas Berdych, at a career-high No5 at the age of 28, is a Grand Slam finalist and playing in his 41st straight Major; del Potro is ranked back at No6; Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, ranked No8, aged 28, is also a former Slam finalist.

And another interesting stat for this year. Aside from the Masters and Grand Slams, 14 other titles have been won by the over-30s.

All in all, then, it’s hard to see any of the new wave having the space to do what Federer, Djokovic and Nadal did—win a Major by the age of 21. Even a man of Murray’s stature, who reached his first final at 21, took five more years to finally force his way past all-comers. Which of the rising stars will develop so fully, both physically and mentally, to match him is still hard to judge.

For now, though, if the young guns think that the stalwart who combines both physical maturity and winning maturity, Federer, is ready pass on his mantle to the next generation, they will have to wait a little longer

In words and deeds, the Swiss is showing no signs easing off, nor of losing the desire that drives his dedication. It was an energetic, attacking 32-year-old, increasingly developing his net game, who entertained the Arthur Ashe faithful in both his matches this week.

And any man who is still willing to evolve his skills, test a very different racket over the summer months, and head out to the practice courts after winning a Grand Slam match—as he did after defeating Zemja—is still a driven competitor.

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