Such has been the dominance at the top of men’s tennis by the same names for so many years, that the question has grown louder with every year. When will a new generation break through the glass ceiling created by the three who are still the top seeds at this year’s Australian Open, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Roger Federer?
The signs that such a generation of players is on the march have been growing apace, with Masters titles being garnered by the likes of world No4 Alexander Zverev and No11 Karen Khachanov, wins being notched up over those big names not just by Zverev and Khachanov but also by No12 Borna Coric, and No15 Stefanos Tsitsipas, and with No19 Daniil Medvedev coming up on the rails with three titles last years.
All of them are 22 or under, and all are among the top 16 seeds in this year’s Melbourne draw. Add into the mix two teenagers who have also made the seedings, Denis Shapovalov and Alex de Minaur, and the challenges to the old order were scattered throughout the draw.
Sure enough, 10 players in the 22-and-under band reached the third round, the most in a Major in more than a decade and the most at the Australian Open since the 11 who made in 2004.
And the 10 were split evenly between the top and bottom halves of the draw, but which of them could make that next giant leap to a place in the last 16, the fourth round?
The five in the bottom half would be the first to try their luck, but ranged against them were some very familiar names in the shape of the over-30s generation. Not so fast, they continued to say, for while the youngsters were certainly giving chase, they remained outnumbered by this resilient, fit, confident older guard—no fewer than 41 of them, also split evenly between the halves of the draw.
And a quick look at the seedings affirms what those numbers suggest: Djokovic, Nadal and Federer lead the way but are ably backed in the top 12 by Kevin Anderson, Marin Cilic, John Isner and Fabio Fognini—all of whom have arguably have improved with age to go deeper in the Majors, or pick up their first Masters title, or hit career-high rankings. And that is without taking into account another 30-year-old, Juan Martin del Potro, ranked No5 but not playing this month.
In the bottom half of the draw in particular the generational divide would be played out in sharp relief in the third round.
Roberto Bautista Agut, ranked 24 and fresh from winning the Doha title a fortnight back, had shown his admirable fitness and focus to twice take a two sets lead, but eventually have to face a fifth set showdown, first against Andy Murray and then against John Millman.
Now he took on the huge figure of Khachanov, winner of the Paris Masters and one of those tipped for a Major breakthrough in Melbourne. But it was the 30-year-old Spaniard, who battled back from injury and the loss of his mother last year, to land another blow against the Russian and reach the fourth round for the fourth time, and in straight sets and just two hours, 6-4, 7-5, 6-4.
They say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks: It seems they are wrong. Bautista Agut’s use of angle, flat pace from the baseline, and nimble movement have been supplemented by some net skills—12 points from 15 points in the front of the court.
He would await another of the old guard, as Marin Cilic, runner-up in Melbourne last year, took on 35-year-old Fernando Verdasco, who achieved his best ever Major run in Melbourne more than a decade ago, when he reached the semis.
The popular Spaniard, playing his 63rd straight Major draw, had lost seven of his last eight matches to Cilic, but he took the first two sets in this 15th meeting between the two. Cilic hit back to take the third, and the fourth was in the balance in a close tie-break and with three and a half hours on the clock.
They edged to 8-8 via match-points for Verdasco, but Cilic fired off a forehand winner to take it to a deciding fifth. And he would ride his momentum and experience to a quick break in the decider. Verdasco had chances to break back, but Cilic held firm, 6-3.
Six-time and defending Australia champion Federer, was set to play his 100th match at the championships against 21-year-old Taylor Fritz, who happened to have the Swiss champion’s former coach Paul Annacone, in his corner.
The 37-year-old Federer was aiming to reach the fourth round at a Major for the 63rd time, extending his own record, and this was his 20th consecutive appearance in the main draw—though as he was quick to point out, he had also played the juniors in 1998 and the qualifiers in 1999: Make that 22 straight years, then.
Should Federer win a record seventh title in Melbourne, he would become the oldest Major champion, seal a 100th career title, and reach 100 match-wins at the tournament.
He was yet to drop a set, and that would continue in what was billed to be a serious test by the young American.
In the event, the Swiss took just an hour and a half to beat Fritz, 6-2, 7-5, 6-2. He lost only three first-serve points, 40/43, offered up not a break-point chance to his opponent, and scored 34 winners to just 14 errors.
But he will next be taken on by one of the most charismatic and promising of the rising generation. Tsitsipas, age just 20, tested his idol Federer in their only previous meeting at the recent Hopman Cup, and has the big-hitting, all-court skills to trouble Federer—including a one-handed backhand modelled on the Swiss player.
An indication of just how good this young and still-evolving player is came at the Toronto Masters last year, where he beat Dominic Thiem, Anderson, Djokovic and Zverev to reach the final, where he lost to Nadal. He was also the best of #NextGen clutch in Milan in November, beating all-comers to take the title.
Tsitsipas was joined in the fourth round by another 20-year-old, Frances Tiafoe, ranked 39, and winner of one title from two finals in 2018.
The promise of the athletic young American has been clear for a while, but he proved just how strong and confident he has become with two big wins, first over Anderson in four sets and then against another veteran, Andreas Seppi, 6-7(3), 6-3, 4-6, 6-4, 6-3.
That set an intriguing fourth-round match-up with No20 seed Grigor Dimitrov, a semi-finalist in Australia in 2017, for a contest between two energetic players able to take the match to the front of the court.
Seppi himself had started the season well, not least in reaching the final in Sydney a fortnight back. He lost to the teenage Aussie de Minaur, and the 19-year-old completed the youthful line-up on Day 5 in Melbourne. But his was always going to be a mountain to climb.
For de Minaur would face 2009 champion Nadal, whose feathers had barely been ruffled by his first two Aussie opponents. In contrast, de Minaur’s schedule had been brutal: He played his first match the day after winning in Sydney, and his second match went to a marathon five sets against Henri Laaksonen.
Nadal arrived fresh in Melbourne after a long lay-off, rehab and training block, with a flatter, harder serve and looking as fit as he ever has. And his assault on the teenager was relentless: de Minaur’s speed of foot and flexibility of game proved no match for the speed and power combination of the Spaniard.
In fairness to the Australian, it took almost two and a half hours for Nadal to finish off the straight-sets win, 6-1, 6-2, 6-4, for there were many games that extended to 10 minutes or more. The last game of all, indeed, brought a flurry of superb rallies and closing shots from de Minaur to threaten a break, but Nadal’s serving and fearsome forehand brooked no such comeback.
He went on to claim his 250th Major match-win, and is looking a very strong contender to become the first man in the Open era—and only the third man in history—to win each of the four Majors twice, equalling the achievement of Roy Emerson and Rod Laver.
His next opponent? A resurgent Tomas Berdych, making waves again after an injury-blighted 2018, at the age of 33. Unseeded, he has proven his credentials with wins over No13 seed Kyle Edmund and No18 seed Diego Schwartzman, made the finals in Doha ahead of Australia, and is a former semi-finalist in Melbourne.
It was a day, then, that concluded with five of the eight fourth-round contenders being aged 30 or over, but two of them under 22.
And the top half of the draw will bring five more young players to court to try their luck. Can 19-year-old Shapovalov beat Djokovic? Even with the Canadian’s fire-power and energy, it looks a lost cause against the six-time champion and world No1.
But the other contenders have better prospects. Zverev should beat Aussie wild card Alex Bolt, especially after Bolt’s five-set marathon against Gilles Simon. The ever-improving Coric should also get the better of Filip Krajinovic, though Medvedev may find David Goffin a tougher proposition. But joy would be unconfined in Australia if the lowest ranked, No149 Alexei Popyrin, could get past No28 seed Lucas Pouille.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge