French Open 2019: Will youth have its day – Part 1?
30-somethings Djokovic, Nadal and Federer cruise into last 16—again
The numbers are stacking up, and not just in match-wins.
The top three men in the world, No1 Novak Djokovic, No2 Rafael Nadal and No3 Roger Federer continue to top the rankings, and top the charts in Masters and Majors titles. But all three are also moving deeper into their 30s, with no sign at all that they are willing to give way to the younger men who give chase.
These days, it is hard for Federer, who turns 38 in August, to avoid ‘oldest ever’ records and references. That he became the oldest ever No1 just over a year ago was special, he admitted, but he repeats ad infinitum that he has no plans for retirement.
Perhaps his return after four years to Roland Garros hinted at a valediction, but then again perhaps not:
“The body always said yes. It was just a question if it was good for my schedule, it’s the right thing to do. Is the family OK with it? Do the coaches agree? But from the body, I always got the green light, and [smiling] that’s a luxury at this age.”
He took on 20-year-old Casper Ruud in the third round, the son of a man with whom he had shared the French Open draw back in 1999. Federer beat the youngster in straight sets to confirm another ‘oldest’ milestone: the oldest to make the fourth round at Roland Garros since 1972.
Djokovic has just turned 32, and after a temporary dip in results and ranking a year ago due to an elbow injury, the Serb is back at the top, playing as well as he ever has, has completed the Masters circle of all nine titles, and currently holds the other three Majors. And many regard him as favourite to win in Paris, too, to complete the non-calendar Slam for the second time. After all, he came here having won the Madrid Masters and finishing runner-up in Rome.
In his opener, he played the fast-improving 22-year-old Hubert Hurkacz, up from 88 at the start of the year to 44 and with wins over Kei Nishikori and Dominic Thiem along the way. But Djokovic conceded just eight games to the Pole.
He was afterwards asked about the #NextGen, and was full of praise for their approach:
“Fifteen years ago when I was making my breakthrough, I don’t think it was as professional as it is today. You see guys like Hubert or Denis [Shapovalov] or Felix [Auger-Alisassime], or the leaders of the new generation or [Stefanos] Tsitsipas, [Alexander Zverev], they all have big teams of people around—they got everything covered. So they are fully committed, they know what they are doing, and that’s what it takes.”
But this older, experienced and supremely successful trio has shown them the way in maintaining their careers for longer: They have no intention of giving way just yet.
Even Nadal, who is 33 on Monday, and has suffered more than his share of injuries over the years, manages his body and his schedule so well that he peaks at just the right time, and continues to work at every element of his game: his serve is better, his net game more finely-tuned, and tactically he and his team are masters.
Since he arrived as a teenager to win his first title in Paris at his first attempt in 2005, he has won 11 times, lost only twice in 89 matches, and garnered a total of 58 clay titles—the most recent, with perfect timing, in Rome a fortnight ago. He has dropped only one set so far, to the highly talented No27 seed, a former No7, David Goffin.
Until Rome, there had been a few hushed asides after Nadal failed to reach No12 in Monte-Carlo and Barcelona. Perhaps this would be the year for a new name on the Coupe des Mousquetaires.
Perhaps last year’s runner up Dominic Thiem, who beat Nadal in Barcelona, would step up. Still only 25, he won his first three clay titles in 2015 and has gone on to win six more. He also beat Federer to win his first Masters at Indian Wells this year. Victories over Nadal and Federer in such tournaments is some effort.
Or what about the Greek star Stefanos Tsitsipas, age just 20, who is up to No6 from 40 a year ago, beat Nadal in Madrid to reach the final, won on the clay of Estoril, and beat Federer on his way to the semis of the Australian Open?
There is Borna Coric, 22 and seeded 13, and winner of two titles before he was 20. He will take over from Marin Cilic as the top ranked Croat after the French Open, is a Masters finalist, and beat Federer to the Halle title last year.
Also attempting to challenge the old guard in the last couple of years has been No10 seed Karen Khachanov, another Masters champion.
And the leader of the younger pack for a couple of years has been 22-year-old Alexander Zverev, champion at the ATP Finals and in three Masters—two on clay—seeded No5 but as high as No3 18 months ago.
All four of these made it to the third round in Paris, but thus far, only Tsitsipas had made taken the big step forward to a Major semi, while Zverev reached his first quarter-final here last year. Could any of them join the big three in week two in Paris? The answer many hours later, would be yes—for some.
Djokovic soon joined Federer and Nadal in the fourth round, beating Italian qualifier Salvatore Caruso, 6-3, 6-3, 6-2, after just over two hours on a sweltering day at Roland Garros. It marked the top seed’s 10th consecutive year at the French Open and the 13th time overall. He will aim for his 10th straight quarter-final in Paris when he faces the powerful German Jan-Lennard Struff.
Now see: Will youth have its day – Part 2?