And remarkably, the same three men, now ranging in ages through 33, 32 and 38 respectively, are still the top three seeds—just as they were in 2007.
The trio has dominated the scene in this tournament, in the Majors and Masters, and in the rankings for many, many years. Fifty-five Grand Slam titles, 97 Masters, and No1 in the rankings since February 2004—barring Andy Murray’s nine-month stretch—are statistics that do not lie.
And when it comes to the season finale, the biggest ATP event in the calendar, there have been only two years since 2002, in 2009 and 2017, that did not feature at least one of them in the final. Federer tops the champion podium with six titles, Djokovic follows with five—a tally matched only by Ivan Lendl and Pete Sampras.
But at long last, there appears to be something of a sea-change. While the trio has, between them, won all four Majors plus five Masters this season, there is a very good reason why four of this year’s eight, all age 23 and under, and have begun to show signs of breaking the stranglehold.
It began with No7 seed Alexander Zverev, the defending champion, who has now won three Masters titles and reached the finals of three more.
This year, No4 Daniil Medvedev has won two Masters, reached his first Major final at the US Open, and put together a run of six straight finals—from Washington in July through to the Shanghai title last month.
Stefanos Tsitsipas, the youngest of the four at 21, made his first Major semi in January, and has two Masters finals to his name, plus wins over Federer, Djokovic and Nadal.
Matteo Berrettini started the year ranked No54, but this relatively late 23-year-old bloomer reached his first Major semi in New York and his first Masters semi in Shanghai, and won two titles from three finals.
Then there is also the slightly older Dominic Thiem, still only age 26 but building an impressive resume—and never more so than in 2019. He made his second consecutive French Open final and won his first Masters, and one of the biggest, Indian Wells. He has now qualified for the ATP Finals for the fourth straight year, having beaten all the ‘big three’ this season.
And there is clearly plenty of self-belief, and not a little pride, among the entire set of challengers to the old order, judging from their comments at the pre-tournament press conference at the O2.
It was pointed out to them that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have all credited their own improvements and resilience through the years to the challenges posed by the other two. Did the new quartet see the same dynamic among their own ranks?
Tsitsipas, the first Greek to qualify for the tournament, is quietly and carefully spoken, but certainly does not lack self-confidence:
“Competition between us is really important for the sport. We are young, we are just getting started, so yes obviously we want to beat each other, appreciate each other’s games.
“We all play differently, it’s quite interesting to see so many varieties all come in different shapes and sizes. We are the future, we are the ones who are going to fill stadiums with people who want to watch tennis. We are the ones to create a future for our sport with other younger players.”
Zverev is a strikingly articulate and mature man at 22, but made a strong impression right from the off with his first big wins in 2017—at barely 20 years old. He warmed to the theme, though was also pragmatic about the task ahead of them.
“Rafa, Novak and Roger have been great rivals for many, many years, it started from a young age. So hopefully we are the ones, and maybe some others as well—[Denis] Shapovalov is playing some great tennis, some of the young guys who are not here yet, but I’m sure will arrive very soon. There’s a very strong group of guys.
“I think two years ago, when I had a breakthrough season—Rome, and Montreal for the first time—I didn’t expect to make it that quick. I think if you ask Daniil, the year that he had was absolutely amazing, but also perhaps a bit of a surprise maybe for some people, so I think we’ll see those kinds of surprises in the future.
“The other guys are still there, playing the best tennis in the world, they are still better than us, this is the true fact. They are winning the big tournaments, but I think the young guys are improving quite quickly, and it’s going to interesting to see how they will do as well.”
Meanwhile, of course, Nadal was sitting alongside the trio of hopefuls. Did he feel old?
“I am 33—old yes for tennis, young for a human being…
“As Sascha said, it is an exciting moment in tennis, we can see here there are a lot of very young players who are improving. Ones here and not here. That is the normal cycle of life. It is healthy for the sport too. They have good competition with each other, for the next years, they will fight for the same things, more or less the same age, will be good rivalries for our sport.”
However, he concluded, with a twinkle in his eye:
“I am happy to hopefully compete with them—at least for a while.”
Nadal is missing one big title from his illustrious resume, the ATP Finals, and he will probably have to beat two of these three if he is to put that right, and at least get beyond the round-robin stage into the knockout stage. Yes, he wants it, but…
“I qualified more times than I realistically had a chance [to win]. At the same time, I would love to have this trophy with me, but I can’t complain about all the things I did. I am not in a position to ask for more. All the things I’m doing to keep achieving, this is one of them that may not happen.
“But if I am competing well and if I play my best, I will have more chances. I want to try my best.”
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge