Without Novak Djokovic, Australian Open offers a great chance for 'Next Gen' to prove themselves

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Russia's Daniil Medvedev hits a return to Canada's Felix Auger-Aliassime during their 2021 US Open Tennis tournament men's semifinal match - AFP
Russia's Daniil Medvedev hits a return to Canada's Felix Auger-Aliassime during their 2021 US Open Tennis tournament men's semifinal match - AFP

Last year's US Open signalled a changing of the guard in tennis, and not only because of Emma Raducanu's shock victory. It was also the first major won by one of the 'Next Gen' of male players.

Daniil Medvedev's victory over Novak Djokovic in the final last September suggested that, finally, those touted as succeeding the 'Big Three' were ready to compete.

With the world No.1 Djokovic back in Europe following his visa saga and six-time champion Roger Federer out through injury, Rafael Nadal carries the hopes of the old guard over the next fortnight against the likes of Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, desperate to prove themselves as worthy successors.

'Next Gen' is the name given to the end-of-season tournament played by the highest ranking male players aged 21 and under. Its inaugural tournament took place in 2017 as men's tennis attempted to prepare for the end of the era of the big beasts.

Greek Tsitsipas is now 23 and Zverev 24, but 25 year-old Medvedev’s breakthrough at Flushing Meadows will give them, the Canadian duo of Felix Auger Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov, and last year’s Wimbledon finalist Italian Matteo Berrettini, hope that they can show they are able to kick on and replace the dominant trio.

Stefanos Tsitsipas - GETTY IMAGES
Stefanos Tsitsipas - GETTY IMAGES

Their hegemony is clear at Melbourne Park - the last time a player outside of Federer, Djokovic or Nadal won was Stan Wawrinka back in 2014. Seven-time Grand Slam winner Mats Wilander believes their presence is suffocating those who wish to follow: “The ‘Big Three’ are taking up all the room in the locker room, in the press, on the podium, there is no space for anybody else.”

The Swede, who has three Australian Open titles to his name, believes that Medvedev is the Open favourite – even over Nadal - but points to German Zverev who won Olympic gold in Tokyo as being just behind and puts Tsitsipas as marginally below.

However, he feels there are psychological blocks in the way for all three.

“Medvedev is the one who is best equipped to deal with [coming out of the shadow of the Big Three]. Not only is it because he has won a Grand Slam at the US Open. I think emotionally, he is very stable, he doesn’t go up and down as much as Tsitsipas.

“Then you have Zverev who is somewhere in between in terms of controlling his emotions. He has the biggest game of all of them because his serve is absolutely huge. He has to understand his worst tennis is good enough to beat most of the tennis players in the world.

“He has a maturity process emotionally that hasn’t quite caught up to the best players but he is getting there.

“If Stefanos can get his emotions in control – I think he has this need to win tennis matches and a need to be among the best tennis players in the world. Daniil is a little more relaxed, which makes him better in many ways.”

Wilander is not surprised it has taken time for players to believe they can beat players who would have seemed invincible to them.

“They were teenagers watching them on television and now suddenly they are on the same court and they are thinking ‘you want me to beat one of the best three players of all time, I can’t do that.’

“It takes a little time for them to understand their physical level is at the same as the Big Three. I think now we have realised the next generation are as good – in fact they are stronger athletes, they are taller, they hit the ball harder, they serve harder.”

Former world No.7 Austrian Barbara Schett, who works with Wilander on Australian Open broadcaster Eurosport, is confident tennis will survive a new generation taking over.

“It is exciting because these three all have different game styles," she said. “They are all completely different personalities and I think that keeps men’s tennis exciting. We don’t have to worry once Federer, Nadal and Djokovic retire – tennis will be in good hands.”

Schett provides fascinating detail into the personalities of the three she sees as being the stars of 2022.

Medvedev "can get a bit angry" when the crowd are not on his side but she describes him as "a smart guy with a great sense of humour" and his play as "unbelievable, so unorthodox and so different to anybody else".

Zverev has been the most controversial of the 'Next Gen', including allegations of domestic abuse, which he strongly denies. “He can come across to some people as too cocky on the court but he is a very laid-back guy," said Schett. "Nothing makes him nervous, he is always late.

 Alexander Zverev - GETTY IMAGES
Alexander Zverev - GETTY IMAGES

“I think he is a good guy; a lot of people might not think so because of the way he walks around on the court. He is very close to his family with his dad coaching him and his brother with him all the time. He is a family person and that makes him who he is.”

Tsitsipas, meanwhile, "is a philosopher outside the court, he thinks a lot about how he wants to be not just as a tennis player but as a human being”.

It is not just this trio, however, to watch out for. Spanish 18 year-old Carlos Alcaraz and 20 year-old Italian Jannik Sinner are among those also hoping to have an impact. The future of tennis starts now.


Watch the Australian Open live on discovery+ ,Eurosport and the Eurosport app

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