In 2018, when 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas won the Next Generation ATP finals, a youth tennis tournament, there seemed a little doubt he was destined for greatness. Tall and lithe with flowing locks and chiselled features (not to mention a popular travel vlog), the Greek looked like being the face of tennis for years to come. Since then he has won several tournaments and rose to number four in the official ATP men’s rankings. But the most coveted mark of tennis glory, a grand-slam title, has so far eluded him, just as it has Alexander Zverev, the 25-year-old German ranked one spot above him—and indeed most of tennis’s rising generation. Of the latest cohort of stars only Russia’s Daniil Medvedev (world number two) and Austria’s Dominic Thiem have managed to nab a grand-slam trophy.
Three familiar—and Big—roadblocks have stood in every player’s path: Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, who have won an astonishing 61 of the past 76 grand slams. To put that domination into perspective, in just the five years before Mr Federer claimed his first grand slam, there were 11 different winners. Now aged 40 and recovering from surgery, the Swiss maestro is fading. But Mr Nadal, at 35, and Mr Djovokic, 34, are not just still going strong; They are winning tournaments and maintain winning records against almost all their younger colleagues. Mr Nadal took the Australian Open, the year’s first grand slam, in fine fashion, coming back from a two-set deficit to become the first man to win 21 majors. And Mr Djokovic, after controversially being kicked out of Australia for his stance on vaccines, and then lying low for several weeks, has stormed back onto court. The Serb blazed through the Italian Open, dismantling Mr Tsitsipas in the final.
No surprise, then, that Mr Djokovic, who is also ranked first in the world, is the books’ favorite to win the French Open, the year’s second slam, which starts on the clay courts of Roland Garros in Paris on May 22nd. What does raise eyebrows is Mr Nadal’s position. Many consider the “King of Clay” (who has a remarkable 13 French Open titles) only the third-favorite. He has been usurped by a fellow Spaniard, 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz.
Long considered a hot prospect, Mr Alcaraz has come of age this year, winning 28 of his 31 matches. Earlier this month he won the Madrid Open where, almost blasphemously, on successive days he beat Mr Nadal and Mr Djokovic (and became the youngest person to beat a world number one since Mr Nadal beat Mr Federer in the French Open on his 19th birthday in 2005). Mr Zverev, after being blown off the court by him in the final, said, “He’s the best in the world.” Some other estimates concur. Although Mr Alcaraz is officially ranked sixth, according to Elo ratings, an alternative ranking system which adjusts for the quality of opponents, he currently has 2,209 points, against 2,171 for Mr Djokovic and 2,059 for Mr Nadal.
The biggest reasons why Mr Alcaraz may succeed where others have failed in ending the Big Three’s domination are his technical prowess and athleticism, which are leaving tennis fans swooning. Not only is his shotmaking superb, but he also seems to have imbibed some of the Big Three’s strengths. His vicious serve, which he does not hesitate to follow to the net, is reminiscent of Mr Federer’s. His topspin forehand attack differs from Mr Nadal’s only in being hit with the right hand. And his ability to hit aggressive shots from defensive positions—even apparently impossible ones—matches Mr Djokovic’s. Moreover, he employs the drop shot to end a point with greater finesse than any of the Big Three.
But beyond their mastery of tennis strokes it is mental fortitude that sets the Big Three apart. Even when younger opponents are able to elevate their shotmaking, they are not able to match the old guard’s relative intensity, especially in the best-of-five-sets format of the majors. Most of the younger players’ wins against them have come in less prestigious three-set tournaments. And just like Mr Medvedev in this year’s Australian Open, Mr Tsitsipas lost the 2021 French Open final to Mr Djokovic after winning the first two sets.
Here too Mr Alcaraz stands out. Mentally he shows little frailty. He has already staged some epic comebacks. On his way to victory over Mr Nadal in Madrid, he collapsed during the second set. No problem. He shrugged off his fatigue, both physical and mental, and dominated the final set—just as Mr Nadal usually would.■