Twice in the first few days of this year’s Wimbledon, I have been left mystified by the optimism of the BBC’s punditry team. I have heard both Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer referred to as being “in the best form” of their careers, and the odds reflect what is considered to be an open title race. For this year’s Championships curtain-raiser, we had the dubious privilege of watching 30-year-old Andy Murray dismantle 20-year-old Sasha Bublik, who hit 12 double faults and looked half the player that Murray did at 20, despite being considered a hot prospect by the ATP. It was a neat metaphor for how this season is unfolding: a huge opportunity for young players to take advantage of the decline of Djokovic, Nadal’s chronic knee problems, and Federer taking half a season out last year, completely squandered. And whilst the romantics are enjoying seeing the Big Four tussling for titles again, it is a sad indictment of youth development in the game. If we are witnessing the passing now of a golden generation, then what is coming after it has all the lustre of a pebble.
For all the grace, on and off the court, of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, there is none of that amongst the younger generation. Australian trio Nick Kyrgios, Bernard Tomic and Thanasi Kokkinakis – the most talented Aussie players in decades – faced repeated disciplinary actions during their juvenile careers, and now, in their early-20s, there is a hint of missed opportunity around them. That was compounded as Kyrgios withdrew in Round One this year, whilst Tomic was thrashed by Mischa Zverev and later claimed he was “bored”. The big upset from a young player this year was when 21-year-old Daniil Medvedev beat Stan Wawrinka, but proceeded to follow it up with an extraordinary example of umpire abuse, which follows hot on the heels of a disqualification last year for racist insults hurled against his opponent and the man in the chair. Both Tomic and Medvedev have faced ITF fines for their behaviour, and Tomic was even dropped by his sponsor, Head, who appear to have lost patience with his antics.
“I felt bored.”
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) July 4, 2017
For many, the last hope of the emerging generation of tennis (which feels counterintuitive to write) is Sascha Zverev (brother of the aforementioned Mischa). He’s 20 and currently world number 12, but has never been beyond the 3rd Round of a Grand Slam. He has the same languid, rangy style that characterises young players like Medvedev, Bublik and even 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov, who infamously almost blinded an umpire in last year’s Davis Cup. The younger men who play the game in a recognisably elegant way have yet to fulfil their potential – Grigor Dimitrov became 26-years-old in the blink of an eye, and 23-year-old Dominic Thiem, still the best hope of Federer fetishists, hasn’t got past the 4th Round of any major other than the French. I will not countenance talk of Milos Raonic, who plays the game in such a hateful, over-coached manner that he single-handedly ruined last year’s Championships with his run to the final. And even though these men will likely win Grand Slam titles – possibly once the Big Four are sat in their boxes as coaches – they will be, at least, in their mid-20s by the time that challenge arises.
At the other end of the spectrum, the granddads of tennis are continuing to dominate. The oldest man in the top 100 – 38-year-old Ivo Karlovic, the ur-Raonic – is currently world number 23. Federer – Grand Slam champion at the Australian this year – is the 3rd oldest man in the Top 100, whilst Murray, Nadal, Djokovic and Wawrinka are all in their 30s. The only other current players to win a men’s Grand Slam singles title – Juan Martin Del Potro and Marin Cilic – are both 28, so hardly spring chickens. And whilst it’s satisfying to see the resurgence of the Roger/Rafa axis, we must accept that they are not “playing the best tennis of their careers”. They are in a terminal decline, brought about by age and injury – their class persists and in the current men’s game they look indefatigable, but the baseline (no pun intended) quality required for Grand Slam success has been in a steady slump for years.
Spectators at this year’s Wimbledon could well be in for a treat. The Big Four (or Big Three and our British interest, if you’re a cynic) are all seeded to reach the semi-finals for the first time since 2014. That’s a tasty prospect, but it papers over the cracks of a golden generation that ought to be heading out to pasture, and the younger players, who must soon be headline acts at major tournaments themselves, who can’t pass muster.