One of the features of the modern era of tennis is the dominance of the sport by the purported ‘Big Four’ of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. This dominance, stretching back to 2003 Wimbledon where Federer won his first Grand Slam, has turned them into a sort of ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ for the rest of the male tennis-playing world. As such, players as talented as David Nalbandian or Nikolai Davydenko never won a Grand Slam, while Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga see their chances dwindle, is testament not only to the dominance of the “Big Four”, but also to a pervasive lack of mental strength in men’s tennis in recent years, when it comes to crossing the final hurdles and winning the big titles.
When the first generation of players born in the 1990s came around, it appeared as though finally tennis was going to get a new generation of champions. Milos Raonic (b.1990) and Grigor Dimitrov (b.1991) were being touted as future world No.1s after their early performances. However, it was Kei Nishikori, though born in 1989, who made the first major breakthrough, defeating an in-form Novak Djokovic in the semi-finals of the 2014 US Open to set up a title match with Marin Cilic, who was a year older. Although Cilic decimated Nishikori, he became the first male player from Asia to reach a Grand Slam final and the first from Japan to rank within the top 5 in the world. Nishikori’s importance as a player is augmented by the fact that he has opened up tennis to a generation of players in his native Japan. Minor successes such as the Olympic Bronze medal in 2016, three ATP Masters 1000 finals and another semi-final showing at the US Open led audiences to hope that he would only go upwards but never translated into any big titles. Nishikori’s career has been blighted by injuries, and the longer matches he plays frequently end in cramps. He suffered another wrist injury in Cincinnati, following which ended his 2017 campaign prematurely, seeing his ranking drop to No.22 in the world. He has also recently withdrawn from the Australian Open in 2018.
Can Milos Raonic fight his inner demon?
Raonic’s personal demon is self-doubt, but sadly it was a series of injuries that saw him end his season early in 2017. Self-doubt has kept Raonic from achieving his fullest potential despite reaching the very brink. After years of consistent performances, where he would defeat the rest of the field comfortably only to be beaten by one of the Big Four, in the Wimbledon semi-finals of 2016 he defeated Roger Federer in five sets, coming back from two sets to one, to reach his first-ever Grand Slam final, though he was beaten in straight sets in the final by Andy Murray. Towering at 6’5”, gifted with an incredible serve and a powerful forehand, Milos is a master of powerful tennis and has been remarkably consistent since entering the top 25 as early as 2011, evolving a strong all-court game. However, his destiny so far has been to wait in the wings. That Raonic is a thinking and articulate tennis player is evidenced by the long analyses he posts about his matches. What, therefore, seems to be lacking, and can he make a comeback in 2018 and finally become the player he has always promised to be?
All these questions arise in the aftermath of Grigor Dimitrov’s breakthrough year in 2017 where, though helped by a number of player absences, he clinched his first Masters 1000 title at Cincinnati and followed it up with an even bigger triumph at the ATP World Tour Finals, defeating an ascendant David Goffin who had stunned Roger Federer in the semi-finals. Dimitrov, once titled ‘Baby Federer’, for the similarity his game has to Roger Federer’s, has not yet progressed beyond the semi-finals at any Grand Slam, and in 2016 dropped to as low as no.40. However, having finally taken his chances in 2017 and overcome his doubts, Dimitrov is thus far the only player of his generation to have captured some of the bigger prizes in the sport. The pack of young players coming after them, led by the all-conquering young Alexander Zverev, are already delivering big wins. Their youth leads us to believe that the chances of success of players like Nick Kyrgios, Dominic Thiem, Zverev, Borna Coric, Andrey Rublev, Karen Khachanov, Jared Donaldson, Elias Ymer, Hyeon Chung and Denis Shapovalov are greater than their once-vaunted predecessors.
What’s the way forward?
This is not to say that their time is up. Raonic is only 27 and Nishikori 28. Stan Wawrinka’s monumental rise in 2014 at the age of 29, after years of having failed to overcome his mental fragility, is a testament to what perseverance and an unflagging will to win can achieve. However, Raonic and Nishikori are unlikely to win big titles in their current states. Raonic’s defeat to teenager Alex de Minaur in the 2nd round of Brisbane shows that he needs some time and a series of victories to regain the confidence he needs to mount a challenge for the big trophies. The continuing injuries of Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray, coupled with the aging of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, open up a window for Raonic. The next two or three years, before Zverev and his peers, reach their full maturity and physical peak would probably represent the best time for him to cement his legacy by winning Grand Slam and Masters titles. All he really needs is one big win, which could see a floodgate open, much as it did for Wawrinka. But for Nishikori, it seems as though his body is his very worst enemy, and as he nears 30 it would be surprising if he were suddenly fit enough to manage the grind of seven successive five-set matches. However, a few Masters trophies are well within reach, and it would be only just if he ended up winning some. Grigor Dimitrov, on the other hand, only needs to continue doing what he did in 2017, keeping his mind on the game and not the distractions of celebrity life, which have derailed his career in the past. It seems that the hunger to win has come back to him and is being augmented by a rediscovered belief in his ability.
The trio who were once the ‘Next-Gen’ of tennis superstars, for whom the sky was the limit, have now become veterans, relentlessly chased and even overtaken by players much younger than them. That they have the ability to realize their potential goes without question. Whether they will do so, only time will tell. Either way, they are a lesson to tennis audiences and pundits, who only need to see such promising careers languishing to remind them that the surest predictions can come to naught, and that tennis is played not by machines but human beings, for whom success and failure are written in the workings of their minds and bodies, which are liable to do great things or fall apart at any moment. The magic of the sport is in its unpredictability and all we can do is speculate as the wonderful game unfolds on the courts before our eyes.