By Max Rabin ‘22 and Charlie Lebwohl ‘23, Contributing Writers
After Rafael Nadal dominated Novak Djokovic in straight sets at the French Open this year, it didn’t seem like The Big Three — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic — were going anywhere anytime soon. But in the U.S Open, with Federer and Nadal opting out and Djokovic being disqualified from the tournament after “unintentionally” hitting a ball directly at a linesman, the next generation had a window of opportunity to shine.
Emerging from the pack and into the final were Austrian player Dominic Thiem and German player Alexander Zverev. Thiem, who is especially at home on the clay court but still nowhere near Nadal, plays an aggressively athletic game with a beautiful one-handed backhand and a vicious kick serve. Zverev, standing at a lanky 6’6”, has a powerful baseline game, and his long arms give him an advantage at net. With all the pressure on these two young players, the match was closely contested. Thiem clawed his way back from being down two sets to force a fifth. In the past, Zverev has had trouble closing out matches, and this match was no exception. In the fifth set, after dropping two sets in a row, Zverev mentally collapsed. His body language implied defeat even though the match wasn’t over. While he was down match-point and an emotional mess, Zverev tapped in a 68 miles per hour second serve. He was really “pushing” his luck with that one. Although Thiem, who collapsed in the fifth set because of a vicious cramp in his thigh, was initially unable to capitalize on that second serve, he managed to eke out the win. However, we must ask a question: Would Thiem have won the tournament if Djokovic had not been suspended?
The answer is probably not. The way the level of play dropped in the fifth set raises serious questions about the next generation of tennis players. Do they have the stamina and killer instincts found in Djokovic, Nadal and Federer to truly dominate the tennis landscape like these three players have for so long? After the U.S Open, Stefanos Tsitsipas, the “Greek Freak” of tennis, faced Djokovic in the French Open semifinals. After tying the match at two sets all, Stefanos was drained, having drawn on the last bit of his stamina to take the match to a fifth set. Djokovic, by comparison, looked as though he hadn’t even broken a sweat, drop-shotting Tsitsipas with ease and running circles around him on the court. Halfway through the fifth set, Tsitsipas could hardly move. He showed signs of fatigue and had all but given up. He didn’t even run to the ball on some of Djokovic’s gettable shots.
Just for a moment, after the US Open, it seemed like the young players were ready to take on The Big Three. Just for a moment, they showed signs of hunger to be the best. But once the draws returned to normalcy, the illusion was shattered. If young players want to rise above the current best of the best, they need to play with their all for the entire duration of the match, no matter how tired they are.