X

Alexander Zverev next in line to end Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer dominance but it has to happen soon

Sport360's Stuart Appleby looks at whether there are any pretenders to the thrones of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer

Stuart Appleby 2018/06/11

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have won the past six Grand Slam titles between them – three each.

The likelihood of that becoming seven when Wimbledon rolls around next month is a distinct possibility, too.

Perhaps Nadal, aged 32, and Federer who turns 37 in August, will toss a coin for it.

Back in 2006, they also shared six consecutive major titles in a row. It’s quite a feat they have repeated the trick.

The fact they have done it again illustrates their lengthy dominance at the top of the men’s game, heightened to a degree by Novak Djokovic‘s decline and Andy Murray’s injury woes ever since the start of the 2017 season when he became World No1.

Stan Wawrinka, a man who has won three major titles but has lost more matches than he has won this year, at 33, looks like a spent force as well.

The career narratives of Nadal and Federer, more so than most, are very well known. The real question is where are the contenders, pretenders, whatever way you want to phrase it, to first challenge tennis’ grandest two stars and overtake them?

Before the Swiss’s resurgence last year and the Spaniard’s freakish ability to battle back from long-term injury, this was the debate in the men’s game on a weekly basis. It’s since gone a bit quiet.

Dominic Thiem, who was faced with the unenviable task of dethroning Nadal’s bid for an 11th French Open title at Roland Garros on Sunday, cannot be criticised for losing to the King of Clay.

However, a straight-sets drubbing, in which he didn’t really seem to land much of a glove until the dying embers, was anti-climatic given at 24, it was his first major final and the first time he had gone beyond the fourth-round of a slam.

The Austrian, who has a winning head-to-head against Federer and has beaten all members of the big four, is a major champion in the making but you fear, if it doesn’t come soon, it may never happen.

In the sport, multiple and serial Grand Slam winners land that knockout blow early. Federer won his first (at Wimbledon in 2003) aged 21 and Nadal was still only a teenager when he triumphed on the red dirt in Paris in 2005. Djokovic, too, was 21 when he secured the title in Australia three years after that.

The greats before them followed similar trajectory in turning potential into the real major deal quickly: Pete Sampras (aged 19), Boris Becker (17) and Bjorn Borg (18). The list goes on. Most careers, particularly on the men’s side, are top-heavy with slams – bar Federer and Nadal – and it is a path you need to tread quickly.

Thiem’s time has to arrive sooner rather than later but Alexander Zverev, who stands at number three behind Nadal and Federer in the rankings, is the man with the all-round package to become that breakthrough champion and perhaps the new face of men’s tennis moving forward. Still only 21, he has time on his side but needs to rise to the occasion more often after some poor major showings.

Elsewhere, Grigor Dimitrov, now 27 and nicknamed ‘Baby Fed’, was often touted to become that man. His triumph in last November’s ATP World Tour Finals seemed like the big moment he was searching for but his 2018 season has been all-but miserable.

A 19-year-old Nadal beat Mariano Puerta to win Roland Garros in 2005.

An 18-11 win-loss ratio for the World No5 has meant he’s been unable to follow that up.

Perhaps the issue for the #NextGen – the tag the ATP World Tour have labelled the new breed of tennis stars with and even named a tournament after – is more mental. Rightly, they should show respect to Federer and Nadal but perhaps, at times, they have shown too much.

You get the feeling – given many of the aforementioned names have got to know the great two well through events like the Laver Cup – that they are happy to share the moment, share the stage with legends, rather than copycat their ruthless cutting edge.

The use of super coaches, like Djokovic and Murray have appointed in the past with Becker and Ivan Lendl, could be a ploy to turn back to and did break up Federer’s monopoly certainly. Let’s not forget the Serbian has won 12 slams and is a legend of the game.

But, that doesn’t work with everyone and they are once in a generation players. Milos Raonic, for all the powerful aspects of his game, could not reach that level. He benefited from the bounce effect of having someone like John McEnroe in his corner for the grass-court summer of 2016 but at the age of 27 looks like a man whose chances have passed.

Milos Raonic and John McEnroe worked with each other in the summer of 2016.

While the mercurial talents of Juan Martin del Potro should be excused from any lists given his luckless fortune with injuries (he would have surely had many more slams if that had not been the case), he leads a bracket of stars along with Marin Cilic (a US Open champion), David Goffin, Kevin Anderson, Sam Querrey and John Isner all in or entering their late 20s, or early 30s.

Then there’s Nick Kyrgios, another man in the equation. The fact he possesses more talent than most makes it a crime he hasn’t made best use of it.

For all the options, no one stands out to take on the Nadal-Federer mantle. Given the pair look likely to stick around for a bit longer yet, it is a pretty ominous sign for the rest.

We Recommend
Related Tags
Andy Murray Boris Becker Dominic Thiem French Open Milos Raonic Novak Djokovic Pete Sampras Wimbledon