Before the Australian Open final, Novak Djokovic vowed that if the younger generation of tennis stars wanted to start holding Grand Slam trophies, they better be prepared for him to fight back.
“I’m not going to stand here and hand it over to them,” Djokovic said in an interview with Eurosport. “I’m going to make them work their ass off for it.”
True to his word on practically every point of the Australian Open final against Daniil Medvedev, Djokovic sent the message loud and clear: A generational shift in tennis is not happening. Not yet. Not now.
Djokovic’s 18th Grand Slam title, pulling him within two of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal for the all-time lead in men’s tennis, was as emphatic a message as he could send to top-10 players like Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Andrey Rublev who are a decade younger. Better up your game, boys.
For the next 12 months, how quickly Djokovic can chase Federer and Nadal is going to be the dominant storyline in men’s tennis. Nadal will be favored to get No. 21 at Roland Garros this spring, and Federer is poised to return to the tour in a few weeks after recovering from a knee a knee injury. But Djokovic is a year younger than Nadal and six younger than Federer. Given decent health, time has always been on his side.
The corresponding storyline to that three-way battle has been whether any of the rising stars would be up to the challenge of winning a Slam while the Big Three are still competitive.
So far, the returns aren’t promising.
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The only player in his 20s to win a Grand Slam is Dominic Thiem at last year’s U.S. Open, a tournament from which Djokovic was disqualified in the fourth round for slamming a ball in anger that ended up hitting a lines person directly in the throat.
We can’t know for sure, but it’s fair to say that without that unlucky incident — six inches either way and Djokovic wouldn’t have been disqualified — he’d have been a massive favorite to win that tournament, too. The nervy five-set final between Thiem and Zverev was not exactly an endorsement of post-Big Three era tennis.
There have been some signs along the way that the gap is getting closer. Tsitsipas has made two consecutive Slam semifinals, has beaten both Federer and Nadal in Australia, and pushed Djokovic to five sets at last year’s French.
Medvedev’s progression has been steady. He’s a two-time Grand Slam finalist who has won three Masters 1000-level titles and last year’s ATP Finals and has beaten Djokovic and Nadal in best-of-three set matches.
Zverev has become more consistent making the second week of majors and still has a lot of upside to his game. The next flavor of the month is 19-year old Jannik Sinner, an Italian who is on track to crack the top 30 soon and already has two minor ATP titles under his belt.
But when it comes to Grand Slam finals, it’s just a different world.
Tennis is a highly physical sport, but the difference between the Big Three and the young guns is their ability to make it a mental one in the best-of-five matches with everything on the line.
When Djokovic said that he wasn’t going to just roll out the red carpet for these guys to win Grand Slams, he showed exactly what he meant against Medvedev. Djokovic didn’t necessarily play lights-out tennis in his 7-5, 6-2, 6-2 win because he didn’t have to.
He probed and he prodded rather than resorting to all-out aggression. He hit some balls down the middle of the court, just to see how Medvedev would react. He shifted tactics at times, throwing in some drop shots. Djokovic messed with his opponent’s mind and his body, testing for which might be more vulnerable.
He got the answer pretty quickly. For 10 games, Medvedev was willing to go blow for blow. But once the stress started to get to him, he completely unraveled and started missing shots that for the previous six matches had seemed routine.
That’s what playing Djokovic can do to you. And that’s still the biggest hurdle the next generation can’t quite seem to cross.
Frankly, Djokovic should have been out of this tournament more than a week ago. Taylor Fritz, a 23-year old American, had a severely hobbled Djokovic on the ropes in the third round but lost his nerve in the fifth set and couldn’t finish the job.
But forcing the likes of Medvedev and Tsitsipas to come take it from Djokovic directly? That’s how it should be.
As bored as some fans might get with the same guys holding the trophies year after year, this is perhaps the most interesting time in the whole Big Three era. Because even though they’re still winning all the trophies, it’s progressively getting more difficult for them to overcome their physical issues and the inevitable force of time is making them dig deeper.
Maybe one day soon, a massive, improving talent like Medvedev will be prepared to go blow-for-blow with Djokovic in a Grand Slam final. But if that day comes, we know one thing for sure. Djokovic is going to make him earn it.