Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have spent much of the year on the sidelines with injuries and their futures within the sport are uncertain. With the 2022 season approaching, the Spaniard is set to make his return in Australia while the 40-year-old is looking at a late-summer return at the earliest.
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Their absences have left Novak Djokovic as the sole member of the Big Three on tour this year, and he became the man to beat after winning the first three Grand Slam titles of the year. However, even the world No 1 has been knocked off his perch at times this season, losing in the US Open and the ATP Finals as the young guys make their mark.
The ATP Tour has seen a shift in recent years, as some of the younger players begin to reach the upper echelons of the game and push for the biggest titles in the sport.
For years, the Big Three dominated the game, along with Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, who were often dubbed the Big Four and Big Five as a collective.
The five players won every single Grand Slam from the 2015 Australian Open to the 2020 US Open – and more before and after.
While an era of players including the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic were able to challenge the top guys and make it into the top end of the rankings, they were unable to win the biggest titles at Grand Slam level and failed to maintain consistency in the top ten each year.
But now, 20-time Grand Slam champions Federer and Nadal have barely been seen on the tour this year after suffering with their own respective injuries, causing them both to end their seasons ahead of the US Open – and leading to questions being asked about their dominance.
The Swiss tennis star is set to remain on the sidelines for several months while Nadal is eyeing a comeback at the upcoming Australian Open, though many are in doubt over how successful his return will be now he is 35 years of age.
Even Djokovic who has been the stellar player of 2021 – coming within one match of the Calendar Grand Slam and a record 21st Major title, reaching a record number of weeks at world No 1 and securing the year-end No 1 ranking for a record seventh time – has found himself on the losing end of matches at some of the biggest tournaments against the top young players.
With the era of the Big Three’s supreme dominance in every tournament coming to an end, Express Sport takes a look at the five players who can knock Djokovic off his perch and make life tough for Federer and Nadal in their respective comebacks.
Often heralded as the best player of the current generation in their early-to-mid 20s making waves on the ATP Tour, Medvedev proved he was a cut above the rest by becoming the first of his era of players to win a Grand Slam title at the US Open this year.
Not only did he win a Major title – he also became the man to deny Djokovic his dream of being the first male player in 52 years to achieve the Calendar Grand Slam.
He was close to winning a Major as early as 2019, when he came from two-sets-down against Nadal in the US Open final that year to force a fifth set, narrowly losing in the decider, but he still enjoyed a successful year with two Masters 1000 titles, and followed it up with a Masters 1000 and the prestigious ATP Finals title in the shortened 2020 season.
As the world No 2, four-time title winner including the US Open, and the Australian Open runner-up in 2021, the 25-year-old is definitely set to come for Djokovic’s world No 1 crown next season.
Another player who has enjoyed spoiling Djokovic’s party multiple times in 2021, Zverev was two points away from winning the US Open in 2020 and could have pipped both Medvedev and Dominic Thiem to the post of becoming the first new Grand Slam champion in six years.
The German ended Djokovic’s hopes of the Calendar Golden Slam – winning all four Majors plus an Olympic gold medal in a single year – in Tokyo this summer, coming from a set down to defeat the world No 1 in the semi-final stage and deny him a chance to compete in the gold-medal match.
He backed up the win by becoming the Olympic champion – just one of his six titles in 2021, with the others coming at the Masters 1000s in Cincinnati and Madrid, the Vienna ATP 500, the Acapulco ATP 250, and the prestigious year-end finals – where he ended Djokovic’s season.
The world No 3 defeated the Serb 7-6(4), 4-6, 6-3 in the semi-finals and was once again able to back up his impressive win over the world No 1 by winning the title – his second ATP Finals crown.
While the Austrian has spent even more of 2021 sidelined than Federer and Nadal, he was arguably the first young player to really start threatening the Big Three dominance at the biggest events over the last few years.
Now 28 years old, Thiem made his first Grand Slam final all the way back in 2018 when he lost to Nadal at Roland Garros, and made two more – the 2019 French Open and 2020 Australian Open – before winning his first Major at the 2020 US Open, becoming the first new Major champion in six years and the first male player born in the 1990s ever to win a Slam.
He had already come close at the Australian Open that year when he took a two-sets-to-one lead in the final over Djokovic but lost in a narrow final set, though he had managed to stop the Serb in his tracks at Grand Slam level before, including in a shock quarter-final loss at the 2017 French Open for the Serb who was then the defending champion.
Thiem has also proven his ability to beat the top players in some of tennis’ other biggest events and toughest conditions – he won his maiden Masters 1000 title at Indian Wells in 2019 when he came back from a set-and-a-break down against Federer, and defeated King of Clay Nadal on the surface in 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019.
The Greek made a name for himself by beating some of the games top players – defeating Djokovic at the Montreal Masters 1000 back in 2018 while just 19 years old and ranked down at world No 27.
He made more waves by defeating defending champion Federer 6-7(11) 7-6(3) 7-5 7-6(5) just months later at the 2019 Australian Open while he was 20 years old and the 14th seed, and later beat Nadal on the clay courts at the Madrid Masters 1000, before going on to end the 2019 season as the ATP Finals champion.
This year, the world No 4 won his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo before making his first Grand Slam final at the French Open, where he was two-sets-to-love up on Djokovic, ultimately losing in five.
Whilst he is yet to reach the latter stages of a Grand Slam, with his best showing a quarter-final appearance at the 2020 French Open, the young Italian has achieved more success than Djokovic did at his age and was one of the players of 2021.
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The 20-year-old reached his first Masters 1000 final at an age younger than the Serb was when he did the same, becoming the runner-up at this year’s Miami Masters. He was also the youngest quarter-finalist at Roland Garros since Djokovic himself back in 2006, and the youngest player to have five ATP titles since Djokovic in 2007.
The Italian has also enjoyed a rapid rise and, if he continues his trajectory, will be making a big impact on the tour next season to stun even the likes of the world No 1.
He made his tour debut in 2019 and ended the year at world No 78, making him the youngest player in the year-end top 80 since Nadal in 2003, and after the tour returned from a hiatus during the pandemic in 2020, he reached the French Open quarter-final and won his maiden title at the Sofia ATP 250, breaking into the top 40.
His success continued this year, as he won four titles including ATP 250s in Melbourne, Washington, Sofia and Antwerp, and his biggest yet at the Washington ATP 500. He also cracked the top ten, reaching a career-high of world No 9 at the beginning of November and becoming the first man born in the 2000s to crack the top ten. He then ended the year as world No 10 after making his ATP Finals debut as the first alternate, winning his first match at the season-ending championships before losing his second to defending champion Medvedev 10-8 in the final set tiebreak.