TOWith the Italian Open coming into action last week, the situation in men’s tennis four months after the 2021 season seemed relatively clear. Sands is it so changing, only gradually. The previous four Masters events and the season-ending ATP Finals had been won by players of the younger generation, all born in the late 1990s and positioned by the tour as their future.
Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and even the lesser known Hubert Hurkacz have recently lifted huge trophies to the skies as they dream of taking the next step. And yet they still seem far from it. When the matches are more important, in the best of five sets and deep in the slams, Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal are usually at the end and in good shape to succeed. Unless, of course, one decides not to play and the other is disqualified.
There were two cases in Rome where it appeared that the tournament would follow a similar pattern. Nadal had hit clay, by his otherworldly standards, on a regular basis. In his third round against Denis Shapovalov, 22, he was down 6-3, 3-0 and faced break points, then Shapovalov then held two match points on Nadal’s serve at 6-5 in the third set. Nadal had struggled under the barrage of intrepid winners from Shapovalov, but at both match points, Nadal blocked his groundstrokes. He refused to even consider making an unforced error. On both occasions, Shapovalov made wild and nervous mistakes, and Nadal finally closed the tie-break of the last set when his opponent broke down.
Djokovic started his Rome tournament in worse shape and faced Monte Carlo champion Tsitsipas, 22, in the quarterfinals. He was pushed to a similar position in a game interrupted by rain and played for two days. He fell behind 6-4, 4-2, then 3-1 in the third set with Tsitsipas, the current ATP Race No. 1, generating four break points for a double break. Tsitsipas then served for the match at 5-4. Every time Djokovic looked like he was about to be suffocated by Tsitsipas, he focused his energies and raised his level. He managed three games in a row to close.
Just one of those comebacks would have been remarkable, but Djokovic and Nadal dug deep to hold off their younger rivals within days of each other was a poignant sight. For them too; As they approached the final, they met in the locker room on Saturday and laughed at his refusal to give ground to the youth. Both are still motivated and fighting for more, in part because the other is doing the same.
His finish was intense, full of momentum shifts and constant tactical adjustments. Both played well, often not at the same time, and Nadal emerged with a record-setting 10th Rome title. Yet for once, the winner of the match seemed less important than the overall week with Roland Garros on the horizon. Both needed strong performances to enter Paris in perfect condition and, under immense pressure, they found them. On the court, Djokovic was asked if their combined success was a message for the “NextGen” and he responded with a joke: “Rafa, Roger and I have reinvented the” NextGen “. We are the NextGen.”
Except it wasn’t really a joke. Later, at his press conference, when asked if he was bored with the subject, he was blunt: “That’s why I answered the way I answered,” he said, smiling. “I mean, I said it a thousand times. I don’t know how many times people want me to repeat it. Of course, the NextGen is there, it comes, whatever. But here we continue to win the most important tournaments and slams ”.
In a sport where players can often opt for modesty over, perhaps, reality, Djokovic’s outspokenness was welcomed. You can respect the abilities of the younger players and welcome their challenges, but your goal is to smash them for as long as you can. So far, he and his rivals have done admirably when it matters. Djokovic’s irritation is understandable too: Ever since the emergence of the ATP’s NextGen campaign in 2017, in which the tour sought to market to the new generation, established players have been constantly charged with talking so much about these inferior young players. Domination can become obsolete, particularly after 15 years, some look for new stories to tell.
As young people have failed to break through on the bigger stages, there are others who, conversely, criticize young people for their ineptitude. The reality of men’s tennis now is perhaps less interesting than that – the NextGen campaign has been a success. Young players are easily identifiable, they have continued to grow and have positioned themselves at the top of the game.
But they are not as good as their predecessors either. Djokovic and Nadal are much better tennis players and the gap between their mental strength and that of the rest of the field is the size of a cannon. Age has left its mark on them: their athleticism has naturally diminished, their bodies are no longer fit for 100 games per year, and they are far from their peaks. His success is unprecedented and endured by his willingness to keep improving, tweaking and adapting his games over the years.
The change will come eventually, but Nadal and Djokovic are committed to maintaining their place in the top table for as long as it lasts. Their performances in Rome were an affirmation that they remain the history of men’s tennis for now.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism