Novak Djokovic's challenge to the NextGen: 'Come and have a go if you think you're hard-court enough'

Whisper it with all the politeness of a Wimbledon debenture-holder, but the end may be nigh. The last Grand Slam of 2021 already looks like no other in recent memory, and will have an outcome like no other if Novak Djokovic is eclipsed by one of the young pretenders.

Who can stop this man? Novak Djokovic is going for a calendar Grand Slam and there may nothing the NextGen can do about it.
Who can stop this man? Novak Djokovic is going for a calendar Grand Slam and there may nothing the NextGen can do about it.
Who can stop this man? Novak Djokovic is going for a calendar Grand Slam and there may nothing the NextGen can do about it.

By “end” I mean the last hurrah of the Big Four. Should the Serb miss out on his calendar Slam and is beaten by one of the much-hyped coming men, then that will really be something. And all of us - yes, even including the big-on-decorum buffties of SW19 - will chorus: “About bloody time!”

This US Open has the poorest representation of the Big Four of any major since their domination began. Apart from the Serb, just Andy Murray and his metal hip. No Roger Federer, no Rafael Nadal. Sometimes these guys have been downed at Flushing Meadows, Roland-Garros or elsewhere. They’re not superhuman, after all; it’s just seemed that way. But they’ve never lost to one of the NextGen who’s then gone on to claim a major.

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There was a rare victory at Melbourne Park in January when Stefanos Tsitsipas beat Nadal. Until now, though, for anyone who dares to tamper with the established order, there has always been another from the quartet lying in wait, looking like he owned the premier showcourt, joshing with the tournament hierarchy and seeming to smirk: “Give me your best shot.” Down Under, Tsitsipas didn’t even get to have his duel with Djokovic, the eventual winner, because he lost in the semis.

But in New York it could be different. Murray is continuing his comeback but his first-round draw - pairing him with Tsitsipas - is unkind for the Scot. So say our man loses, that would just leave the immortality-chasing Novak. Just? Ultimately Djokovic may do what Djokovic invariably does and perform that weird self-disembowelment mime, his traditional celebration of victory. And where would that leave the coming men? One year older, one year closer to no longer qualifying as young turks.

Tsitsipas will be 24 by the time of the next US Open, Alexander Zverev will be 25, Daniil Medvedev 26 and Dominic Thiem worryingly close to 28. As Dan Maskell never said, they had better get a bend on if they’re to realise their Slam potential and justify all those pre-tournament colour supplement profiles.

Sure, Thiem won the US last year but that was a slightly devalued title, Covid-hit, with the Austrian not required to face either Djokovic or Nadal who between them had triumphed in ten of the previous 11 majors until that moment. This predicted succession in the men’s game is often called the “changing of the guard” but these guys have been waiting for the parade-ground call for so long that they’re like Buckingham Palace sentries on a sweltering day and increasingly likely to topple through the weight, not of the bearskins on their heads, but of the expectation.

Remember when Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic were the future? We must hope that wheezy, senior members of the All-England Club weren’t holding their breath because this pair didn’t quite charge across the drawbridge and smash down the doors to the citadel.

If they’re not careful, Thiem & Co could slip into obscurity in Monte Carlo, left to count the millions they’ve made from the game but not the majors won. Or, a cynic might contend, if Wimbledon isn’t careful, these guys really could turn out to be the new order and too bad if anyone was hoping for a carnival of charisma.

Actually, that may be very cynical. What chance have any of the NextGen had to display personality when the Big Four have been so omnipresent and omnipotent?

Over the past few years an alien new to the sport of tennis might have deemed only Nick Kyrgios as having shown any, possibly even at the decree of the tennis kings themselves - a court jester with tweeners and self-combustion to amuse the crowds but, ultimately, possessing too much personality to ever challenge the top table’s supremacy.

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In March, Medvedev got within sight of the table. He became the first player from outwith the Big Four to reach No 2 in the world since 2005. Google the Russian and there’s a story headlined: “I don’t see any reason to hide my personality.” This looks promising. Then you’ll uncover Medvedev’s nickname: The Chess Master. He loves the board game, apparently, which is fine, but I don’t think Ilie Nastase had time for chess, nor Vitas Gerulaitis - they were too busy being playboys.

Remember, though, that Federer and Nadal haven’t displayed any playboy tendencies this past decade - they’ve been too busy being elite athletes. So if no one from the NextGen can match the saintly aura of the Spaniard and the Swiss, are there two with a feisty rivalry? Here’s Tsitsipas on Medvedev: “It’s not that I hate him [but] we will not go to dinner together.” Hardly John McEnroe vs Bjorn Borg, is it? Or McEnroe vs Jimmy Connors. Or McEnroe vs his own shadow.

If you grew up in the era of these tennis gods and have been thrilling to the exploits of the Big Four for what seems like forever, you will think that tennis cannot - and will not - get any better. “Follow that” seems like a near impossible challenge for The Chess Master, his reluctant dinner-date, the coulda-beena-model guy (that’s Zverev if you don’t know) and anyone else.

At Flushing Meadows, maybe there’s only Djokovic beating his chest and roaring: “Come and have a go if you think you’re hard-court enough.” But who’s going to bet against him keeping the young(-ish) pretenders in check and at the same time keeping the Big Four’s legend intact?

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