A new year, a new decade – and with them, a new tennis season. The trio at the top of the rankings, composed of the three “giants” that are Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, will be back for yet another year. These three were already the leading trio of the tennis world at the end of last decade, showing their exceptional domination and an unprecedented longevity. So, who is the more likely to oust them? Here’s a review of the next generation* (that’s actually already there).
* This article focuses on players born in 1996 and after.
2020: an even better season?
Medvedev: can he overcome the last step this year?
Daniil Medvedev was ranked 16 when 2019 started and he’s now the fifth player in the world. The highlight of his season? His incredible summer when he won his first Masters 1000 title in Cincinnati and reached the final in Washington (ATP 500), Montréal (Masters 1000) and, above all, at US Open. The Russian didn’t know how to lose and won the title at home in Moscow (ATP 250) and another Masters 1000 in Shanghai. A remarkable run with 6 consecutive finals that he eventually felt, physically and mentally, losing his last four matches of the year, including three at ATP Finals. Apart from that, not only did the Muscovite prove that he had the talent but he also proved that he had the character needed, taunting and goading the booing crowd during several matches at Flushing Meadows. Now 23 and more consistent than the previous year, the Russian showed the Tour how dangerous he was. If he keeps it up despite his new position and doesn’t lose his mind, he’s got all it takes to become a Grand Slam champion.
Like him, Stefanos Tsitsipas really broke through last year. After winning Next Gen ATP Finals at the end of 2018, the Greek had four goals in 2019: to break the top 10, to qualify for ATP Finals, to win a Masters 1000 and to make a Slam semi-final. Twelve months later, he achieved three of them, with a semi-final at Australian Open as soon as January which helped him get into the top 10 a few weeks later. But it’s at the end of the season that the 21 year-old reached his peak. Making his first appearance at ATP Finals in London, he ended up winning the title after the 3rd set tiebreaker against Dominic Thiem (ATP 5). An achievement that put him in the spotlight and helped him finish the year as the sixth player in the world. The Greek is a complete player and a fierce competitor, and he now has to confirm his rapid rise. And why not do even better.
Falling down to get up better?
Zverev: back after a disappointing season?
Going from haunting to being haunted, Alexander Zverev has already known it. The German won two Masters 1000 and entered the top 5 in 2017, before confirming his breakthrough in 2018, winning ATP Finals amongst other titles. It was fair to believe that he was finally going to take the step up in Slams but he had a disappointing season instead. Admittedly, it wasn’t catastrophic (as he himself said) or illogical, and he even finished the year inside the top 10 for the third time in a row, but it was far from his standards. He may have won the title in Geneva (ATP 250), made the final in Shanghai (Masters 1000) and reached the semi-finals at ATP Finals, it wasn’t enough to forget his irregularity all season long, his dramatic number of double faults and his issues in Majors. But yet, these few good results in what was a difficult year as much professionally (including the end of his partnership with Ivan Lendl) as personally for the Hamburg native, suggest that he might have a better 2020 season. Still only aged 22, the German has already a lot of experience and has shown how good he is at his best. If he’s aggressive and confident again, who knows what might happen.
Shapovalov: a promising end of the season
Denis Shapovalov’s season was marked and affected by his several changes of coaches. After a good start to the year with a third Masters 1000 semi-final in Miami, the Canadian surprisingly split with Rob Steckey and went back with Adriano Fuorivia, who he was working with when he won Wimbledon juniors. But that reunion turned out to be disastrous. The 20 year-old went through a rough patch from April to August before changing coaches once more and hiring former Russian player Mikhaïl Youzhny. A new partnership that immediately paid off, with a semi-final in Winston-Salem and some good results the following weeks. And it’s at the end of the season that the Canadian really came back, winning his first title in Stockholm (ATP 250) in October and reaching his first Masters 1000 final at the Rolex Paris Masters, where he only lost to Novak Djokovic, to end his season. The now fifteenth player in the world is back on track for 2020.
Who will break through this year?
The 19 year-old reached his first three finals, all on a different surface, and confirmed all the praise he has received. The skilful Canadian also reached the semi-finals in Miami (Masters 1000) and he is now in a good position to break the top 20, when he was outside the top 100 at the beginning of the year.
Alex De Minaur
The Australian had a very solid season, winning his first three titles (ATP 250) in Sydney, Atlanta and Zhuhai. Quietly, the 20 year-old continued his rise and finished the year in the top 20. Hard-working and well-rounded, he’s got everything to go one step further this season.
After getting rid of many injuries, the Russian could finally play an entire season and won his first title since 2 years, at home in Moscow (ATP 250), and reached the final in Hamburg (ATP 500). He also made the 4th round at US Open and beat Roger Federer in Cincinnati where he reached the quarterfinals after getting through qualifying. He’s now close to breaking the top 20 and his very aggressive game can take him even further.
The Italian arrived on Tour spectacularly this year, winning three Challengers and Next Gen ATP Finals (where the best players under 21 of the year play) after getting a wild-card. He also qualified for the main draw at US Open and reached the semi-finals in Antwerp (ATP 250). As a result, the 18 year-old went from 551 to 78 in the rankings.
Don’t forget to keep an eye on Taylor Fritz, Hubert Hurkacz and Christian Garin who all won their first title in 2019 and are just outside the top 30.
As for Karen Khachanov, he didn’t do as well as in 2018 when he won his first Masters 1000 at Bercy. Despite some good results including a quarterfinal at French Open and a semi-final in Montréal, the Russian didn’t reach a single final. Finally, Frances Tiafoe also stagnated in 2019. The American, who won a title in 2018, disappointed in spite of a promising start of the season when he reached the quarterfinals at Australian Open and Miami (Masters 1000). But the two of them have big weapons and can give the best players a hard time.
It’s a long, very long list of contenders. And even if the Big 3 haven’t been as dominating as before in Masters 1000 and at ATP Finals, they still haven’t given in in Slams. But it’s very likely that things will change, sooner or later. Firstly, because those three legends won’t play forever and are getting closer to the end of their career. And secondly, because the young guns are more determined than ever. Far from being paralysed, most of them play their best when they face them. It remains to be seen whether the new generation can dethrone them or will have to wait until they retire to succeed them.