By Nick Carter
On September 11th 2022, Carlos Alcaraz fell onto his back in celebration, having served an ace to claim the US Open title, his first singles major triumph.
It has been a few weeks since the match. Whilst it was a good battle for much of it – indeed, a match worthy of a major final – it was the significance of the result that hit more. Tennis history happened in that moment, at least if things go as expected for Alcaraz, in that this may well be the first of many.
On September 23rd 2022, after watching a forehand from his opponent win them the match, Roger Federer hugged Rafael Nadal and began to cry as his near-25-year career came to an end. It was an emotional moment as everyone celebrated the man who kick started the current era of tennis.
Before anyone rolls their eyes, this is not an announcement of ‘the changing of the guard’. Novak Djokovic is not going anywhere; he’s still got at least another couple of years at the top of his game. Rafael Nadal isn’t done yet either, he’s shown that he can still produce world beating tennis, even if there is a question mark over how much longer his body will let him. In fact, we’re currently looking at an end-of-year showdown for the world number one ranking between him and Alcaraz.
Federer’s retirement and Nadal’s injury issues have heightened the feeling that the ‘Big Three’ era might finally be ending. It’s human nature to be excited by new things. We’ve seen it with the previous tennis generations who failed to challenge the supremacy of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. Players like Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev have been hyped and failed to deliver a challenge. With Alcaraz and fellow generational talent Jannik Sinner, things seem to be different. The power of the ‘Big Three’ is fading through age. They are more vulnerable now, especially outside of the majors.
It was even easier to be caught up in the Alcaraz hype on the night of the US Open men’s singles final. We saw a teenager win a major title, a rare event since 1990, and also become the youngest ever ATP number one. There was a sense that the future had truly arrived. As the dust has settled after the event, that sense hasn’t fully gone away.
Let’s face it, Carlos Alcaraz is a special talent. He has incredible movement and power, yet also can deploy drop shots at the perfect time. He can hit almost any shot he wants, but knows when to use the right ones. I’ve seen very few players display the tennis IQ that he has. We’re right to get excited about him and he will be a contender for every major going forward. However, it’s not his generation’s time just yet.
Tennis eras very rarely have a neat beginning and end, despite how fans like to think. If you look at the open era, generational shifts have never been overnight. The original ‘Big Three’ of Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe were joined by Ivan Lendl in the early 80s. Matts Wilander stepped up when Borg retired, but it was still a couple of years before the Americans faded, by that time the teenage Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg had matured enough to take their place. The same thing happened when the golden generation of Americans, lead by Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, arrived as the 1990s began. They took over the top of the game alongside Becker and Edberg, who were still able to compete with them as their careers wound down. When Federer first took control of tennis, and even when Nadal joined him at the top, Agassi was still there and competing for big titles.Embed from Getty Images
It’s interesting to write about this transition period in the aftermath of Federer’s retirement, instead of in the context of it being inevitable in the near future. That’s how it would have been had it been published in the immediate aftermath of the US Open. The fact that Alcaraz won his first major almost as Federer played his last point has a certain poetry to it. However, sometimes poetry is just that.
The future is not fully here yet, but it has begun, and it was confirmed in New York. Alcaraz has risen to replace Federer as the Swiss has bowed out. It’s very possible to say we have a new ‘Big Three’. No one should rule out Daniil Medvedev continuing to challenge or Sinner making a big breakthrough very soon. However, Djokovic at the very least is going to be a factor for another few years, and it will be fascinating to see them clash like Federer and Agassi did or even better, how Becker and Sampras did.
This is a transition period in tennis. Let’s not rush through it but enjoy what it brings.Embed from Getty Images