In February, I wrote about Andrey Rublev. Specifically, I wrote that I was concerned for his future on tour — he hadn’t shown much improvement over the past few years. He had made his first major quarterfinal in late 2017, and though he took part in more major quarterfinals over the next four-plus years, he was yet to win a set in one. (He has now, having taken two sets off Marin Čilić at Roland-Garros this year, but still hasn’t broken through to the semifinals of a big one.) The Big Three have pioneered an ongoing era that makes improving constantly uber-important — if you don’t do it, someone else will, then they’ll start beating you and pass you in the rankings. Even if you’re on top of a rivalry, unless you look for ways to tighten your execution, players will figure you out. Just ask Daniil Medvedev, someone who Rublev used to have fits against, but has managed to win his last two meetings with. Sometimes the fun times slip away before you know how good you had it.
The problem’s not just that you have to improve to get to the top, it’s that you have to improve a lot. Rarely is it enough to turn a glaring weakness into a slight one. Take Casper Ruud, one of the tour’s most improved players in 2022. Not too long ago, his backhand was a big hole in his game. He would over-spin the shot and hit it high over the net, meaning he couldn’t hit the dangerously flat backhands you see frequently from Novak Djokovic. Spin and net clearance aren’t bad things, but Ruud’s backhands also tended to lack depth — his backhand wing produced a lot of innocent mid-court shots that served as cannon fodder for an opponent’s forehand. Ruud’s backhand is way better now. He hits those flat winners down the line much more often. But in two of the biggest matches he played this year — the Roland-Garros final against Rafael Nadal and the ATP Finals title match against Djokovic — his backhand still wasn’t good enough. His legendary opponents peppered that side of the court over and over until Ruud dropped the ball short or missed altogether. And though Djokovic and Nadal are as difficult as opponents get, and Ruud’s backhand might not seem like a liability at all against virtually anyone else, it’s those who ruthlessly expose weaknesses who stand in the way of big titles more often than not.
Like I said, Ruud has actually done a great job of improving this year. He made a Masters 1000 final, two major finals, and ascended all the way to #2 in the rankings, all things he was nowhere close to doing in 2021. It’s the players who have stagnated — or worse, regressed — that might be worrying about their 2023 seasons. (And there are several.)
It gets worse. At least for the purposes of reaching number one in the world, a player needs the nature of their game to be incredibly high-level. There are many out there who are great at improving, or maximizing the tools they have, but have games with limited potential. Cam Norrie, for instance, is a well-balanced player. (And he just beat Nadal from a set down at the United Cup.) He’s smart on court. He works hard, he has great endurance, and he rarely beats himself. But he’s just never going to develop a nuclear forehand. His ceiling, his best level, is lower than Frances Tiafoe’s, despite Norrie’s ranking being five spots higher. While Norrie is a very solid top-20 player, it’s hard to imagine him becoming a solid top-5 player. I’d say Hubert Hurkacz is in the same boat — his shaky forehand just proves too damning at the very top level, no matter how good everything else is.
It’s easy to look at Carlos Alcaraz’s comet-like path to number one in the world and wonder if other players could follow a similar route. Alcaraz got to the top so quickly! He was barely seeded at the Australian Open under 12 months ago, then was ranked sixth by the end of the clay season and had finished scaling the mountaintop by the end of the year. But while other players might be able to imitate Alcaraz’s intent to improve and tireless spirit, his game is much harder to mimic. Alcaraz is so fast that he must have been born with at least some of the speed he has now. (Or he went to a great track camp.) His game isn’t just well-balanced, it’s sharp: He can do damage with powerful forehands and backhands, soft drop shots, and at net. Though the serve is the most important shot in tennis, Alcaraz has so many weapons at his disposal that even though his serve isn’t that great, it doesn’t hurt him too much.
I hesitate to call Alcaraz’s array of weapons “talent” — I don’t know how much of his style he sought out through formative years of practice and how much he had naturally. Whatever the case, though, it’s clear most other players can’t compete with his game. Blunt as it sounds, Denis Shapovalov is never going to become as good a returner of serve as Alcaraz is now. Medvedev will never have the same kind of forehand as Alcaraz, Taylor Fritz will never be as fast. As much as I stressed the need to improve earlier, players also have to learn to work within their limits.
All this is only part of the reason why the ATP has only had six different world number ones since early 2004. Throw in the (simultaneous, until Roger Federer retired at the Laver Cup this year) existence of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, and reaching #1 proved impossible for virtually everyone else. Andy Murray managed to do it in 2016, but he had to surpass 12,000 ranking points to get there (no one on the ATP has more than 7,000 right now). And Medvedev, the last player to hold the honor before Alcaraz, was pushed off the mountaintop after just three weeks. Getting to number one in the world is damn hard.
The first reason I’m writing this is to break a long creative drought. The second is because the era I just described is ending soon, and I think writing this could be a good way to center my expectations for the future of the ATP, especially going into 2023. I’m guilty of saying repeatedly that I’m prepared for the new, more inconsistent, era of the ATP. The truth? I’m used to what we have now. It’s one thing for me to say I’m ready for the new era and another for me not to tweet, “this is the first time a player who isn’t a generational great has won a major since…” as soon as someone besides Djokovic, Nadal, or Alcaraz wins a big one. We’re not quite in the new phase yet; Djokovic and Nadal won three of the four majors this year and Alcaraz, who I’d bet my copy of Open (this is a more serious wager than it sounds) on becoming an all-time great, won the fourth. He might be a new star, but he’s going to spend a very long time at the top of the game. He’s already acting as the bridge between the past era of men’s tennis and the next one.
But what does the rest of that era look like? Maybe Felix Auger-Aliassime, Holger Rune, and Jannik Sinner will form something of a new Big Four with Alcaraz. More likely? Those four, headlined by Alcaraz, will win a bunch of titles, but there will be significant gaps for other players to grab majors. All of them will spend some time at number one. Ruud will be the next number one; he’s just 1000 points behind Alcaraz right now, many of which he can make up at the Australian Open — he didn’t play due to injury this year. Fritz might win a major and/or get to world number one. He’s improved a lot, to the point that he can win rallies like the one below with Djokovic. I think that being able to win such rallies will no longer be a must for world number ones, because Djokovic will no longer be the gold standard. Not all of the obstacles someone like Rublev faces are going to fall. There will still be difficult matches and improving will still be crucial, but the challenge won’t be what it is today.
Not all of these changes will happen next year. Maybe none of them will. There’s a probable 2023 where Djokovic wins the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Nadal wins Roland-Garros, and Alcaraz or another youngster wins the U.S. Open. Despite Djokovic and Nadal being in their mid-thirties, they still hit astonishing peaks in the 2022 season. But age’s effects are sneaky. Federer was 37 when he beat Nadal at Wimbledon in 2019 and came within a point of beating Djokovic directly afterwards. He looked ten years younger than he was. Then he picked up a knee injury and only won 30 more matches (he won 53 in 2019 alone) before he retired.
After watching Djokovic and Nadal find new ways to stay on top in the past five years, I won’t pretend to know exactly when the next era is coming. But it is. Nadal has lost five of his last six matches; if he goes deep at the Australian Open, none of that will matter, but if he loses early, it might be time to start talking about a decline. Just last year, way past his physical prime, Nadal took part in a series of epic matches — Medvedev in Australia, Alcaraz at Indian Wells, Djokovic at Roland-Garros, Fritz at Wimbledon. He makes the tour more competitive and thrilling, as does Djokovic, as did Federer. I don’t want to imagine the game without the remaining members of the Big Three, and soon, I won’t have to imagine it, I’ll be watching it.
In 2017, after the euphoria of the Federer-Nadal Australian Open final had faded into mild confusion that they were still winning everything later that year, I remember reading a piece that declared the changing of the guard would happen in two years. Two years went by, then two more years after that, then another one, and still the transition isn’t complete. The tennis gods are trying to ease us out of the Big Three era as slowly as they possibly can. I have had ample time to get used to the idea of a tour without the all-time-greats who have dominated the tour for almost half their lives. And I think I’ll still be at least a little bit taken aback when that idea finally, inevitably, hardens into reality.