Tennis’ New Guard: Are Yesteryear’s Greats Being Phased Out?

Published: Jan 26, 2023  |  

Football and tennis writer

Tennis’ Up-and-coming stars 

When the twinkle-toed Spaniard collapsed in a sea of ecstasy amidst the cacophony of the New York urban jungle, you could sense something was different. Something had changed. Something was happening. Rafael Nadal was a distant memory. Carlos Alcaraz was the name on everyone’s lips.

The teenage sensation became the neutrals’ favorite at Flushing Meadows, with his characteristic exuberance, entwined with his exceptional athleticism and ferocious forehand, sending the Spaniard sailing into the Sunday showdown on Arthur Ashe.

Casper Ruud—another of the new guard breaking into the upper echelons of the elite tennis scene—stood in his way. The big-serving, hard-hitting Norwegian had impressively steam-rolled his way through crowd favorite Tommy Paul in a grueling third-round five-setter before battering grass-court specialist Matteo Berrettini in straight sets in the last eight.

Alcaraz saved two set points in a tense moment at the business end of the third set, and those missed opportunities for Ruud would prove decisive, with the 19-year-old needing the same number of championship points to become the first teenage major champion since… you guessed it, Rafa at Roland Garros in 2005. Incidentally, Alcaraz became only the second male teenager to achieve a Flushing feat, following in the footsteps of the great Pete Sampras, who tasted success in the City at 19 in 1990. Sampras, however, was 100 days younger than Alcaraz. You can’t win ‘em all.

Because of their recent Slam successes, Alcaraz and Ruud are often the first names that spring to mind when thinking about tennis’ new guard. But there are others that should jog the memory. 

Of course, Felix Auger-Aliassime’s exceptional performances at the Davis Cup drew further eyes to the Canadian prodigy, whose baseline mastery and frightening turn of pace led his nation to a surprise title charge, defeating a poor Australia, who were without their in-form maverick Nick Kyrgios.

Auger-Aliassime, supported expertly by fellow young gun Denis Shapovalov, saw off tricky singles ties with Alex de Minaur and Thanasi Kokkinakis to seal a maiden Davis Cup for the North Americans.

World number four Stefanos Tsitsipas remains one of tennis’ most frustrating stars. We all remember the Greek’s explosive third-round encounter with Kyrgios at Wimbledon, where the Australian’s mind games rattled his opponent to the point where Tsitsipas labeled Kyrgios “a bully [with] a very evil side to him,” before the Greek’s mother called Kyrgios’ mind games “dirty tennis.

 After his exit from SW19, Tsitsipas ended a month-long hiatus falling to a worrying upset at the hands of Jack Draper in Montreal, but his inconsistency was again the focus of fervent debate as he responded impressively, making the final of the Cincinnati Masters, defeating John Isner and then-world number one Daniil Medvedev along the way.

Denmark’s Holger Rune finished the last calendar year off impressively, reaching the final of the Paris Masters and not dropping a set in the process.

Beating seeded opponents in all his matches, Rune ultimately defeated the great Novak Djokovic in a thrilling three-set final. The 19-year-old’s raw talent and determination eventually overcame the Serb’s crafty know-how and winning grit when Djokovic allowed complacency to kick in. That’s what this new guard must develop to dislodge today’s tennis hierarchy. They need to learn how to win nasty, how to show ruthlessness and take the big opportunities—and the big points—in the most pressurized environments and at the most crucial moments. Rune demonstrated that in Paris. Others must follow suit. 

That ruthlessness is currently what players like Jannik Sinner, Andrey Rublev, and Cameron Norrie all lack. When Rublev met Sinner in Monte Carlo last May, the Russian edged out the Italian in a tense opener 7-5, but the Italian angrily roared back, snatching the second 6-1, cleaning off his opponent 6-3 in the decider. It was a heavyweight clash that saw both sides draw metaphorical blood; heavy-hitting leading to Sinner landing the knockout blow after Rublev’s early assault.

For Norrie and the new wave of Britons looking to follow in the footsteps of the great Andy Murray, they’ve had to learn the hard way. Norrie produces his best tennis when he’s not on the Slam stage. That being said, his fairytale run to the semifinals at Wimbledon was impressive, defeating David Goffin in a marathon quarterfinal and showing his mental resilience earlier in the tournament, coming from behind to defeat unseeded Jaume Munar in the second round.

Norrie’s defeat to Djokovic in the semi-finals is reasonable; the Brit’s gas tank was running on empty, with the raucous home crowd sending his every shot for a winner in the opening set.

But once more, we saw Djokovic’s nous. His craftiness, his pizzazz. He picked up his game in the right moments; he reveled in his role as the villain, shutting out the partisan British to send their home favorite packing. 

This year, Norrie made an excellent start to his hardcourt season down under, reaching the final of his hometown Auckland tournament. The second seed at the classic, surviving scares against Jiri Lehecka and Marcos Giron in his first two rounds to regain his composure against Jensen Brooksby in the semis.

However, the British curse seemed to strike again—that almost unspeakable term in tennis: inconsistency. Norrie stormed into a one-set lead but netted a poor backhand on breakpoint at 2-2 in the second, and that proved to be his downfall.

Richard Gasquet, so often celebrated as one of the most elegant players on the tour, grew in confidence. The Frenchman, sporting an uncharacteristic backward cap, began to dictate the points with his trademark backhand—a real thing of beauty—and his intelligent net approaches to smash Norrie’s baseline rhythm to pieces. The tearful Brit admitted that the loss “hurt” him, especially after throwing away a 4-1 lead in the deciding set, but spoke of his increased hunger to win more titles this year.

Kyle Edmund has had a nightmare couple of years. After a chronic knee injury sustained just before the 2021 Australian Open, the highly-rated offensive baseliner knew his season was over. Returning in the Wimbledon mixed doubles alongside Olivia Nicholls, the South African-born Brit Edmund was knocked out in the first round, going only one better on his singles return in Washington, falling to Dan Evans.

Australian Open 2023

In Melbourne, Edmund was one of the British players to be given a tough opening draw. Facing Jannik Sinner, the 28-year-old needed to show his experience if the encounter was to go against the form books. It was something he wouldn’t have been familiar with: so often the underdog, Edmund, faced one of the new guard’s young guns. This was his chance to make a statement and come back with a bang. He was sent packing in straight sets.  

Dan Evans is much the same as Norrie. Creeping up the rankings whenever the Slams aren’t on, the Brummie boy does his best work when the spotlight isn’t on him. Coming back magnificently from a dark period in his life—namely, his failed drug test for cocaine in 2017—Evans broke into the world’s top 25 for the first time in June, winning the Nottingham Open and reaching the quarterfinals of the Cinch Championships at Queen’s Club.

He reached his second Masters 1000 semi-final last year at the National Bank Open, defeating Andrey Rublev and Tommy Paul en route to the last four in Montreal. He just couldn’t go one step further against eventual winner Pablo Carreño Busta, with the Spaniard outworking and outplaying him over three sets.

The new guard of tennis couldn’t be more exciting. With the niggling injuries of those that have previously threatened—notably Dominic Thiem and Stan Wawrinka—the door has swung wide open for the young guns to take on the greatest and jostle for titles that perhaps haven’t been as readily available over the last decade or two. 

2023 could well prove to be yet another turning point for men’s tennis. Ignore it if you dare.

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