As the Italian Open shifted into action last week, the state of play in men’s tennis four months into the 2021 season seemed relatively clear. The sands are shifting, just gradually. The previous four Masters events and the season-ending ATP Finals had all been won by players of the younger generation, all born in the late 1990s and positioned by the tour as its future.
Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and even the lesser-known Hubert Hurkacz have all recently hoisted big trophies to the skies while dreaming of taking the next step. And yet, they still seem far from it. When the matches matter most, over best of five sets and deep in the slams, either Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal are usually around at the end and in good enough form to succeed. Unless, of course, one decides not to play and the other disqualifies himself.
There were two instances in Rome where it seemed like the tournament would follow a similar pattern. Nadal had arrived, by his otherworldly standards on clay, in so-so form. In his third round against the 22-year-old Denis Shapovalov, he was down 6-3, 3-0 and facing break points, then Shapovalov later held two match points on Nadal’s serve at 6-5 in the third set. Nadal had struggled under Shapovalov’s barrage of fearless winners, but on both match points Nadal locked down his groundstrokes. He refused to entertain even the possibility of making an unforced error. Both times, Shapovalov struck wild, nervous mistakes, and Nadal eventually closed off the final-set tie-break as his opponent unravelled.
Djokovic started his Rome tournament in even worse form and he faced the Monte Carlo champion Tsitsipas, 22, in the quarter-final. He was thrust into a similar position in a match disrupted by rain and played over two days. He trailed 6-4, 4-2, then 3-1 in the third set with Tsitsipas, the current ATP Race No 1, generating four break points for a double-break. Tsitsipas then served for the match at 5-4. Each time Djokovic seemed to be on the brink of being suffocated by Tsitsipas, he focused his energies and elevated his level. He reeled off three games in a row to close.
Just one of those comebacks alone would have been notable, but Djokovic and Nadal both digging deep to hold off their younger rivals a few days apart was a poignant sight. To them as well; as they edged closer to the final, they came across each other in the locker room on Saturday and laughed about their refusal to relinquish ground to the youth. They are both still motivated and striving for more in part because the other is doing the same.
Their final was intense, filled with momentum shifts and constant tactical adjustments. Both played well, often not at the same time, and Nadal emerged with a record-extending 10th Rome title. For once, though, the winner of the match actually seemed less important than what the overall week signified with Roland Garros on the horizon. They both needed strong performances to enter Paris in pristine condition and, under immense pressure, they found them. On the court, Djokovic was asked if their combined success was a message to the “NextGen” and he responded with a joke: “Rafa, Roger and I have reinvented the ‘NextGen.’ We are the NextGen.”
Except it wasn’t really a joke. Later, in his press conference, asked if he was bored of the subject, he was blunt: “That’s the reason why I answered the way I answered,” he said, smiling. “I mean, I said it a thousand times. I don’t know how many times people want me to repeat it. Of course the NextGen is there, is coming, whatever. But here we are still winning the biggest tournaments and slams.”
In a sport that can often see players opt for modesty over, perhaps, reality, Djokovic’s bluntness was welcome. He may respect the younger players’ abilities and welcome their challenges but his goal is to crush them for as long as he can. So far, he and his rivals have done so admirably when it matters. Djokovic’s irritation is also understandable – since the emergence of the ATP’s NextGen campaign in 2017, in which the tour sought to market the new generation, the established players have been constantly charged with speaking as much about these inferior young players. Domination can become stale, particularly after 15 years some are seeking new stories to tell.
As the youngsters have failed to break through on the biggest stages, there are conversely others who criticise the youngsters for their ineptitude. The reality of men’s tennis now is perhaps less interesting than that: the NextGen campaign has been a success. The young players are easily identifiable, they have continued to grow and they have positioned themselves at the top of the sport.
But they are also simply not as good as their predecessors. Djokovic and Nadal are vastly better tennis players and the gap between their mental fortitude and that of the rest of the field is the size of a canyon. Age has left its mark on them – their athleticism has naturally waned, their bodies are no longer fit to contest 100 matches per year and they are far removed from their peaks. Their success is unprecedented and it has endured because of their willingness to continue improving, adjusting and adapting their games over the years.
The shift will eventually come, but Nadal and Djokovic are committed to maintaining their spot at the top table as long as it lasts. Their performances in Rome were an affirmation that they remain the story of men’s tennis for now.