For only the second time since 2003, none of the Big Three of men’s tennis—Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer— will be appearing in the quarter-finals of the US Open. Age and injuries slowed down Nadal just enough for rising American star Frances Tiafoe to take him down in the fourth round. Djokovic was unable to participate for his refusal to be vaccinated against covid, and 41-year-old Federer hasn’t played competitive tennis since his loss in the Wimbledon 2021 quarter-finals.
A change of guard has been imminent this year. But Nadal defied the odds to win the Australian Open and French Open after missing the second half of last year to recover from ankle surgery. He then had to pull out of the Wimbledon semi-finals after tearing an abdomen muscle during his epic five-set quarter-final victory over another rising American, Taylor Fritz.
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The victory over Fritz was another instance of the 36-year-old Spaniard’s indomitable spirit that makes him the holder of a record 22 Grand Slam titles. But the US Open proved a bridge too far as he had to modify his service after the new injury. He lowered the point of impact to reduce the strain on his abdomen as he reached up to serve, compensating for the loss of speed by putting more spin on the ball.
The lowering of Nadal’s level, combined with an elevation in the 24-year-old Tiafoe’s, in front of his home crowd, ended the Spaniard’s run. The son of immigrants to the US from civil war-ravaged Sierra Leone, Tiafoe spent his formative years at a junior tennis centre where his father was a maintenance man. His rise to the upper echelons of professional tennis is no less inspirational an American story than that of the Williams sisters.
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Tiafoe’s push to go deeper in a Grand Slam event came even as Serena Williams, who will turn 41 later this month, bowed out of the game. Her appearance at the US Open in diamond-studded shoes and a sequined dress designed by herself was a farewell ceremony for the winner of 23 Grand Slam titles. She had hardly played in tournaments this year, and it would have been understandable if she had gone out in the first round itself.Once on court, however, her competitive spirit ensured that she fought through to the third round, defeating World No. 2 Anett Kontaveit of Estonia along the way. Finally, Australian Ajla Tomljanovic ended the career of the six-time US Open champion, by keeping her composure in front of a partisan New York crowd.
Meanwhile, Tomljanovic’s former partner Nick Kyrgios was also in the limelight in the men’s section. The in-your-face Aussie pulled off a stunning win over World No.1 and defending champion Daniil Medvedev to advance to the quarter-finals.The six-foot-four-inch-tall Kyrgios, who combines a rocket serve and thumping forehand with deft drop shots and net play, arrived on the Grand Slam scene eight years ago as a precocious 19-year-old when he beat Rafael Nadal in a fourth round encounter at Wimbledon. He has been an underachiever since then. Until this year.
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He reached his first Grand Slam final a couple of months back at Wimbledon where he lost to Djokovic in four sets. Kyrgios was in fact the dominant one at the start of the match until Djokovic subtly adapted to gain parity. In the end, the Serb played the big points better and the Aussie let himself down by getting distracted by his own verbalising. Kyrgios continued his progress after Wimbledon, beating Tiafoe en route to winning the Citi Open in Washington DC and then Medvedev in the Canadian Open. So he has in fact beaten the World No.1 twice this year, after losing to him in the second round of the Australian Open.
In terms of ranking and seeding, 23rd seed Kyrgios’ victory over top seed Medvedev at the US Open was as big an upset as 22nd seed Tiafoe’s win over second-seeded Nadal. But the Australian’s current ATP world ranking of 25 doesn’t accurately reflect the level of his tennis. He has been one of the most dangerous players on the circuit since June this year, when he reached the semi-finals of the Halle Open and Stuttgart Open tournaments.
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As he pointed out at his press conference after beating Medvedev, ATP rankings are skewed in favour of players who play more tournaments, whereas Kyrgios keeps his appearances to the barest minimum required. Being from Australia, he has to be on the road for months on end to compete in the circuit, unlike European players who get to play a number of tournaments that are just a short flight from their homes. Playing fewer tournaments might prioritise quality over quantity, but ranking does affect the seeding and draw in the Grand Slam events.
Thus the Medvedev-Kyrgios match was worthy of a final in terms of quality, even though it came in the round-of-16. Kyrgios had the bigger serve and more powerful forehand, while Medvedev had more staying power in rallies, although not by much. It was a well-matched contest even if the seeding did not reflect it.
The first set was hard-fought, with Medvedev coming back from a break down and both players squandering set points before Kyrgios prevailed 11-9 in the tie-breaker. The Australian virtually threw in the towel in the second set after being broken early, keeping points short and conserving his energy for the sets to follow. It paid off as the heat and humidity got to Medvedev in the third set, just when Kyrgios lifted his game. In the end, the 23rd seed dominated the top seed to win the fourth and final set 6-2. “I’ve played Novak and Rafa. They play amazing tennis. Nick today played kind of at their level,” said Medvedev after the loss.
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The upsets of Medvedev and Nadal, and the 19-year-old Spaniard Carlos Alcaraz’s victory over Croatian Marin Cilic, who won the US Open title in 2014, clear the deck for a new winner to emerge. None of the players in this year’s quarter-finals has ever won a Grand Slam event.
It marks a shift in the landscape after two decades of the Big Three grabbing the lion’s share of titles. Djokovic is restricted to playing only two out of the four Grand Slam events until something gives in the standoff between him and authorities over covid vaccination. You can never write off Nadal but it will be a tall order for him to reprise his 2022 feats, given the increasing toll on his body. And a Federer comeback appears increasingly improbable.
But with the likes of the colourful and talented Kyrgios, the backstory of the speedy and powerful Tiafoe, and the teenager touted as Nadal’s successor, Alcaraz, there’s no shortage of new talent to keep us engrossed. Who among the young lot will emerge as the new Big Three? Tiafoe has the best answer to that: “I don’t think it’ll be a Big 3, more like a Big 12.”
Sumit Chakraberty is a writer based in Bengaluru.
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