David Goffin and Alexander Dimitrov played a beautiful Tennis Masters Final. A particular one, the second, since 2003, that didn’t feature any of the musketeers who dominated recent tennis: Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.
Murray went through an Annus horribilis. After a very good 2016, he failed all his targets showing a lack of motivation that threatened his top 10 status. Nole Djokovic broke something in his “engine”. A player used to press his opponents playing at 110%, Nole’s body sent him messages, as to say that maybe he should slow down. That is why he stopped playing midway through the year, looking more for himself than for a tennis form.
Roger is playing a fine tennis, but he seems to have a limited fuel tank. He won the first set against Goffin in the semifinal, but lost in three, showing a disturbing physical drop against a young and motivated opponent. Rafa also seems to have a limited range. He got to the master very tired.
After all these years of domination from these four players, maybe a new generation is emerging. Though Rafa and Roger split the Grand Slam tournaments, they leave the impression to need ever-longer periods of rest, which undermine their ranking and increase the strength of their opponents in the first rounds of the tournaments, tiring them when they get to the key games.
In 2009, Nikolai Davydenko met Del Potro in a Masters final between two players whose career was plagued by injuries. Davydenko retired in 2014, while Del Potro fought hand injuries to play limited tournaments and not stress his body.
That final proved to be an illusion. The four musketeers would reign for a long time, figthing any tentative to threaten their power.
However, the 2017 Masters could be the first clue that something is changing. Goffin and Dimitrov play a slightly different tennis form the 4 leaders. Goffin varies a lot his game, looking for corners and different speeds. He slices a lot and some spins of the ball rebounded amazingly.
The Belgian Goffin is a strategist- He likes to keep the game in his hand, to undermine the usual higher power of his opponents.
Davidov is more powerful. At 6”2’ (about 1,90), Gregor reaches farther and his longer arm allows for more power.
The first set started strong with Goffin going ahead. Davidov came back reaching the 4-4 and winning by 7-5.
In the second set David Goffin showed the resilience that was so useful in the game against Roger Federer. David is like this. He can change; he can find different solutions, thus balancing the lack of strength. This is how he won 6-4.
In the third set Goffin gave signs of fatigue. On 2-2 he lost the serve and Davidov went to 5-2. On Goffin’s serve, Davidov had three match balls, that the proud Belgian just didn’t let go. After fighting, Goffin won the game and the next game Davidov seemed certain to win.
It is odd to understand why the sports gods decide things. The game was hard fought. Goffin reached the 40 all, but Davidov was able to get and advantage. He served for the match, and an exchange followed, well driven by Goffin who, after hitting a forehand on Davidov’d backhand, came to the net to hit a simple volee. The ball was maybe too slow. It went down soon after the net and landed on Goffin’s racket who should have just touched it.
But he couldn’t. The ball died on his racket and finished mockingly against the net, while Davidov dipped on the ground with tears in his eyes.
Will these two players dominate the future?
Hard to say. They’re not young. In a tennis world that made his fans used to young new heroes, at least from the times of Boris Becker and Micheal Chang in the second half of the eighties, the players behind the musketeers have grown old, waiting for them to go down.
Roger, Rafa, Nole and Andy resisted, improved, and grew old leading the ATP, while the Goffins and the Davidovs had to endure hard times knowing that Roger and Co represented the ceiling of their career. Now they’re around 26, they’re not so young. They work and can improve, but their game likely reached the top and their improvement margins remain unknown.
Alexander Zverev and Dominique Thiem are 20 and 24. Zverev in particular seems to won the physical and mental strength to become the next number one.
It we look at the rest of the Top 100 Tennis ranking, 40 players are 30 or more, only 19 are less than 25 and 10 are less than 22. Those 41 players between 25 and 30 went up and down, had multiple chances to improve but always failed to undermine the power of the best four.
This is an issue tennis should address. New players are the key to get new generations of fans. When Boris Becker won Wimbledon as an underdog in 1985, and Micheal Chang in 1989, the event shocked the world and everybody talked about it. This increased the value of the game, making the new players renew the game without interruption.
For too many years, tennis has not been able to find new leaders. Unfortunately, the players that have been in the middle, lack the kind of personality to lead. Roger’s ability to stay under the spotlight. Rafa’s talent to create a story of his endless effort to hit the ball, have built a story of their own that it will be hard to substitute, in the mind and the heart of the fans.
The thing is, tennis itself, the ATP, should care more about the creation of new talent and help the young who do not have the resources. Not for compassion, more for the interest of the game itself, to constantly renew the stage and put new characters that can produce new story.
For now, Goffin and Davidov made us think that something is changing, but behind the top ten it is necessary to change also the players of the top 100, helping to grow new talent.
This is tennis’s challenge for the future, something the body of the ATP will have to address to keep the interest alive and build the legacy of the musketeers of these years.
Though do not shed your tears yet. Far away in Serbia and in Scotland, Nole and Andy heal their wounds, while Rafa is stitching together the muscles that threaten to suffer under the effort. Roger, on his own as usual, distils his unique brand of tennis, defying age and drinking his eternal life elixir, studying the young and less young who have the illusion to reach him, but again risk to wake up in the new year with the old nightmares.