The Future of Tennis You Might Not Want to See
With tennis’ biggest names acquiring age and attrition, the sport’s youth is set to displace them.
By Jane Voigt
Updated: Aug. 16, 2017 • 4:07 PM ET
Alexander Zverev is one of tennis' rising young stars.
Want a taste of the future of tennis? Plug into the Western and Southern Open from Mason, Ohio this week.
The men’s draw is a skeleton of what it should be, with seven of the world’s top ten players not competing. That includes three of the Big Four: Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, the latter of which has slipped to No. 5 in the ATP rankings. Stan Wawrinka, Marin Cilic (W & S Open 2016 champion), Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic round out the withdrawals, each due to injury.
And although Gael Monfils is not in the top 10, his withdrawal yesterday afternoon was yet another slap in the face to a tournament that began in 1899 and carries the distinction of being the oldest tournament in the United States still staged in the city of its origin (Cincinnati). It’s also a Masters 1000 tournament, one step below a Grand Slam and the last warmup before the U.S. Open, which begins August 28.
The withdrawals and subsequent impact on the draw represent a glimpse into the future of men’s tennis — a future where Federer has retired and Nadal isn’t far behind — a future where Murray and Djokovic succumb to the pressure of, let’s say, Alexander Zverev, the 20-year-old German who beat Federer in the Montreal final Sunday, adding to his title collection for the year with five, the same as Federer.
Zverev’s already ranked No. 7 in the world. Or perhaps in the aforementioned future, Dominic Thiem, a 23-year-old German, will throttle Murray like he has upset Nadal and Djokovic this year.
Tennis’ changing of the guard has to happen. Those top four men are aging quicker than we want to realize. Murray is 30. Nadal is 31. Federer just turned 36 last week, and Djokovic is 30. Meanwhile, the other man ranked in the top 5, Wawrinka, is 32 years old.
The good thing for the sponsors of the Cincinnati Masters is that Rafael Nadal has hung around, the only member of the Big Four still in the draw. And, as fate would have it, he’ll rise to No. 1 in the world come next Monday. The last time he’s sat atop that lofty list was July 6, 2014, but the irony goes deeper. The first time Nadal got to No. 1 was in Cincinnati in 2008.
“(Cincinnati) was the place that I thought I’m going to be No. 1, and it happened in 2008, and it’s happening here again,” Nadal said at the Western & Southern Open on Monday (via Sport360).
Nadal, though, with all his humble enthusiasm for another stint at No. 1, realized that tennis would probably suffer without Murray and Djokovic. However, he spoke only about Federer’s absence.
“Obviously, it’s bad news for the event that Roger isn’t playing,” Nadal said.
Including Federer, the absence of 70 percent of the top 10 doesn’t necessarily make for a bad tournament. However, it does make for one that will impact ticket sales. Hopefully, since many tickets were sold prior to the withdrawals, the immediate effect will be tempered when compared to prior years.
“It’s true that Roger and I are having a great season both of us, and I think both of us will have a chance to be in that position until the end of the season,” Nadal continued. “It depends on the results, one or the other will have that position more weeks, we’ll see.”
Even though Nadal seems the heir apparent for yet another Masters title this week — it would be his 31st — the overall effect of standing alone without his three biggest rivals wasn’t missed.
“Of course we are not 20 years old anymore, Andy is 30, Novak too, I am 31, Roger is 36, so it’s normal that we are not playing all the weeks and that’s happening,” Nadal said. “That’s part of our sport too, I have been in that position a lot of times.
“I skipped for sure many more events than the rest of my competitors during my career. For sure I missed many more events than Roger, than Novak, than Andy. That’s part of the sport, and I accept it. this time It happened with some other players, that’s part of the game.
“I’m sorry for them, I wish all of them a good recovery, we need them on tour for our sport, they are so important, so we hope to see them back on tour.”
The Western and Southern Open is a bright spot on America’s map of summer hard-court events. Mason is about 40 miles north of Cincinnati and as such, represents middle America. So while Federer, Murray and Djokovic rehabilitate, young American stars have their chances to shine.
Wildcard Frances Tiafoe of Maryland won his first-round match. Jared Donaldson, a member of the #NextGen group, defeated the 12th seed and ordinarily consistent Roberto Bautista Agut on Tuesday. Tommy Paul, the 2015 French Open boys’ singles winner, defeated fellow American Donald Young in the Round of 64, but fell to big John Isner (No. 14) in straight sets on Wednesday.
With the bottom half of the draw decimated, the Georgia Bulldog is looking at a sweetened moment to advance. Isner has won his share of lower-tier events, including Atlanta this year for the fourth time. However, he has never won an ATP 500 or Masters 1000 event. He did reach, though, three finals of a Masters tournament in 2016.
None of these fan-favorite players on the trail through the Midwest to America’s Grand Slam can come close to the charge when any of the Big Four steps on court, especially Federer. He has won ‘Cincy,’ as it’s sometimes called, a record seven times. The courts are fast, which suits Federer’s game. To see him win in Mason is to see his best at a smallish venue.
The question is: who will you get behind when the reality of aging stretches across a number of tournaments? When Federer only shows up at Grand Slams? When Djokovic succumbs to his inner dark side and leaves to tend his children? And when Nadal’s knees and wrists simply refuse to hit one more banana-around-the-net-post forehand?
Perhaps that future isn’t that far away. So, enjoy the matches on court this week.