INDIAN WELLS – The Big Four of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray have dominated men’s tennis for over a decade. Analysts have been studying their every move, prematurely writing and rewriting their obituaries for years now.
Discussion around their imminent demise often circles back around to who will be the next great players to replace them; the term “Next-Gen” has already been coined to replace “Big Four” in the tennis lexicon.
Mark the date: Wednesday March 15th, 2017 was the day the Next-Gen arrived.
Patrons at the BNP Paribas Open were treated to a historic early-round twin bill Wednesday afternoon as Djokovic played Next-Gen member Nick Kyrgios. It was followed by Round 36 of Federer-Nadal, tennis’ most enthralling rivalry. After watching the afternoon’s play, I feel tennis is (finally) on the cusp of its next evolution. It was a day where the past, present, and future generations collided.
Federer revolutionized the sport early in the last decade with a blend of shotmaking and athleticism the sport had never seen. He became the future overnight, dominating the sport of tennis for five years like few before him.
But every sport evolves. If there was a laboratory where you could create the perfect foil to beat a player like Roger Federer, scientists would have created Rafael Nadal. Just as athletic if not more, Nadal’s heavy lefty forehand could get the ball in to the one place Federer didn’t like it – up and away on his one-handed backhand. As great as Federer was during his run, he struggled against Nadal, tennis’ next evolution, most of his career.
As that rivalry grew in stature, Novak Djokovic was watching from the wings. In order to become the next evolution on tennis’ anthropological chart, Djokovic had to get fitter, stronger, and mentally tougher as he tightened up a scratchy serve and oft-wayward forehand. He did all that; the uber-focused Djokovic became arguably the most complete player in history. He overtook Federer and Nadal in the rankings, on the Masters 1000 career victories list and in the all important head-to-head records.
As a student of the game, I often wondered: what next? How does the sport continue to evolve? Who among the next generation can top the genius of these three legends? With the ATP seemingly committed to keeping the surfaces slow
( there seems to be some movement on that front though in 2017), it seemed implausible a younger player could develop the maturity, all-around game and defensive skills of a Djokovic (and we can include Andy Murray in this discussion) to supplant them. Collectively, the Big Four has set the bar awfully high for the Next-Gen.
Wednesday, we saw tennis’ next evolution. His name is Kyrgios. The hype has been swirling around the young Australian for some time now but past results and behavior aside, in a sport flush with next-level athletes, Kyrgios has broken
away from the pack and is arguably in a league of his own. He showed that Wednesday in victory against Djokovic (he has beaten him twice in the last three weeks, in straight sets, in his first two career meetings against him).
There was a telling point in the very first game. With Djokovic serving, the two settled in for a baseline rally. Well over 20 shots later, they were still rallying.
Djokovic was taking full cuts, trying to bully Kyrgios around the court. Kyrgios was having none of it, calmly and patiently patrolling the baseline, bunting backhands and rolling forehands back in the most casual of manners. Djokovic would eventually make the error, dropping his serve for the only break of the match. The message Kyrgios sent to Djokovic was clear: Hit as hard as you can, as often as you can. You can’t hurt me.
In that moment I felt an evolutionary leap in the game. The future of tennis is only getting bigger, faster, stronger and more dynamic, it appears the relentless back courtstyle of the past 10 years will no longer reign supreme going forward
Nowhere was that more apparent than when Kyrgios served. Following up his Acapulco serving clinic against Djokovic (25 aces in two sets), Kyrgios played two more against the best returner in the game and not only didn’t get broken,he never faced a single break point.
With first serves routinely in the mid- to high-130’s, it was the second serve that made you stand up and take notice. Kyrgios routinely hit it in the mid teens; an exclamation-point, second-serve ace in the tiebreak clocked in at 126 mph.
With Indian Wells playing fast in the heat, there’s no question Kyrgios took advantage of favorable playing conditions. Regardless, you can’t defend what you can’t touch.
Next up, the much-anticipated Federer-Nadal clash turned out to not be much of a match at all.
From the first point, Federer came out hitting the ball as hard as I’ve ever seen him. Just when you think you’ve run out of superlatives for the timeless maestro, he takes it up to yet another dimension. What was clear from the start was that he was not going to allow Nadal to bully him around the backcourt as the Mallorcan has always been able to do on slower surfaces throughout their rivalry.
The points were going to be short, one way or another. Federer committed to hitting over every backhand possible, slicing only when he absolutely had to– especially on the return of serve. It certainly doesn’t hurt the confidence to rip a few early winners to get up an immediate break. One of tennis’ great frontrunners, Federer was playing with house money after jumping out to a quick lead. He never looked back during a 68-minute demolition of his once-formidable foil.
It is the first time ever that Federer has gotten the better of Nadal three consecutive times. Only twice has he ever won two in a row: Wimbledon and the now-defunct Tennis Masters Cup in both 2006 and 2007.
The message, again, was that you can’t defend what you can’t reach. Forward thinking always, Federer sees that future success lies in his ability to take the initiative early and often, smothering opponents like vintage Federer did a decade ago.
Tennis has been getting taller and more powerful for a generation now. The wildcard has always been whether the bigger bashers could cover the court well enough. In Kyrgios, I believe we have the future: a blend of power and athleticism that could dominate the next decade much as his Wednesday courtmates did the last one.