Zverev’s and Tsitsipas’s losses, however, speak to the alarming trend of talented, heavily hyped young men’s players consistently failing to make a dent at the slams. For years, Zverev has been heralded as a player with the necessary athletic gifts to ascend to the No. 1 ranking. He’s already notched several impressive victories during his career, but has not advanced past the quarterfinals stage at any Grand Slam. Tsitsipas sent shockwaves through the tennis world this past January when he upset Roger Federer in the fourth round of the Australian Open in what some deemed a changing-of-the-guard type of moment. When Rafael Nadal subsequently wiped the floor with Tsitsipas in the semifinals, fans were reminded that the members of the “big three” retain a stranglehold on the slams. (Federer, Nadal, and Novak Djokovic have split the past 10 major titles among themselves.)
The inability of young male players to challenge the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic triumvirate has begun to raise questions about what exactly is keeping them from fully capitalizing on their obvious potential. This June, the six-time Grand Slam singles winner Boris Becker lambasted male players under the age of 28 for failing, in his words, to “show up” on the sport’s biggest stages. Becker—who captured his first Wimbledon singles title in 1985 at the tender age of 17 and therefore has firsthand knowledge of the mettle that unproven athletes must possess in order to displace established champions—reckoned that young players today have the skill but not the proper temperament. “It’s a certain mentality, mind-set, attitude that makes the difference between winning and losing,” Becker said.
That mind-set is difficult to find among the ranks of the ATP tour’s younger players. When Zverev lost to Djokovic in the quarterfinals of this year’s French Open, he reacted to the defeat with the verbal equivalent of a shrug, telling members of the press, “He’s world No. 1 for a reason.” This June, 25-year-old Dominic Thiem lost his second straight French Open to Nadal, and in his runner-up speech, Thiem not only referred to Nadal as a “legend of our sport,” but went so far as to say he enjoyed spending time with the members of Nadal’s team while traveling on the tour. (Today, Thiem lost his first-round match at Wimbledon to the American Sam Querrey.)
Such intergenerational bonhomie used to be unheard-of in men’s tennis. Players such as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors spent their entire careers projecting a sense of antipathy toward both older and younger rivals. Björn Borg and Ivan Lendl weren’t as overtly nasty, but they certainly didn’t waste any breath praising the players who beat them. Nowadays, most young players show such a pronounced sense of reverence toward their elders that when Nick Kyrgios took to a podcast and rebuked the living daylights out of Djokovic and Nadal, the gesture felt borderline obscene. These verbal attacks may have gone too far, but they at least suggest that the 24-year-old Australian understands that his primary job as a tennis player isn’t to make nice with the tour veterans. (Kyrgios won a tense, five-set opening-round match against his countryman Jordan Thompson today.)