On the first day of play at the 2019 edition of Wimbledon, three remarkably talented players under the age of 23 suffered upsets. In the women’s draw, 21-year-old Naomi Osaka, currently ranked No. 2 in the world, lost in straight sets to Yulia Putintseva, the same player who defeated Osaka a little less than two weeks ago at the Birmingham Classic. On the men’s side, both 22-year-old Alexander Zverev and 20-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Nos. 5- and 6-ranked players in the world, lost their first-round matches to less acclaimed and lower-ranked opponents.
Osaka’s defeat is both more surprising and less ominous than those suffered by Zverev and Tsitsipas. Already a two-time Grand Slam singles champion, Osaka is a gifted athlete who many believe has the talent to be a force on the women’s tour for years to come. Her first-round exit is surprising, but it doesn’t diminish her long-term prospects. It’s difficult to imagine the player who overcame the living legend Serena Williams in the final of the 2018 U.S. Open, in a match replete with potentially nerve-rattling controversy, staying down for long.
Osaka and 23-year-old Ashleigh Barty, the No. 1-ranked women’s player and winner of the 2019 French Open, have proved that on the women’s tour being young is not an obstacle to success. The 15-year-old American Cori Gauff substantiated that notion by upsetting five-time Wimbledon singles champion Venus Williams yesterday. The collective achievements of these upstarts have injected a welcome sense of freshness into the women’s game and given fans new faces to root for.
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.)
Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic (the last comfortably won his first-round match against the solid grass-court player Philipp Kohlschreiber yesterday) are the clear favorites on the men’s side at Wimbledon, and the hegemony they’ve established at the top of the game has begun to feel tiresome. These three record-breaking champions are wonderful athletes who have contested a slew of entertaining matches over the past decade and a half. But watching Nadal add to his record haul of French Open titles or Djokovic capture yet another Australian Open crown—as he did in January by thrashing Nadal in the final—no longer provides any sort of visceral thrill. Die-hard Federer fans would rejoice if their Swiss hero were to win his ninth Wimbledon trophy, but more casual observers might treat such an outcome as little more than a case of déjà vu.
With Zverev and Tsitsipas already out of the tournament, there’s no one young player left in the men’s draw who is a safe bet to violate recent tradition and make a legitimate run at the men’s singles title. Kyrgios upset Nadal in 2014 and could meet him again in the second round of this year’s tournament. But Kyrgios is as inconsistent as he is talented and has never made it past the quarterfinals at Wimbledon.
The quick and slippery nature of grass makes it a treacherous surface—and therefore one that can be conducive to massive upsets. Even the normally consistent members of the big three have suffered significant losses on the grounds of the All England Club. In 2016, Djokovic lost in the third round to Querrey. Federer blew a two-sets-to-love lead in last year’s quarterfinals to Kevin Anderson; in 2013, Federer lost in the second round to Sergiy Stakhovsky. And Nadal has suffered more than his fair share of upsets on the lawns of Wimbledon, losing to unheralded players such as Lukas Rosol and Steve Darcis.
Young players such as Kyrgios and the 18-year-old Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime are talented enough to challenge the big three if they can avoid the sort of upset losses suffered by Zverev and Tsitsipas. But to do so, they’ll have to exhibit more mental toughness and focus than their recently vanquished peers. Perhaps they can emulate the examples set by young female champions such as Barty and Osaka and the talented teenager Gauff. It’s time the next-generation stars of the ATP tour learned a lesson or two from the phenoms of the women’s game.
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