What does the next generation of men's tennis look like?

AFTER FOUR HOURS and 42 minutes of battle, Carlos Alcaraz fell to the grass and rolled over in celebration as the crowd roared. He had just done the previously unthinkable. He’d handed Novak Djokovic his first loss at Wimbledon since 2017 and won his second major title in the process. His combination of joy and disbelief was palpable.

Alcaraz had dreamed about beating Djokovic on Centre Court at the tournament since he first picked up a racket as a young boy. Now, it had come true.

Djokovic had been in search of his record-tying 24th major title and his eighth at Wimbledon, and he had been the heavy favorite to win the tournament. He appeared dazed as he slowly made his way to the net to congratulate Alcaraz, 16 years his junior and now a legitimate rival and serious obstacle in Djokovic’s quest for history.

It didn’t take long for the latest speculation about a changing of the guard in men’s tennis to begin. While Alcaraz didn’t add further fuel to that narrative during his news conference soon after, he did acknowledge the significance of what he had achieved for himself and his peers.

“It’s great for the new generation as well, I think, to see me beating him and making them think that they are capable to do it as well,” Alcaraz said after the match. “It’s great for me and I think for [all] the young players.”

But while others might have thought Djokovic’s time at the top was nearing its end, Djokovic had other plans. He earned his 24th major title at the US Open less than two months later. Having won three of the season’s major titles and the year-end ATP Finals, he ended the season at No. 1 and publicly stated his goal to win the “Golden Slam” (all four major titles and Olympic gold) in 2024.

Halfway through the 2024 season, the 37-year-old Djokovic is nowhere near where he wanted to be. Never mind majors — Djokovic has yet to win a title at any level this year, or even play in a final.

He lost in the semifinals at the Australian Open to Jannik Sinner and withdrew ahead of the quarterfinals at the French Open because of a torn medial meniscus in his right knee. He underwent surgery on June 6, leaving considerable doubt about his ability to play at Wimbledon, but he has been on the grounds practicing throughout the week. He told the BBC on Monday he would play only if he believed he had a chance to “fight for the title.”

While it’s looking increasingly like Djokovic will play, he is not the favorite to win the title at the All England Club. Combined with the absence of Rafael Nadal, the 22-time major champion who has indicated this could be his final season on tour, and the 2022 retirement of Roger Federer, it seems the guard finally might be changing — for real this time — atop men’s tennis. The stars of tomorrow are now very much the present, and a handful of players could contend at any given tournament.

“This is such an exciting time [for men’s tennis],” Brad Gilbert, the current coach of Coco Gauff and former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick, told ESPN earlier this month.

“[The French Open] was one of the first ones where I didn’t have a lock pick, and it feels like things are going that way. Before it always was Joker at Wimbledon, but now, take the field. Same at the Australian Open. Or Nadal at the French Open, but now, good luck, take the field. These guys were a casino before and the house always wins. That’s what it was like in a lot of these Slams. … But [in Paris] there wasn’t an overwhelming favorite by any means, and maybe that’s the way things are headed.”

IF DJOKOVIC WITHDRAWS ahead of play getting underway on Monday, this will mark the first main draw at Wimbledon without a member of the Big Three (Djokovic, Nadal and Federer) since 1998. And the trio didn’t just play at Wimbledon; they collectively dominated.

In fact, last year, Alcaraz became just the second player outside of the three to win the men’s title at the event since 2002, joining Andy Murray. The 37-year-old Murray, a three-time major champion with two victories at Wimbledon and arguably the fourth-best player of the past two decades, is waiting until the “very last moment” to decide whether he will be playing in the event because of a recent procedure on his back.

But whether Djokovic (or Murray) plays this fortnight, the 21-year-old Alcaraz and 22-year-old Sinner are considered to have the best chances to win the title. ESPN BET had Alcaraz and Sinner tied with the top odds (+165) as of Thursday. Djokovic was a distant third (+385).

“I’m trying to think if [Djokovic] was 100% healthy what the odds would be, because right now you’ve got Alcaraz and Sinner as heavy favorites,” Patrick McEnroe, retired player and current commentator, said on a media call this week. “Then there’s a big drop-off with Novak as the third guy. … Now I have to say that the idea of him playing Wimbledon, if there’s one place where he could pull it off with this injury, having had this injury, maybe he could do it. … [But] I would still lean towards the two younger guys. I think they’ve both gotten over the hump as far as winning majors.”

“[Sinner] probably is one of the most difficult challenges that we can face in tennis right now. I think he’s the best player in the world.”

Carlos Alcaraz

Starting with Federer’s first Grand Slam victory at Wimbledon in 2003 until the end of the 2023 season, the Big Three had collected 66 of 81 major titles. For many years, they were predominantly battling against one another in the finals, but over the past few years, Djokovic and Nadal have had to hold off a slew of rising stars in Slam finals, including Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud.

Dominic Thiem was the first male player born in the 1990s to win a major at the 2020 US Open, but even that came with an asterisk as none of Djokovic, Nadal or Federer had chosen to participate in the tournament because of the pandemic. Medvedev became the first of the “Next Gen” to defeat a member of the Big Three in a Slam final the following year at the US Open. Djokovic had been in search of his first calendar-year Grand Slam, which requires winning all four majors in the same year, before Medvedev played spoiler in three anticlimactic sets.

While saying he was nowhere near done, Djokovic also saw the writing on the wall.

“The new generation, if you want to call them this, is not anyone new,” Djokovic said after the loss. “It’s already current, established. Of course, they are going to take over.”

Since then, Medvedev, 28, has been unable to win another major but has played in three Slam finals and won seven ATP titles. It is Alcaraz and Sinner who have looked best poised to bring Djokovic’s prediction to fruition.

Alcaraz has won three majors, including at the French Open earlier this month, and Sinner earned his first at the Australian Open in January. Both have been dominant at tournaments of all levels this season.

Alcaraz, currently ranked No. 3, won six titles in 2023 and earned his second trophy at Indian Wells this season. Sinner, who took over the world No. 1 ranking from Djokovic for the first time on June 10, has won eight titles since the start of the 2023 season, including in Melbourne, the Masters 1000-level Miami Open in March and his first on grass at Halle just last week.

The budding (and friendly) rivalry between the two has also become must-watch viewing as both seem to continuously raise their level to match the other. Alcaraz holds a 5-4 career edge, including a win in their most recent meeting in the French Open semifinals — a 2-6, 6-3, 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 epic clash lasting over four hours. Both seem to recognize how good their rivalry is for themselves and for the sport as it looks to move on from the Big Three.

“[Sinner] probably is one of the most difficult challenges that we can face in tennis right now. I think he’s the best player in the world,” Alcaraz said before their match in Paris. “The matches that we’ve played before have been unbelievable games, I think everybody wants to watch this match. … Let’s see how it’s going to be, but I think it’s going to be great for tennis and for the fans.”

The two could potentially meet in the semifinals at the All England Club. Djokovic is on the other side of the draw and would only play either of them in the final.

But there are several players who have stepped up this season and shown they too are capable of winning the biggest titles. In five Masters 1000-level tournaments this season, the most prestigious events behind the Slams and the ATP Finals, there have been five different winners. In addition to Alcaraz and Sinner, Tsitsipas, Andrey Rublev and Alexander Zverev have all been victorious. They too could win at Wimbledon or elsewhere.

The depth of talent and those with potential to win doesn’t stop there. Medvedev, still primarily known for his hard-court prowess, reached the semifinals at the tournament last year. He could build on his experience and momentum, especially against a field of largely green players on the surface. Medvedev will be among the favorites in New York as well.

Hubert Hurkacz, the No. 7 seed who lost to Sinner in the final in Halle, is a former Wimbledon semifinalist and even handed Federer his final loss at the event in 2021. Alex de Minaur has had a breakthrough season that saw him crack the top 10 for the first time and has already included a quarterfinal appearance at the French Open and second career grass-court title earlier this month at the Rosmalen Grass Court Championships.

And there are some who could surprise, such as British star Jack Draper, who won his first ATP title at Stuttgart and then defeated Alcaraz at Queen’s Club the following week. Or Tommy Paul, the new American No. 1 who earned his first grass title at Queen’s Club.

“I absolutely love the way Tommy Paul is playing,” McEnroe said. “I actually think that he could be in the semis or final if he believes it.”

As the opening round of the main draw at Wimbledon rapidly approaches, there remain many questions about the tournament — starting with Djokovic’s ability to play — and about men’s tennis overall.

Will Djokovic win another major and take sole ownership of the record for the most in tennis history? Will Alcaraz and Sinner officially emerge as a Big Two? Or will they be joined by others regularly contending for major titles? Wimbledon could be perhaps the first real taste of what life in the post-Big Three era will look like.

Of course, even with Djokovic’s season so far, and his potential absence at Wimbledon, it doesn’t mean his reign at the top is over. Asked about the younger generation and knowing what people were thinking after his semifinal exit in Melbourne, Djokovic told reporters not to count him out just yet.

“I still have high hopes, you know, for other Slams, Olympics, and whatever tournaments that I’ll play,” Djokovic said. “This tournament hasn’t been up to my standard or criteria or the level that I would normally play or expect myself to play, but [it] doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s [the] beginning of the end, you know, as some people like to call it.”

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