COMMENT: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic looking more vulnerable than ever before

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer

The ATP Finals have thrown up plenty of shocks, with Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal beaten five times between them, and that strengthens an increasingly familiar argument, writes Kevin Palmer.

Roger Federer’s final press conference of 2019 ended on a familiar note, but this time his answer appeared to carry a little more weight.

After a curious 6-3, 6-4 semi-final defeat against Stefanos Tsitsipas at the ATP Finals in London, one of the game’s three enduring icons was asked the inevitable question on the rise of the game’s next generation.

In a year when Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic shared the four Grand Slam titles up for grabs and Federer was knocking on the door of success of all the major events despite celebrating his 38th birthday in August, the young guns striving to catch the game’s all-time greats appear to be getting closer.

After the game witnessed the unfamiliar sight of a Masters series semi-final line-up featuring none of the ‘big three’ in Shanghai last month, now the ATP Finals will be lacking the trio as the trophy is handed out and as Federer was asked whether the next generation were finally ready to start their own era of dominance, the Swiss maestro offered up a typically classy response.

“It’s the same question every year at the end of the year, but it does it feel like this year might be the best year yet? Possibly,” stated Federer.

“Then the only issue is that it seems like me, Novak, and Rafa are healthy, healthier than maybe in previous years and (Andy) Murray is also not where he used to be.

“So from that standpoint, I just think they have proven their point this year by qualifying for the World Tour Finals, and also now at least one of them making it to the finals and maybe also Sascha again repeating what he did last year or Dominic also what he showed again at this World Tour Finals, winning five titles beating all of us top guys.

“Definitely it’s that next step they need, and seems like Dominic (Thiem) is in his absolute prime right now. Yeah, I would think so.

“Then I look at the list of who finished world No.1 all these years and it’s just crazy that it’s always one of us, but we are not getting any younger. So chances increase not because we are getting worse but because they are getting better, I believe.”

Federer’s disappointment at his loss to Tsitsipas should be tempered by the reality that he effectively beat himself in a tight semi-final, as he took just one of 12 break points and was broken three times despite only facing four break points of his own.

Tsitsipas held his nerve at the crucial moments, but it was Federer’s failure to make the most of the chances he created and the breakdown of his backhand at crucial moment that was decisive in the final analysis.

“I don’t know exactly why it went the way it did, you know,” he added. “I think getting broken with missing two smashes in one game, that hasn’t in a long, long time or ever. So that was tough.

“I had some good spells, but the spells where things were not working well, they were pretty bad. At this level, you just can’t have it happen, so that was pretty disappointing today.”

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“Overall, I’d say I’m happy with how I played over the course of this year and I’m really excited for 2020.”

Federer, Djokovic, and Nadal will remain the men to beat until the young guns start to prove they can shoot them down consistently, but it certainly feels like the moment for the next era in tennis to begin is finally edging closer.

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