The NextGen tend to get a lot of criticism for not usurping Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal, but Wimbledon has prompted Michael Graham to have a rethink about whether that’s actually fair on anyone – not least the legends who have been so good for so long the have normalised brilliance.
If there is one group of people who have it pretty tough in tennis these days, it’s the next generation players on the ATP Tour.
Not only do the likes of Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, and Dominic Thiem have to beat Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal if they are going to win anything of note, but when they don’t they actually come under extreme criticism from all quarters for it.
Just imagine that for a moment… imagine being actually criticised for not being as good at tennis as Dokovic, Federer, and Nadal. It’s actually ridiculous, but it’s their reality.
Boris Becker, for example, has openly questioned the hunger of the younger players on tour, saying: “We should question the quality and the attitude of everybody under 28.
“It just doesn’t make sense. As much as I respect Roger, Rafa, Novak – who else? Show up. Give me something I want to talk about.
“Eventually they will be too old. But you want to see the passing of the torch while they are still in their prime. You want to see Stefanos [Tsitsipas] and Dominic [Thiem] beating them when they are still very, very good.
“It’s not the forehands. It’s not the fitness. It’s a certain mentality, mindset, attitude that makes the difference between winning and losing.”
And Becker is not alone in that viewpoint. Indeed, many, or even most, tennis commentators and analysts have, at one stage o another over the last 18 months or so, criticised the NextGen for failing to put up a real challenge to the established elite of the ATP Tour.
I’ve been one of those voices too, if I’m honest. But then came Wimbledon.
Because, when I was watching the two matches between Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic, there was never a single thought in my head that there was anything missing. None of them looked like players on the decline.
Nor did they look to be waning at all in the earlier rounds when they breezed through with maximum ease and minimum fuss.
Those three players were, particularly against each other, quite simply sensational, and producing a level of tennis that was out of this world – and I got a little angry with myself for not actually appreciating it more.
And that is the real crux of the matter here for me: Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal have been this good for this long, that they have normalised brilliance, and we have all become desensitised to it as a result.
It’s not like these guys are shadows of what they once were and are just hanging on because the younger players won’t step up. They are still just as good as they were before, with Djokovic especially probably better than he has ever been.
So, for me, the question is no longer why are the NextGen players allowing the best to remain at the top, but how can we possibly expect them to be at the level of Djokovic, Nadal, and Federer?
It’s absolutely obscene that we have three players at this level at once, to be perfectly honest. What gives us the right to complain about not having five or six of them?
It seems to be that we have direct choice here. We can either acknowledge and appreciate the special talents of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic, in which case we accept that they are far from the norm and resist the temptation to hold others to their special standards.
Or we hold the emerging players to the elite’s standards and, in the process of expecting them to be reached, diminish how we regard the Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal. I don’t think we have any right to want to be able to do both. I don’t think any sport does.
What does seem clear, and is getting more clearer by the tournament, is that there are no truly special players in the emerging group of NextGen stars.
Good players, yes. Future Grand Slam winners, absolutely. But not special.
The challenge for us, though, is to accept and admit that that is absolutely fine. Ultimately, players like Nadal, Federer, and Djokovic do not come along every generation. They maybe don’t even come along ever second or third generation. That’s how good they are and I do sometimes wonder whether or not we have forgotten that.
Having all three of them at once to regularly put on the matches they do against each other is remarkable. They have surpassed the expected standards, but we must never allow ourselves to believe they have raised the expected standards.
It’s their own fault, because they are the ones who have normalised brilliance for so long, but it is us who ultimately risk diminishing their legacies by brandishing others failures for not repeating it.
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