Will tennis thrive and not just survive after Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer retire?

Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic pre-match formalities

No matter how *old *or *young* you are, everyone loves a bit of nostalgia. Right? Some of us like nothing better than to look backwards (don’t feel guilty, it’s an understandable comfort habit). The future beckons, but now and then we push back against the constant tinny backdrop of noise in this new world.

Viewing through a more innocent prism of time past gives the impression that things were better then. The top 10 of celebrity culture and the best moments of the 80s, 90s and noughties are the kind of easy TV that takes chunks of hours in the scheduling slots. They are popular for a reason. Then technology came and tore us away from those natural pathways of openness as we became social media animals.

However, the first decade of the millennium also brought Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer to our attention. That didn’t need a hard sell. It was all about which side you were on. The big, pumping iron biceps and barrage of Nadal was set against the balletic grace and movements of Federer.

Wimbledon was Federer’s until that epic of 2008 which finished just before natural light was expiring. That match signalled a subtle change of power. Then Novak Djokovic crept up on the shoulders of these giants to make it a real three-way fight. The story took another twist as Andy Murray had the weight of seven decades of British Grand Slam hurt to contend. There was also lots of crying after finals. A box set of tennis drama indeed.

Those were the days. Tennis is not only a sport but true show business. You can trace it back to when Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe were ice and fire on opposite sides of the net. Their 1980 Wimbledon final epic drew an average of 17 million viewers on the BBC. They even ended up making a movie about it. In sport, in life, in news, you have to have a hook and moving parts to the drama that keep the audience coming back for more. When a big player (or two) leaves the stage, the new characters must be strong enough to carry the show.

What worries some is that we are seeing the last days of the (men’s) tennis empire as we know it. Nobody stays forever young and while there is a kind of retrospective will to see the old gang back together, it may just be that the last titanic fight between members of the Fantastic Four was that Wimbledon final of 2019. In all reality, Djokovic is the only member that can look forward to carrying the flag forward for a few more years yet.

‘The new top four are Novak Djokovic, Daniil Medvedev, Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitispas’

It is up to the next generation to move things on and Daniil Medvedev is telling us to all to get over ourselves: “When there was (Bjorn) Borg and (John) McEnroe, when they were close, finished their careers, everybody was like, ‘tennis is over, we won’t ever have any great players, it’s finished….Then we had Novak, Roger and Rafa. If you asked just before they came, everybody would say, ‘Well, tennis will not be interesting anymore.”

It’s a good rebuttal of the doom-mongers who think there is no life beyond Fedal and Djoker saturation. Take a look at the manner of Alexander Zverev’s performance line. Here is a player who has an interesting, even controversial, back story, a sublime tennis game and, importantly, has something about him. When interviewed at Wimbledon about England and Germany’s game at the Euros, he even gave the right answer much to the amusement of a sympathetic crowd.

What to make of Medvedev? He certainly doesn’t sweat the small stuff: “{if}….the public loves me as I am, all the better. If they hate me because of this, then I’m sorry, but I cannot do something that is untrue to my personality to be loved by the crowd. I hope to be a good model and not to make mistakes there.” Stefanos Tsitsipas has had the big build-up by many senior voices in the game. He may not be in Murray’s good books, but Greg Rusedski compared the Greek to Borg while Boris Becker has called him “box office”. He even speaks the 21st-century language with a podcast and YouTube channel. Now the 23-year-old just has to go out and win lots of tennis tournaments while flicking his hair about.

There was a fascinating BBC series recently that charted the rise of snooker in the 1980s. A new set of characters suddenly made the sport jump out of the smoky backrooms of clubs into the mainstream. The original big three comprised of the fire and fury of Alex “Hurricane” Higgins (the McEnroe) , the respectable, winning machine mentality of Steve Davis (Pete Sampras?) and the shoot from the hip Jimmy “the Whirlwind” White (Agassi?) Then it all died a bit of a death before young Rocket Ronnie O’Sullivan jumped into the mix to stir it on and off the table.

As Becker said: “While it is sort of melancholy watching the great champions fade it is also exciting seeing the younger players blossom. One thing for sure is that is part of the natural process and you cannot avoid it, no matter what your name is.” We cannot cling to the past but we can open our minds to choose new favourites for the future when their idiosyncrasies, growing rivalries and pure tennis skills shape the new path forward. This isn’t a premature obituary to Federer, Nadal and company. It’s an acknowledgement that the transition has begun.

Follow Tim Ellis on Twitter @Timotei365