When Roger Federer announced at the end of July that he would miss the rest of the ATP season due to a nagging knee injury, my heart sunk. It was a little over a week until the Olympics commenced in Rio, which, for the then soon-to-be 35-year-old Federer, was likely to be his final chance to snag that elusive gold medal in singles. If his injury was so significant to require several more months of rehabilitation, he would have failed in all likelihood. More important to me as a fan than this lost opportunity to watch him compete for country and self, however, was that his withdrawal signaled once again that his career is winding down. Now, without Roger in the mix for the rest of 2016, I am left with the prospect of a field without a favorite or even a strong rooting interest.
Though it’s a pretty harsh word to slap on the Swiss, failure has been a common theme for the 17-time major winner this season. He failed to win a single tournament on the year, contesting only one final and four semifinals in seven tournaments played. His overall record in singles play was 21-7, which is by no means embarrassing, but it’s a far cry from his more dominant seasons in which he won over 60, 70, 80 matches, lifted many trophies, and lost a number of matches that could be counted on a hand or two.
Moreover, Federer was plagued with dips in the level of his play throughout the year (and over the past couple of seasons at times). Chalk this up to age, his lingering injuries, or a stronger belief in his opponents that they can defeat him, but no matter the reason, the 2016 edition was a different Federer on court than in years past. The aesthetic beauty to his game remained, as he still can make the most difficult of shots look effortless and graceful, but visible or not, the effort required to do this over the course of successive best-of-five-set matches or a weeklong tournament clearly took its toll on the Swiss.
This is unfamiliar territory for me (and Federer) as a Fed-fearing worshiper*. This is only his second season since his developmental years in the late 90s and early 2000s that he failed to win three or more tournaments, and it is the first time since 2000 he did not win a single trophy. As for the seasons in between, Federer has treated fans to 88 titles, including the oft-cited 17 Grand Slams, 6 World Tour Finals wins, and 24 Masters 1000 victories. He holds the record in consecutive Grand Slam quarterfinals (36) and semifinals (23) reached. And up until this year’s French Open, Federer had participated in 65 straight Grand Slam tournaments (The last one he missed was the 1999 US Open. 1999!). All of this is to say he’s been great for a long, long time, and I am spoiled by his success.
Nevertheless, these lean months serve as a stark reminder that winning tournaments is no longer a given for Federer, and as such, I am forced to ask some tough questions of myself. What will life – as it relates to tennis – look like once the Swiss Maestro retires? How will my relationship with the game change? Over whose matches will I agonize, point by point? It’s torture no doubt, but it’s a level of suffering that I need and want.
With his withdrawal from the French in May, I got my first taste of life without Federer. And it stunk. I was reduced to rooting against one player in particular while cheering for select others, hoping that their advancement would inhibit the former’s title run. It didn’t, and with each resounding victory for this certain someone against feckless competition, I had to yet again come to terms with the fact that there’s absolutely nothing I can do to affect the outcomes on the court. It’s a helpless feeling. It’s stressful. It’s joyless. It’s just not as much fun cheering for another man’s failures rather than his successes, particularly when they are so few and far between.
Obviously, the player in question here is Novak Djokovic. The Serb’s run of sheer dominance the last three years (coupled with Roger’s inability to secure another major title or two) has put him at 12 Slams, well within striking distance of Federer’s 17. My reasons for rooting against Djokovic are not complex: 1. He’s the single greatest threat to Federer’s legacy as the GOAT; 2. See number one. I don’t see much reason to dwell on this point; it could be a whole post in and of itself. Aside from Father Time, Djokovic is the nemesis at this point.
Furthermore, I truly do not want this post to morph into a diatribe on how some young player needs to step up and put a stop to Djokovic’s dominance, just as he did to Rafael Nadal and Nadal to Federer. That would be petty and decidedly un-Roger-like. Rather, I crave finding that next player on the tour that I will want to consistently watch and root on, regardless of opponent, both at the Slams and at lesser tournaments. I love the game itself – don’t get me wrong – but to truly invest and immerse myself, I want a horse in the race. I need to find a player whose play compels me to watch and causes me to interact with the happenings on the court. When Roger loses a big match, I feel it. It stays with me for a time, and I think back about the individual opportunities missed and how those points, had they happened differently, would have surely changed the course of the game, the set, the match. It eats away at me, and I even lose sleep on occasion.
At the same time, it’s this complete investment that makes his victories and championships so sweet. When he wins, I’m up in the clouds, euphoric. I’m in awe of the man who had no need to win another point to cement his greatness but just pushed himself through yet another win or championship. I want to continue experiencing this feeling after Roger retires. I want not only to watch the ups and downs of another individual’s career as they unfold; I want to experience them as well, point by point.
So what will I look for when picking that next guy?
- He has to have a good, all-around game. The big servers like John Isner or Milos Raonic do not appeal to me. Watching full matches of nothing but huge serves and then infrequent and brief exchanges of groundstrokes isn’t my idea of a great time. The serve is important, as it sets up the entire point, but I prefer watching players who can play all over, mix their shots, and hit passing shots and volleys with precision.
- He has to be young. I’ve always enjoyed watching the wily and entertaining Gael Monfils and the powerful Juan Martin del Potro play, but picking either would simply be a stopgap measure, as both are closer to 30 than 20 years of age. You should only have to pick your favorite tennis player once every 12 years or so, right? That’s what Roger Federer taught me anyways.
- Finally, he has to be a threat at all four Slams. I don’t take any Slams off, and I expect the same from my future favorite player. Surface specialists need not apply.
With that, here are some of the young players that I’ll be watching over the next two weeks on the hard courts of the US Open.
Dominic Thiem – As of now, the 22-year-old Austrian is the early frontrunner among tennis’ young stars, at least as far as the rankings and results are concerned. Equipped with excellent groundstrokes from both sides, including a pretty one-handed backhand reminiscent of Federer’s, he can comfortably exchange shots from the baseline with the game’s biggest hitters. Thiem also moves very well around the court, giving him not only the ability to get to tough balls and force extra shots from his opponents but also allowing him to turn defense into offense. Good players play solid defense, but the best ones are able to turn the tables on their opponents and hit offensive shots from traditionally defensive positions on the court.
Although Thiem’s Wimbledon did not turn out as he would have hoped (a second-round loss to the big-serving-but-inconsistent Jiri Vesely as the tournament’s eighth-seeded player), he had an excellent spring during which he won four ATP titles and scored wins against Federer (twice), Nadal (on clay), David Ferrer, and his presumed generational rival (Alexander Zverev, Jr.). He also made his first Grand Slam semifinal at the French Open, losing to Djokovic, the eventual champion. Now in the top ten, Thiem is primed for future success, even if it isn’t fully realized in New York. He is the complete package with a golf bag full of shots.
Thiem has put the entire ATP on notice. At this point, no one questions his talent, and it’s only a matter of time before he breaks through with a big tournament win.
Alexander Zverev, Jr. – At 19 and with a head of tossed-salad hair (see cover photo), the German wunderkind certainly qualifies as young. Zverev also comes from good tennis stock. His father, Alexander Zverev, Sr., had a brief professional career, and his brother, Mischa, maxed out at a career-high singles ranking of 45, but of the three, Alex Jr. has a much higher ceiling. Earlier this year, in reaching the singles ranking of 28 (later rising to a ranking of 24 and now ranked 27), he became the youngest player since Djokovic in 2006 to break the top 30.
While he still needs to fill out his gangly 6’6” frame, he has all the tools to become a great player. He has strong strokes from both wings, the height to serve big with ease, and in spite of that size, the quickness and agility to reach balls all over the court. Already, he has challenged the top-flight players in matches, pushing Nadal and Federer through uncomfortable matches earlier this year, and in early June, Zverev topped Federer in a three-set match in the Halle semifinals. While he would go on to lose in the final, Zverev has demonstrated early on that he isn’t intimidated and can even hold his own against the best of the best. I see some fun, competitive matches in the future between this one and the aforementioned Thiem.
Nick Kyrgios – If I had been alive in the early 80s, I would have loved the smooth Björn Borg with his long locks and headband, short shorts, and cavalier personality. Had I followed tennis in the 90s, it would have had to have been bad boy Andre Agassi, wig and all. It’s this rebellious aura that draws me to Nick Kyrgios.
In spite of all the talk surrounding Kyrgios’ immaturity, I find myself gravitating to him. I wouldn’t call it charisma, but there’s an allure there with the me-against-the-tennis-world attitude. He bucks tradition; he says what’s on his mind (both on and off the court); he’s a very good tennis player. His game isn’t monotone, either. His long limbs provide a big serve, but even with the lankiness, he can move around the court and trade heavy groundstrokes with the best. I watched Kyrgios go toe-to-toe with Federer in an early-round match at the 2015 Madrid Masters. The three sets played were as tight as could be (three breakers), and for each ridiculous shot Federer hit, Kyrgios countered with equally impressive stuff. The moment wasn’t too big for him, either, as he beat Fed 14-12 in the third-set breaker.
There is room for growth in the 21-year-old Australian’s mental game, as he has a few too many times turned off and shut down in matches where he’s trailing. If this were to continue as he ages, I would quickly move away from rooting for him. There is certainly an inherent risk cheering for a spitfire like Kyrgios, but picking him would be a complete 180 from the understated presence of Federer, and perhaps that’s what’s needed to replace the Swiss. A change.
David Goffin – Ranked in the top 15, there is much to like with this boyish Belgian’s finesse game, and with his slight 5’11”, 150-lb. frame, it’s like cheering on a far more talented version of myself. He is a top-10 talent, but ultimately, he projects as David Ferrer reincarnate: a great tennis player who will beat without fail each opponent he should beat but doesn’t have the stuff to knock off better players on the biggest of stages. In addition, he’s already 25, which means he still has his prime ahead of him, but his window for becoming my favorite is closing. That said, I could be way wrong on him and would love to see him win big.
Young Americans – Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Frances Tiafoe, Tommy Paul, Michael Mmoh. Fritz suffered a first-round, four-set loss to Stan Wawrinka at Wimbledon (no shame there) and showed punch in a three-set loss to Federer a few months ago, and Opelka is coming off a semifinal appearance in Atlanta, losing to top-seeded John Isner in three sets. The others listed have had success on the junior circuit. Of course, we have heard this story of promise about up-and-coming American male tennis players only to be left disappointed time and time again, and here it is again. Nonetheless, keep your eyes on these names in the years (and days, as Fritz, Opelka, Tiafoe, and Mmoh will all play the US Open this year) to come. There is hope yet.
Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov – People keep talking about guys like Raonic, Nishikori, and Dimitrov as the next players to supplant the Big Four. While each has produced some big wins on tour, none of them have particularly grabbed my attention. Raonic’s huge serve and blossoming volley game will carry him far (re. Wimbledon 2016), but as mentioned before, his game tastes a bit like vanilla. Huge serve, solid strokes, but very little creativity and spice. Nishikori – his defeat of Djokovic in the semifinals of the 2014 US Open notwithstanding – is cut from the same cloth as Ferrer and doesn’t seem able to fully break through and consistently threaten the top players at Slams. He is technically sound on both forehand and backhand, and there is no reason to root against him, but if there’s no belief he can win, I don’t want to waste my time. Dimitrov – the enigmatic pro formerly known as “Baby Fed” – has the skills to win, but since reaching the top ten, inconsistent play against inferior competition has sent him plummeting back down to the mid-thirties in the rankings (though he’s now back in the low-twenties). He was supposed to be the player most similar to the player Federer was in his 20s, but already at 25 years of age, I’ve grown a little tired of waiting. For reference, Fed won eight Slams before turning 25 and won his ninth shortly thereafter.
In the end, I know I won’t be able to truly replace Roger. He will go down as my favorite all-time tennis player. But when he does finally call it a career, I don’t want my passion for tennis to end with his last forehand winner or drop volley. This US Open I will miss seeing Roger Federer glide across the court and cheer against Djokovic, but all the while, I will take a glance at the future of men’s tennis and look for that spark that will carry and inspire me through many seasons to come.
Cover photo by Boss Tweed via Flickr