LONDON — “I’m still waiting for them to come,” John McEnroe said on BBC TV on Monday, referring to the ATP’s “Next Gen,” the young guns who dream of replacing the likes of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer at the top of the men’s game.
On Monday, the contrast between the Big Three and the wannabes could hardly have been clearer. While No. 1 seed Djokovic, chasing a fifth Wimbledon title, cruised past Philipp Kohlschreiber in straight sets, No. 6 seed Alexander Zverev and No. 7 Stefanos Tsitsipas, the two highest-ranked members of the young brigade, fell at the first hurdle.
It was just the latest in a series of false dawns from the Next Gen. The 22-year-old Zverev, who has yet to get past the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam, was beaten in four sets by big-serving Czech Jiri Vesely, while 20-year-old Tsitsipas was distraught after losing in five sets to Thomas Fabbiano of Italy.
“People expected things from me. I didn’t deliver,” Tsitsipas said. “When you get so much support, so much energy, so much positivity from everyone [and] just ruin everything by yourself, it’s devastating.
“We’ve seen players my age, many years ago — I would like to name Rafa, Roger — seemed very mature and professional what they were doing. They had consistency from a young age. They always did well tournament by tournament without major drops or inconsistency. Something that we as the Next Gen players lack, including myself as well, is this [consistency] week by week. It’s a week-by-week problem basically, that we cannot adjust to that.”
Canada’s 18-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime did win Monday, and his fellow Canadian, 20-year-old Denis Shapovalov, has the chance to join him Tuesday. But Tsitsipas is the only one of the Next Gen to even make a Grand Slam semifinal (this year’s Australian Open) so far, and first-week defeats remain the norm.
Now compare that with the familiar sight of Djokovic, Nadal and Federer ripping through the first week of a Grand Slam event, wasting as little time as possible on the court, saving their energy for the bigger, tougher battles to come.
Between them, the world’s top three have won 14 Wimbledon titles, and the common factor in many of those victories is how Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have managed to avoid too many draining matches in the first three rounds.
At Wimbledon, Federer has reached Week 2 without dropping a set in half of his eight title-winning runs, in 2004, 2006, 2007 and 2017. Only once, in 2012, did he drop more than a set in his first three matches on course to the title.
Djokovic did not drop a Week 1 set in 2015 and lost only one Week 1 set each in 2011, 2014 and 2018 on the way to winning Wimbledon. Even Nadal, who has had plenty of early departures at Wimbledon, dropped just one set in 2008.
There have been exceptions, of course, notably in 2010, when Nadal dropped four sets in the first week but still won the title. But generally, the Big Three have made a habit out of easing through the opening week and keeping their powder dry for Week 2.
“It is important,” Djokovic said on the eve of Wimbledon, where he will try to emulate Roy Emerson, Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras and Federer by winning for a fifth time. “In the back of my mind, of course, I always have the big goal, trying to fight for that trophy.
“It’s a two-week event — the more efficient you can be in the first week, the better it is. It’s kind of tricky because you can’t really think about what happens in the second week. You need to balance it. In order to win straight-set matches … you need the right intensity. You need to kind of be in the moment, focus only on the next challenge. At the same time, yes, an ideal scenario to conserve energy is welcome, of course, for the later stages.”
In his 15 Grand Slam victories, Djokovic has gone through Week 1 without dropping a set nine times. Nadal has done it 11 times out of 18 and Federer 11 of 20. Each of them, naturally, excels on his favored surface: Djokovic has done it seven times out of 10 on hard courts; Nadal has done it eight times out of 12 at Roland Garros on the clay; and Federer has managed it four times out of eight Wimbledon wins.
But equally, when they have won away from their favorite surfaces, they have been dominant. Djokovic did it once at Wimbledon and in his only French Open triumph; Nadal won two of his three US Opens without dropping a set in Week 1 and did the same thing when he won the Australian Open for the only time, in 2009. Federer won four of his six Australian Opens without losing a set in the first three rounds and did the same thing in three of his five US Open victories.
Nadal said the quick turnaround from clay to grass, which used to be just two weeks until Wimbledon moved back a week in the calendar in 2015, made life tough in the opening few rounds.
“There is no two equal situations,” he said. “I won 2010, I think, here after a very, very tough first couple of rounds [he went to five sets in the second and third rounds]. Sometimes that helps, especially in this event, that you arrive here without playing much on this surface [and have long matches]. But the only thing that really matters is win the matches, no? Doesn’t matter how, what is the score.”
Federer said there was little difference between the Slams when it comes to the difficulty of moving into Week 2 without losing a set.
“I just think it’s also how you felt before the event, where was your confidence level at, how can you build up the first week feeling good once you get to the, let’s say, quarterfinal stage,” Federer said. “I think that’s what it comes down to.
“Of course, the mindset has to be that you can play tough matches also the first week and still win in the second week. So I don’t read too much into it, to be quite honest. Of course, if you can go through in straight sets or, you know, comfortable four-setter, that’s definitely always a good sign.”
Heading into Wimbledon, the trio had made the last 16 of a major without dropping a set a whopping 81 times in 189 Grand Slam appearances: Federer is 37-for-76, Nadal is 25-for-56 and Djokovic is 19-for-57.
If one or more of them comes through Week 1 unscathed this year at Wimbledon, don’t be surprised if they go all the way.
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