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Christmas Countdown: No active male Slam champs under 30 - is it a problem and why has it happened?

Andrew Hendrie in Opinion 7 Dec 2018
  • For the first time in history, there are no active male slam champions under the age of 30
  • Why is this the case and is it a problem?
Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

With Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic both hitting their thirties in September this year, it means for the first time in ATP history, there are currently no active Grand Slam champions under the age of 30. Is this a problem? Why has it happened? Who will be the first to step up from the younger brigade? is celebrating the off-season with a Christmas countdown series of articles in which our editors give their take on the burning questions facing tennis in 2019, from the stars to the schedule to the sport’s very structure. You can find the master list of articles here – and feel free to join in the debate via our Twitter and Facebook pages!

We are witnessing an unprecedented era in men’s tennis. While it’s nothing new for players to compete well into their thirties and even forties in some cases (Ken Rosewall, Jimmy Connors and Andre Agassi are prominent names that spring to mind in the last few generations), it is unusual for an entire era to dominate the pinnacle of the sport (Grand Slams) for an extended period of time while in the so-called ‘twilight’ of their careers.

But as the curtain closes on 2018, ATP tennis is experiencing a previously-unseen phenomenon: for the first time ever, there are no active players under the age of 30 that can call themselves a Grand Slam champion. Since the 2005 Australian Open, seven players have combined to win the next 55 major titles. Roger Federer (37), Novak Djokovic (31) and Rafael Nadal (32) have won 47, Andy Murray (31) and Stan Wawrinka (33) secured three each and Juan Martin del Potro (30) and Marin Cilic (30) split the remaining two.

Roger Federer, 37, won his 20th major title at the Australian Open this year (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Furthermore, only three active players in their twenties have advanced to a Grand Slam final: Dominic Thiem (25), Milos Raonic (27) and Kei Nishikori (28). The aforementioned trio didn’t win a set in their respective major finals, while Thiem is still the only player 25 or younger that has made more than one Grand Slam semi-final - and both came at Roland Garros.

So what is causing this anomaly in men’s tennis? What created this paradox and shift in reality?

The most logical argument is that we have been watching three of the best players in history compete for over the last decade at the same time at the peak of their powers. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic could well go down as the three most successful players of all time when all is said and done, and with the trio operating at an extraordinarily high level for the better part of the last 10 years, there simply hasn’t been a window of opportunity for the younger guys. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have collected the last eight straight major titles - and all have done it coming back from serious injuries on the wrong side of 30 (and well on the wrong side in Federer’s case). They first finished a season ranked as the world’s top three players in 2007, and 11 years later in 2018, they’ve done it again. The threesome have almost single-handedly prevented younger generations from breaking through at Grand Slam level.

The other argument is that the game is much more physical today, and as a result, young players take longer to develop and find their feet on tour. The ATP and ITF actually has to take some responsibility for that - they consciously slowed down the courts from the mid to late 2000s in a bid to avoid more upsets to the top guys, namely their ‘Big Four’ of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, ensuring the quartet would have a better chance of making it to the latter stages of every tournament they entered, meaning more revenue, attendance and ratings. Grass is a shadow of the surface it once was, and I am very confident in declaring that players such as Nadal and Djokovic wouldn’t have come close to winning the amount of Wimbledon titles they have with their styles of play in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. That trend started with Lleyton Hewitt and David Nalbandian reaching the Wimbledon final in 2002. Racquet technology has also contributed to a shift in styles adopted by top players - in times gone by, serve-volleying was extremely popular, along with chipping and charging the net, but now players have the luxury of much more control on their racquet head and strings, meaning they can execute a passing shot from behind the baseline with ease, which has ultimately killed that part of the sport.

Novak Djokovic won the last two majors of 2018 after missing the back-end of 2017 due to injury (Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images)
Carpet has also been completely abolished on the ATP World Tour since 2009. Regarded as the second quickest surface behind traditional grass, the ATP - in consultation with the top players - decided all indoor events would be played on hardcourts, ironically, in a bid to prevent more injuries. That obviously hasn’t worked, but the real reason was to avoid more upsets and for players to engage in more extended rallies, which - again ironically - leads to more punishing matches and increases the risk for injuries. This isn’t related to Grand Slams of course, but it’s still relevant in the bigger picture.

So, is this a problem for men’s tennis? Again, in the grander scheme of things, not really. Interest on the ATP World Tour has never been greater, and that’s solely to do with Federer, Nadal and Djokovic and the rivalries they’ve created. You can throw Murray into that group, because even though he’s well short of their achievements as far as Grand Slam titles go, he’s certainly contributed to this era of ‘Big Four’ dominance. But, if you want to take your player fan hat off and look at it objectively, I’m of the opinion that the same players winning the sport’s biggest prizes over and over again is getting boring and stale. I wrote more about this in the first edition of our Christmas Countdown series.

In saying that, there are signs that the young brigade is making some progress. The 21-year-old Alexander Zverev has been ranked in the top five for the last two years and enters 2019 on the back of winning his biggest career title at the ATP Finals, beating Federer and Djokovic back-to-back. Karen Khachanov, Borna Coric, Kyle Edmund, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev are all 23 or younger and ranked in the top 16. Denis Shapovalov, Hyeon Chung and Alex de Minaur aren’t far behind. But are they really that special, or are they simply fortunate to be born into an era where Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have got to slow down at some point over the next couple of years?

That remains to be seen, but one thing’s for sure: men’s tennis at Grand Slams will be entering uncharted territory in 2019.

Check back tomorrow for the next in our Christmas countdown series!

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Christmas Countdown: No active male Slam champs under 30 - is it a problem and why has it happened?

From 1-24 December, we count down the days of the off-season with articles on some of the burning questions facing tennis as it heads into 2019. Today's question: why are there no active male slam champions under the age of 30? Is this a problem? And why has it happened?

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