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Christmas Countdown: Is the longevity of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic stunting the growth of men’s tennis?

Andrew Hendrie in Opinion 1 Dec 2018
  • Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have dominated men's tennis for over a decade
  • The trio have won all of the eight major titles in the last two years
  • Is their unprecedented longevity at the top good or bad for tennis?
Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer (Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images)

It’s now been over a decade since Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic each won their first Grand Slam title and finished a season as the top three players in the world. All three captured a major title in 2018 and ended the year as the first, second and third best players in the world, which begs the question - is their extraordinary longevity good or bad for men’s tennis?

Livetennis.com 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!

From a business standpoint, it’s a resounding yes. That simply cannot be disputed. And financially speaking, the trio have certainly not stunted the growth of men's tennis. In fact, they've helped propel the sport to astronomical heights. The ATP have done an outstanding job of marketing Federer, Nadal and Djokovic - along with Andy Murray - as the ‘Big Four’ of men’s tennis, and data obtained from statista.com shows that the governing body of men’s tennis has reaped the rewards financially over the last decade.

In 2005 - the days before Djokovic and Murray and the year Nadal first emerged as a genuine rival for Federer and won his first Grand Slam title at the French Open - the ATP’s revenue totalled $37.5 million (U.S. dollars). Fast forward three years and that number jumped to $61.3 million - when Djokovic and Murray began to make their presence known - and by the time 2014 came around, that figure peaked at a whopping $107.1 million. The ATP managed to attract heavyweight sponsors as a result of the Big Four’s dominance and between 2012-14, they generated greater than $30 million more each year than the WTA, who’s tour is arguably more exciting in terms of unpredictability, but have been lacking star-studded names outside of the Williams sisters to really take the game to the next level commercially over the last 10 years.

Roger Federer won the 2018 Australian Open title at 36 years of age (Photo by PETER PARKS/AFP/Getty Images)
Which brings us to the other standpoint: entertainment and shock value. Objectively speaking (and you have to take your player fan hat off for this), is it satisfying or enjoyable to watch the same old players win over and over again? It’s like anything - if something happens repeatedly over a long period of time, it gets stale. And in my opinion, that’s exactly where we are at in men’s tennis at the moment. The game is crying out for new stars to challenge the hierarchy that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have established, but nobody has really stepped up and proven they can. Does that mean they've become a roadblock in men's tennis' quest to develop, expand and flourish in the future?

Since Marat Safin won the 2005 Australian Open, only Juan Martin del Potro, Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic have won a Grand Slam title outside of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. In the last 55 major tournaments, Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have won 47 of them, with Murray and Wawrinka sharing three each and del Potro and Cilic collecting the other two. In the last two years, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have swept the eight Grand Slam tournaments, with Federer winning three, Nadal securing the same number and Djokovic picking up two. Furthermore, all three did it past the age of 30 (and in Federer’s case at 35/36), coming back from serious injuries and extended stints in the sidelines. The trio first finished a season as the top three ranked players in 2007, and 11 years later, they’ve done it again in 2018.

Compare those numbers to the women’s tour, which has seen 22 different Grand Slams champions in the same period and a first-time major winner in each of the last four seasons. In fact, five of the last eight Grand Slam tournaments have crowned first-time champions. In terms of pure shock value, I know what tour I’d rather watch.

Novak Djokovic won the last two majors of 2018 after coming back from elbow surgery (Photo by KENA BETANCUR/AFP/Getty Images)
Of course, it’s not Federer, Nadal and Djokovic’s fault that nobody is capable of consistently challenging them and the ATP has capitalised on their unprecedented stretch of dominance. But, when you look to the future of men’s tennis, is their elongated time at the top of the sport going to hurt the ATP in the long run? Will the interest of casual fans still be there after they retire? Will spectators find fresh players to support after Federer, Nadal and Djokovic move on, or will they retire from the sport with them?

The ATP know this and have made moves to prepare for life after the legendary threesome, creating the ‘Next Gen’ marketing campaign for the brightest young talents in tennis aged 21 and younger. But will any of these young guns generate the same amount of excitement and rivalries to draw new fans to the sport like Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have done for over a decade?

From a financial viewpoint, men’s tennis might suffer, but I personally am looking forward to the future. I’ve loved watching Federer, Nadal and Djokovic compete over the years and we have to count ourselves lucky to have witnessed three genuine legends of the sport battle it out at the peak of their powers at the same time. But there also comes a time where we have to move on and I’m ready to usher in a new era of men’s tennis.

There’s certainly enough intrigue there - we already have recently crowned ATP Finals champion Alexander Zverev in the top four, while the likes of Karen Khachanov, Borna Coric, Kyle Edmund, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev aren’t far off from the top 10.

Hyeon Chung and Denis Shapovalov are lurking just outside the top 20, with Alex de Minaur, Nick Kyrgios, Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz not far behind. Andrey Rublev will rebound strongly in 2019, while Jaume Munar, Hubert Hurkacz and Ugo Humbert are set for big season’s next year. And then we have Felix Auger-Aliassime, who is arguably the most exciting teenager we’ve seen in the last decade and poised to make the jump into the top 100 and beyond in 2019.

Men’s tennis will be fine after the retirement of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, but with the trio showing no signs of slowing down, it certainly wouldn’t hurt if one of the rising stars mentioned above could challenge them in the slams in 2019 and break the stranglehold they’ve had on the ATP for the last decade.

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


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Christmas Countdown: Is the longevity of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic stunting the growth of men’s tennis?

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: Is the longevity of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic stunting the growth of men’s tennis?

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