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'Show Up!'- Boris Becker calls on Next Gen stars to step up and challenge for majors; but is the German being fair in his criticisms of the young guns?

Leye Aduloju in ATP Tour 12 Jun 2019
  • Boris Becker has called on Next Gen stars to step up and challenge for majors
  • Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have shared the last 10 Grand Slams between them- all above the age of 30
Stefanos Tsitsipas (PA Sport)

Rafael Nadal’s Roland Garros triumph made it ten straight Grand Slam titles won by Nadal, Roger Federer or Djokovic, all of whom are now well into their 30’s. That has rekindled questions over quality of the younger generation, and what the future holds for the sport when these juggernauts inevitably retire.

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Boris Becker has been particularly critical of the younger players, questioning their quality and their attitude in the aftermath of Nadal’s 12th Roland Garros success.

“I was just reading a stat from a colleague that no active player under 28 apart from Thiem has been in a Grand Slam final. That is not good,” Becker said at an event celebrating EuroSport’s 30th anniversary".  
"That is not a compliment for anybody under 28. And don’t give me that the others are too good. We should question the quality and the attitude of everybody under 28. It just doesn’t make sense”.  
“As much as I respect Roger, Rafa, Novak – who else? Show up. Give me something I want to talk about. Eventually they will be too old. But you want to see passing of the torch while they are still in their prime. You want to see Stefanos [Tsitsipas] and Dominic beating them when they are still very very good. That’s what I’d like to see”.

To start with, to use Becker’s examples, Stefanos Tsitsipas has beaten Roger Federer at a major, while Dominic Thiem has twice beaten Novak Djokovic at the French Open. The problem is, as Thiem pointed out at Roland Garros, you will most likely have to go through at least two of these three all-time greats- arguably the greatest ever to play the sport- to win a major. Becker can question their quality all he wants, but we simply cannot run away from the fact that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have been extra-ordinarily good. 

Becker is being a bit harsh on these Next Gen players here. Of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, only Nadal won a Slam as a teenager; Federer did not get off the mark until he was 21, and while Djokovic was Australian Open champion at 20, he had to wait three years before doubling his tally. That was how difficult it was for Serbian to break through the initial Nadal and Federer duopoly. Maybe give the current crop a bit more time before passing judgement?

If we are going to be critical of any generation, it should be the intermediate group of Grigor Dimitrov, Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic and everyone inside that age bracket- loosely termed the ‘Lost Generation’. Those are the ones that Becker should specifically direct his complaints at as they were the guys that let the Big Three get away. It wasn’t for the lack of trying, of course, but they simply do not possess the quality and mentality to compete with the big guns, and now, their chances of winning majors appear to have faded away.

So do the current crop of young players have those qualities and mindset to win Grand Slam titles? Boris Becker doesn’t think so.

"There’s a certain mentality that they don’t have, that the three men just have. It’s not the forehands. It’s not the fitness. It’s a certain mentality, mindset, attitude that makes the difference between winning and losing", the German said.

To be fair, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have raised that mentality bar to such a height that it is extremely difficult to reproduce, and while some of these younger players have struggled to match that toughness and indefatigable obsession for winning, there are a couple that have fared fairly well in that department. 

Of the current crop, two men stand out for me- Stefanos Tsitsipas and Dominic Thiem. (Thiem is a relative late bloomer stuck somewhere between the ‘Lost Generation’ and the ‘Next Gen’). At 20, Tsitsipas has already been to a Grand Slam semi-final, and has beaten Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. He could easily have reached the French Open semi-finals, but fell on the wrong side of a five-set epic against Stan Wawrinka in Paris. Thiem at the moment looks a bit restricted to clay, but he has been very good on that surface in the last few seasons. The 25-year-old has beaten Nadal on clay in each of the last four years, has taken out Djokovic twice at Roland Garros, and has been to back-to-back finals in Paris. The only reason he has not won the French Open is because of Nadal, and to knock him for that is harsh in the extreme. 

Alexander Zverev is a very curious one. The German’s quality cannot be questioned- a career-high ranking of No.3, three Masters 1000 successes and a Nitto ATP Finals title all before the age of 22 could not have been by accident, but his attitude has let him down over the last six months. He looks like he is being consumed by the weight of expectations associated with being the flag-bearer of the Next Gen. Maybe the rise of Tsitsipas and hopefully other guys like Felix Auger-Aliassime can ease the pressure and free him up a bit. I really hope he rediscovers his form, because he has got the sort of personality the sport can thrive on once the big guns leave the scene. 

Some of the other young players have plenty of stepping up to do, like Denis Shapovalov, who is far too inconsistent and is currently badly out of form, and Karen Khachanov, who, for whatever reason, struggled at the start of the year, but thankfully he’s slowly regaining his form. These sort of lengthy dips were alien to Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, which is where all the talk of mindset stems from. 

All of these guys cannot become multiple Grand Slam champions, but I’m confident we will get two or three that will stamp their authority on the sport and to an extent, carry on the legacy of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. It is almost impossible to have an era like this one again, and there’s absolutely no problem with that!

There has been plenty of talk about the potential void that will be left in the men’s game when the Big Three leave the scene, but I think that is only natural, and the sport will eventually be very fine.

Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have built up such cult following for over a decade, and to expect that everything will be normal when they leave and is very unrealistic, but like Becker said, tennis will move on.

"There will be a dip". the German said. "People have to get used to the new players. There will be a Wow moment. 'Wow, we’re not talking about Roger and Rafa anymore'. But we said the same thing with McEnroe-Connors. Agassi-Sampras. Maybe myself and [Stefan] Edberg and [Mats] Wilander. Tennis will always continue with great new stars”.  
"But there will be a dip and then the spotlight will be on the young generation to say “Now, show up. Who are you? Are you good enough, can you carry the sport, or was it all a bluff?”’

I think they are good enough, and can carry the sport. There will be the initial shock, but there are enough personalities among the current young players to ease that shock and take the sport forward.

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"Show Up!"- Boris Becker calls on Next Gen stars to step up and challenge for majors; but is the German being fair in his criticisms of the young guns?

Boris Becker has called on Next Gen stars to step up and challenge for majors but is the German being fair in his criticism of the young guns?

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