The Big Three have pushed another crop of touted tennis superstars to the brink of missing out on grand slam glory. TIM ELBRA crunches the names and numbers.
The Big Three have all but wiped out another Generation Next.
Roger Federer may be retired, yet with Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic still reigning supreme everywhere but the US Open, grand slam titles remain unattainable for most of the premier talent to have emerged in the past 5-10 years – headlined by Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Nick Kyrgios.
The iconic trio have exacerbated a long-term trend in men’s tennis: that unless a player wins their first grand slam by age 25, they are unlikely to win multiple major titles. Ilie Nastase (two titles, first at 26) and Stan Wawrinka (three titles, first at 28) are the only players in the Open era to have bucked the trend. Multiple majors remains a simple marker when sorting the great from the good.
One-time slam winners have also tended to be younger. Stretching back to the 1987 Wimbledon triumph of Australia’s Pat Cash, 10 of 18 lone slam winners have been aged 25 or below.
The Big Three have dominated the slams for two decades, with Wawrinka and Andy Murray (three titles) the supporting cast to an astonishing 63 combined titles. Since Federer won his first major at Wimbledon 2003, there have been just seven one-off champions: Andy Roddick, Gaston Gaudio, Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic, Dominic Thiem, Daniil Medvedev and Carlos Alcaraz.
Medvedev (25) and Alcaraz (19) seem well-placed to add to their US Open titles, won over the past two years. They can stamp themselves as greats with multiple majors. Then again, who knows? Medvedev has already lost three major finals (two epics to Nadal, one in straight sets to Djokovic). Alcaraz is out of this Australian Open due to a leg injury; he must balance his hyperphysical game and long-term durability to become a great champion. Jannik Sinner (21) is another who burns bright with slam-winning potential.
Yet Djokovic’s remarkable Adelaide International final win over rising star Sebastian Korda was a timely reminder that the legends remain unwilling to cede their thrones. They remain a steadfast barrier to the youngsters and even before the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic phenomenon, it was important to win a maiden slam early to build a truly great career.
Swedish icons Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg were all teenagers for their first grand slams titles, while John McEnroe was 20. Pete Sampras won his first major at 19, Andre Agassi at 22 and Boris Becker at 17. Jim Courier won the first of his four slams aged 20 and was done winning them by 22. Sergi Bruguera won two French Opens at 22 and 23. Yevgeny Kafelnikov had a pair of slams by age 25. Gustavo Kuerten won his trio of Roland Garros titles by age 24.
Pat Rafter was 24 and 25 respectively for his 1997-98 US Open wins. Marat Safin destroyed Sampras in a US Open final aged 20, then beat Lleyton Hewitt in the Australian Open final at 25. Hewitt was 20 and 21 respectively for his US Open and Wimbledon championships.
History says that age matters. Grigor Dimitrov never got a look-in amid the reign of the Big Three and now, at 31, it’s too late for the man once dubbed ‘Baby Fed’. What was touted as a mighty career will end without a major.
Here are a dozen other current players unlikely to win multiple majors, even when Nadal and Djokovic are finally vanquished. Who may now simply be vying for a lone triumph, after the Big Three have all amassed 20-plus grand slams.
Casper Ruud (24) – world No.3
Ruud has been knocking on the door, having lost two major finals last year: the French Open, in a straight-sets lesson from Nadal, and the US Open, claiming one set against Alcaraz. The Norwegian is a quality player and has some time on his side, yet will face the same obstacles in 2023 – both the eternal greats and younger rising stars. Last year was Ruud’s first full season in the top 10 and he reached a high of No.2. He has won nine ATP titles in the past three years, though all have been minor and eight have come on clay.
Stefanos Tsitsipas (24) – world No.4
It felt like a moment when Tsitsipas beat Federer, the back-to-back reigning champion, in the fourth round of the 2019 Australian Open. It was … but nothing more, to this point. The Greek star has reached three semi-finals at Melbourne Park, losing to Nadal and Medvedev (2), and imploded in the 2021 French Open final against Djokovic, losing from two sets up. He is yet to get beyond the third round of the US Open, typically the most attainable major. Tsitsipas has now been a top 10 player for nearly four years, with a best of No.3. His biggest wins among nine ATP titles are two Monte Carlo Masters and an ATP Finals.
Andrey Rublev (25) – world No.6
Rublev has been a quarter-finalist at three majors and appeared in the final eight of a grand slam six times, yet has never gone further, let alone all the way. The Russian baseliner has claimed 12 ATP titles without a signature triumph and his second serve has been a recurring Achilles heel, despite improvements in recent years. Rublev has mostly been in the top 10 since late 2020 and has a high of world No.5, but hasn’t yet shown the class to win a grand slam in such an extraordinary era.
Taylor Fritz (25) – world No.9
Fritz won three ATP titles last year to take his total to four and earned the most significant victory of his career at the Indian Wells Masters. His grand slam results haven’t yet matched his obvious ability across the three surfaces, with his best a Wimbledon quarter-final last year where he lost to Nadal in a fifth-set tie-break. The American cracked the top 10 in October last year, with a best of world No.8, but the clock is already ticking on his major title hopes. Winning the inaugural United Cup with USA has given his Australian Open campaign some momentum, with Fritz claiming the decisive match over Italy’s Matteo Berrettini.
Hubert Hurkacz (25) – world No.11
Hurkacz had a breakthrough win at the 2021 Miami Masters, one of five career titles, but has been a glaring underperformer in grand slams. The towering Pole also made the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2021 yet has otherwise been a no-show at the business end of majors. He cracked the top 10 in October 2021 and has a best of No.9, indicating that the final step up has been beyond him.
Cameron Norrie (27) – world No.12
Norrie is a late bloomer who finally cracked the top 10 last year, which was a second consecutive season featuring two titles. His biggest win came at the 2021 Indian Wells Masters and he made the Wimbledon semi-finals last year, losing to Djokovic in four sets. His record at the majors is otherwise modest, having never gone beyond the third round and he has slipped back outside the top 10 after a peak of world No.8.
Alexander Zverev (25) – world No.13
Zverev lost an excruciating 2020 US Open final to Thiem, fading from two sets up in what will surely be his best chance to win a major. The tall German has otherwise topped out at three grand slam semi-final appearances, losing to Thiem, Tsitsipas and Nadal. Zverev was hailed as a player certain to win major title but none have eventuated, despite an unbroken five-year run in the top 10 that peaked at No.2 and only ended late last year. Zverev has won an Olympic singles gold medal and five Masters trophies among 19 career titles, proving the immense talent that has always fallen just short of grand slam glory.
Matteo Berrettini (26) – world No.14
Berrettini has reached the quarter-finals or better at every major but is yet to break through for a grand slam title. His best run was to the 2021 Wimbledon final, where he claimed the first set before losing to Djokovic. The Italian, also a highly-successful model, was a semi-finalist at last year’s Australian Open and will hope to end his career with at least one major. He has seven career titles, though curiously none on hardcourt, and spent more than two years in the top 10 between 2019-22, with a best of world No.6.
Frances Tiafoe (24) – world No.17
Tiafoe made an inspired run to the US Open semi-finals last year before losing to eventual champion Alcaraz in five sets. His best grand slam result otherwise was an Australian Open quarter-final back in 2019, so convincing efforts at the majors have been rare. The talented American hasn’t shown the consistency to be a constant threat on the biggest stage but his run at Flushing Meadows showed that he is capable of getting close when at his best. Tiafoe has just one career title, at a minor hardcourt event in 2018, and with a career-high ranking of No.17 rates as a grand slam roughie.
Karen Khachanov (26) – world No.20
Khachanov won the last of his four career ATP titles back in 2018, which included his biggest trophy, the Paris Masters. The big Russian has made a handful of decent runs at the majors, with his best coming at last year’s US Open, where he lost a four-set semi-final to Ruud. He has also reached the quarters of Roland Garros and Wimbledon, yet never been past the third round of the Australian Open. Khachanov spent about four months in the top 10 during 2019 but has otherwise been an inconsistent threat.
Nick Kyrgios (27) – world No.21
Kyrgios could have been anything. He could already have been a multiple grand slam champion and a constant presence in the top 10. That was not to be for the volatile Australian, who underperformed for years at grand slams until his inspired run to last year’s Wimbledon final, where he claimed the first set before losing to Djokovic. He then made the US Open quarter-finals, losing in five sets to Khachanov, underlining his new-found desire to win a major. Kyrgios turns 28 in April, meaning the clock is ticking more loudly on him than any other player in this crop, but he is also the most talented of the bunch. Adding a grand slam to his seven career titles is certainly not beyond him, though his mental collapse against Djokovic with the All England Club title on the line was a brutal example of his enduring capacity for self-sabotage. Kyrgios is still without a single week in the top 10, having peaked at No.13 way back in 2016.
Borna Coric (26) – world No.23
Coric is the forgotten man of this crowd, regularly brought undone by injuries across his career, yet he gave a reminder of his brilliant talent last year by becoming the lowest-ranked Masters champion in history by winning the Cincinnati event as world No.152. He beat Nadal, Roberto Bautista Agut, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Norrie and Tsitsipas en route to the title, just the third of his career. Coric’s best grand slam result was a quarter-final at the weakened 2020 US Open, so he has never threatened at major level. Injury has also kept him to a career-best ranking of No.12, back in 2018.
Grand slam leaderboard
Rafael Nadal 22 (14 French Open, 4 US Open, 2 Wimbledon, 2 Australian Open)
Novak Djokovic 21 (9 Australian Open, 7 Wimbledon, 3 US Open, 2 French Open)
Roger Federer 20 (8 Wimbledon, 6 Australian Open, 5 US Open, 1 French Open)
One-off modern grand slam winners
Pat Cash (age 22) – Wimbledon 1987
Michael Chang (17) – French Open 1989
Andres Gomez (30) – French Open 1990
Michael Stich (22) – Wimbledon 1991
Thomas Muster (27) – 1995 French Open
Richard Krajicek (24) – 1996 Wimbledon
Petr Korda (30) – 1998 Australian Open
Carlos Moya (21) – 1998 French Open
Goran Ivanisevic (29) – Wimbledon 2001
Thomas Johansson (26) – 2002 Australian Open
Albert Costa (28) – 2002 French Open
Juan Carlos Ferrero (23) – 2003 French Open
Andy Roddick (21) – 2003 US Open
Gaston Gaudio (25) – French Open 2004
Juan Martin Del Potro (20) – 2009 US Open
Marin Cilic (26) – 2014 US Open
Dominic Thiem (27) – 2020 US Open
Daniil Medvedev (25) – 2021 US Open
Carlos Alcaraz (19) – 2022 US Open