The Future of Men’s Tennis Looks Pretty Damn Bright

Frances Tiafoe is having quite the tournament. Photo: Frey/TPN/Getty Images

The freakishly protracted reign of the Big Three in men’s tennis — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic — has produced a long list of statistical anomalies. A few examples: The three of them have won an astonishing 63 of the last 75 major titles. A member of the trio has achieved the year-end No. 1 ranking 16 of the last 17 years (Andy Murray managed it in 2016). Perhaps most amazingly for a game that used to be synonymous with youth, no man born in the 1990s won a major until 2020. The Big Three, who are now 41 (Federer), 36 (Nadal), and 35 (Djokovic), all but blotted out the sun for a whole generation of players, who were scuppered time and again by a triumvirate of ageless European ironmen.

This state of affairs has been particularly embarrassing for American men’s tennis. Decades of major-level success, from Tilden to Budge to Connors to Sampras, suddenly screeched to a halt almost twenty years ago; the last Yankee to win a major was Andy Roddick, at the 2003 U.S. Open. Until this year’s tournament, American women had outlasted their countrymen at 43 straight majors, thanks largely to the enduring greatness of Serena Williams.

That streak finally came to an end Wednesday, when 22nd-seeded Frances Tiafoe, the son of immigrants who fled the civil war in Sierra Leone for Hyattsville, Maryland, followed up a career-defining win over a shaky Nadal with a convincing straight-set victory over ninth-seeded Andrey Rublev. Later that night, any lingering concerns about what men’s tennis will look like once its reigning horsemen ride into retirement should have been put to rest by the spectacular five-hour shootout between Carlos Alcaraz and Jannik Sinner.

“I don’t think it will be a big three,” said Tiafoe, asked to forecast the game’s unmapped future, or more accurately, present. “It will be like a big 12.”

That would be very different from what we’ve all gotten used to over the years, but judging by the talent on display in Flushing, it could be a good kind of different.

Announcements that a new crop of young players — the “next gen,” in tennis parlance — was about to supplant the old guard have cropped up every year for seemingly the last decade. It’s wise to remember that Nadal and Djokovic won the previous three majors this year, and Djokovic would have been the heavy favorite to win in New York had he been vaccinated, or had American policy been less harebrained. It’s likely that that they haven’t collected their last majors titles. But no longer will they be heavy favorites, either. Nadal, who contemplated giving up tennis earlier this year amid a flareup of his chronic foot injury, looks increasingly weary, and though Djokovic is still in peak form, even an age-defying athlete like Roger Federer found it increasingly difficult to win majors in his late 30s, with his last one coming at age 36. (Federer hasn’t played in over a year; he’ll return to the tour in October.)

And on display at this year’s U.S. Open, where the oldest men’s quarterfinalist was the combustible, made-for-TV 27-year-old Nick Kyrgios, is a field flush with talent and charisma, no longer content to reverently watch its elders hog all the big titles.

Foremost among the new school is the 19-year-old Alcaraz, the breakout story of the Open a year ago, and the kind of player you’d get if you built one in a lab, from his lasso-whip of a forehand (reminiscent of a young Federer) to his speed and court coverage, which is nonpareil except for, maybe, Djokovic. On Wednesday night, Alcaraz had to save a match point against the 21-year-old Jannik Sinner in an instant classic that finished at 2:50am and was almost immediately declared the finest match of the 2022 season. His reward? One full day of rest, followed by a Friday night semifinal against Tiafoe, where the American will have the crowd’s resounding support.

Tiafoe, 24, has been nesting in the top 50 for four years now, impatient to break through. A dynamic athlete and charming personality, willing to move forward where others hug the baseline, he milly-rocked into the final four after overwhelming Rublev, another member of an ascendant brigade of teens and 20-somethings. (Tiafoe’s American compatriot Taylor Fritz, a popular pick to make a deep run here, crashed out in the first round.)

On the other side of the draw, the Australian Nick Kyrgios, the hottest ticket in tennis today, was expected to reach the semifinals after making surprisingly easy work of defending champion and world number one Daniil Medvedev (whose convincing win over Djokovic in last year’s finals marked another preview of where the sport is headed). But in what was yet another testament to the depth and hunger of the men’s game — and, equally, to Kyrgios’ capacity for self-sabotage — he fell in five sets to the 26-year-old Karen Khachanov, who like so many of his generation has lagged for years as a promising sideshow to the Big Three. At the Open, though, there’s something of an infectious transition of power afoot. You can sense — in the ways Tiafoe has talked up his peers, or in Kyrgios’s renewed commitment to the sport — their collective restlessness.

In Khachanov’s first major semifinal, he’ll go up against Casper Ruud, who at the French Open in June became the first Norwegian man to reach a major final. Ruud’s game is not flashy; he simply pounds his heavy forehand from the backcourt, dictating rallies, tracking down a ton of balls. But he is a workhorse, having won over 75 percent of his 62 matches this year, and could even become number one in the world by winning the Open. Once presumed a clay-court specialist, Ruud’s shown his tireless brand of dirtball to be remarkably adaptive to the slightly quicker courts in New York.

Tiafoe, Alcaraz, Ruud, and Khachanov: One of them will win their maiden major on Sunday. It’s not the final four we expected, but it is some version of the future, and one that augurs well for a game that could benefit from a little instability and disobedience. The golden era of men’s tennis has been a privilege to witness. But for the rest of the field it has often seemed to dull the knife of ambition, forcing a generation of talent to adjust its expectations, gazing upward at the sport’s Mount Rushmore of legends.

“A couple of years ago I would have played Rafa and been like, ‘Oh, it’s cool to play him,’” Tiafoe said after his fourth round win over the 22-time Slam champ. “But today when I got out there I looked at my team, I said, ‘Let’s get a win today.’”

The Future of Men’s Tennis Looks Pretty Damn Bright