The ATP Finals invites the tour’s top eight players each year, but this exclusive club actually has a much more limited seating capacity. Barring injuries, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, known as the Big Three, along with Andy Murray have usually taken up half the slots.
But in recent years, a group of young players, who could be called the next four, are making the pickings even smaller. Dominic Thiem is heading to his fifth ATP Finals; Alexander Zverev, the 2018 champion, will play for the fourth consecutive year; and the defending champion, Stefanos Tsitsipas is back for his second straight year, as is Daniil Medvedev.
The question is no longer whether these players will become ATP Finals fixtures throughout this decade, but whether they are ready, after Thiem’s United States Open triumph this year, to take over from the players who have long been at the top.
The answer, tennis experts said, was mixed. Expect them to win majors, but Federer, and especially Nadal and Djokovic, will win even more. And by the time the Big Three finally fade, a new generation may be ready to challenge Thiem and company.
“The numbers speak for themselves,” said Patrick McEnroe, an ESPN analyst. “These four have solidified themselves as that next tier.
“They’re different from the guys who knocked on the door but weren’t fixtures in the Grand Slam semis and finals and at the ATP Finals, like Milos Raonic or Kei Nishikori.”
Yet like their predecessors, they remain in the shadow of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.
“The Big Three are still playing at a higher level,” said Tim Henman, a BBC analyst, but the younger players “may just sneak away a couple of Slams in the next three or four years.”
Paul Annacone, a Tennis Channel analyst, went further, predicting that a member of the younger group would win at least one Grand Slam in 2021.
Henman and McEnroe said Thiem, the oldest and most accomplished, was slightly ahead of the others. In the ultimate measuring stick, Thiem is certainly ahead of the others, having beaten Federer three straight times, Djokovic four of the last six and Nadal three of the last six. The other three have combined for a 3-13 record against Nadal.
However, Zverev upset Nadal in the Paris Masters this month before losing to Medvedev in the finals, a preview of how the game’s balance of power could begin to shift.
Martina Navratilova, a Tennis Channel analyst and winner of 18 Grand Slams, said that while the next four group of younger players were “a cut above the rest,” that doesn’t mean they’ll be superstars.
For her, it’s not just about winning Grand Slams, it’s about the quality of play.
“The jury is still out,” she said. “You don’t say, ‘Here’s the special one.’ With Roger and Rafa, I just knew it the first time I saw them play. For these guys to be good for the sport they need to reach that level.”
McEnroe said their careers might resemble those of Grand Slam winners like Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick and Stan Wawrinka, who never crossed the all-time-great threshold.
Still, Ivan Lendl provides inspiration. Through 1984, Lendl, then a two-time winner of the year-end tournament (then the Grand Prix Masters), had a reputation for choking in the Grand Slams. He had won only one and lost six times in the semifinals or finals to Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg. But they were done by 1985, and Lendl captured five of the next nine Grand Slams, dominating the tour for five years.
The problem facing the younger players, Henman said, is that “they have to be patient, but also wary of the younger players coming up behind them.”
He and the other experts said Denis Shapavalov, Félix Auger-Aliassime, Andrey Rublev (about to make his ATP Finals debut) and Jannik Sinner have the potential to challenge today’s younger stars later in the decade. Taylor Fritz, Ugo Humbert and Alex de Minaur merit mention, too.
Henman said Sinner was most likely destined for greatness.
“He will be the one to break through,” Henman said. “He has the game and the attitude.”
If all eight players take turns at the top, the ATP Tour would resemble the women’s tour, in which 11 women have won the last 14 Grand Slams.
“The more the merrier, but you do need the superstars, the ones with name recognition, different personalities and different styles of play,” said Navratilova, whose rivalry with Chris Evert drove interest in the women’s game.
Annacone said the men’s tour had been spoiled.
“We love our legends,” he said, adding that developing new ones take time. “The rivalries take awhile to build, but if Zverev and Thiem play a few more five-setters in finals, they will become a significant draw.”
In the short term, McEnroe said, the sport fares best if the Big Three win more Grand Slams, but yield a few to the next generation, giving them a chance to develop those rivalries. But in the long run, he said, “What may be better for tennis is to have the younger generation — Shapavalov, Auger-Aliassime, Sinner — rise up and seize control of the game.”