Back in black: Big 3 reject new order

WIMBLEDON may be the most sacred place in tennis but for the better part of two decades it's been a graveyard for up-and-comers desperate to establish a new world order.

Since 2002 only four players have won the men's singles title and it's looking increasingly likely the status quo will be maintained in 2019 after the Big Three of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic all bulldozed their way into the quarter-finals.

The trio dropped just 19 games between them and spent a collective four hours and 40 minutes on court on Manic Monday in their round of 16 matches. They've looked a class above the rest of the competition all tournament and you'd be brave to bet against one of them lifting the trophy at the end of the week.

Vanquished. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Vanquished. (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

While the elder statesmen have been delivering, Gen Next has flopped again. Nobody under the age of 28 has qualified for the Wimbledon quarters and while there were high hopes for prodigies like Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, both young guns bombed out in the first round.

At 28, David Goffin is the youngest player left in the eight-man field and no current star under the age of 30 has a grand slam title to their name.

In the last decade only Andy Murray (three grand slam titles), Stan Wawrinka (three), Juan Martin del Potro (one) and Marin Cilic (one) have enjoyed major success alongside the Big Three. The way Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are playing at the All England Club you can't see anyone toppling them until they retire.

After copping a straight sets hiding from Federer in the fourth round, 23-year-old Matteo Berrettini thanked the Swiss for giving him a tennis lesson and the biggest names in the sport - on the men's side - have all been asked recently about why none of the younger brigade have been able to challenge their dominance.

Federer said experience helps on grass because it's a surface where if things go wrong early in a match, it's easy to panic, and also pointed to the desire of his fellow veterans to stay at the top as a reason why Gen Next was finding it impossible to break through.

"I think the best guys now are fully engaged, they know exactly what to expect from the court and the conditions. That helps us to play better," Federer said after his latest win.

"I think with experience, that's good. We haven't dropped much energy in any way. It's not like we're coming in with an empty tank into the second week.

"All these little things help us to then really thrive in these conditions. I don't know what else it is."

Djokovic echoed the Fed Express's sentiments, saying a determination not to get knocked off by younger players is what drives the top dogs to maintain their standards.

"We are working as hard as anybody really to be there. I think the experience we have helps confidence, everything that we have achieved in our careers obviously we carry onto the court, then most of the players feel that, feel pressure," Djokovic set after disposing of Frenchman Ugo Humbert 6-3 6-2 6-3.

"It takes hours of training, preparation, recovery. It's a lifestyle really. Dedication truly pays off. I guess each one of us top three guys is different, but I think we share that in common, that we just love the game and we are very dedicated to it.

"We have high aims all the time. I don't think any one of us plays for fun or to just be part of the tour. We play there to be the best in the world. I think competitiveness between us has escalated over the years, has brought us to that level where we are still competing.

"We talked about it many times, of course, that you see new faces in sport. Young guys will eventually replace us at the top spots of the world. This is going to happen. When? Hopefully not too soon, but it's going to happen."

The fear of Gen Next yapping at his heels doesn't motivate Nadal. Instead, rather than focusing on the flaws of the next group coming through, the Spaniard opted to focus on how "special" it's been to see him, Federer and Djokovic reign supreme for so long in a manner that won't be seen again anytime soon.

It's a belief shared by longtime tennis journalist Jon Wertheim, who wrote in a Sports Illustrated column last week the first topic that must be tackled whenever the debate about Gen Next emerges is just how good the Big Three is.

"Individually and collectively, the Big Three is/are incredible. That overused word is meant literally here. As in, scarcely believable," Wertheim wrote.

"What they have done is unlikely ever to be replicated or fully appreciated. We can't have this discussion before first acknowledging that the Big Three are extraordinary."

Wertheim also noted the best-of-five sets format helps the top players ride out momentum shifts whenever they're caught on the hop, because they're able to absorb punches and find their groove again with enough time to win the match.

He also said with each passing grand slam won by Federer, Djokovic or Nadal, the pressure intensifies on younger players and increases the burden on them.

It's a different story on the women's side. There have been nine winners of the past 10 majors with Naomi Osaka winning both the US Open and Australian Open in that time. Angelique Kerber has won three grand slams and before her first triumph, Serena Williams won three of the four majors in 2015.

The American's dominance before becoming a mother was extraordinary but nothing in the women's game has resembled what we've seen from Federer, Djokovic and Nadal in terms of sustained success from a core group of players.

After a stirring three-set win over Alison Riske in the quarter-finals, Williams was asked about the contrast between the two tours, saying the unpredictability surrounding which female will win a tournament is healthy for the sport.

"I think that makes it super exciting," Williams said. "You want to come to see some tennis.

"I think, if anything, it speaks for the level of all players, the depth of the women's field. Everyone is playing incredibly tough."

The Big Three's dominance is certainly healthy for their trophy cabinets and bank balances, but just when - if ever - their stranglehold on men's tennis ends remains to be seen. Chances are, it won't be at Wimbledon.

News Corp Australia

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