Can any player outside the Big 3 win a Grand Slam in 2019?
Such has been the dominance of the Big 3 in tennis that one needs to go all the way back to US Open 2016 to find an instance where someone other than Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic won a Grand Slam.
Stan Wawrinka won that tournament, defeating Djokovic in the final. Since then, Federer, Nadal and Djokovic have won 3 Grand slams apiece. The unparalleled supremacy of these three in their mid and late 30s is beyond anyone’s imagination. At the same time, it is also a little scary if you are concerned about the rest of the pack and in general about the future and well-being of the sport.
Year after year passes in anticipation of the rise of either a next gen star finally breaking the jinx to claim their first Slam or an old warhorse shredding their burden of expectations to dethrone the big 3. On that note, we take a look at the probable contenders who could break the Big 3 monopoly over the Majors this year:
French Open 2019: Dominic Thiem
If we tennis fans are commissioners of tennis as John McEnroe calls himself in his talk show, Roland Garros of this year would be an open and shut case - as it has always been since the undisputed king of clay Nadal began his dominance on the surface.
But this time Djokovic has put himself in pole position to record his second non-calendar Grand Slam. As if this is not enough, we have Federer announcing his comeback to the red dirt of Paris after taking a break of 3 years.
In the midst of all this, considering the tiring nature of the French Open, it is extremely difficult to think of anybody outside of the Big 3 as a potential contender to claim the most prestigious title on clay. However, one name that has become quite a household if you have followed the past two clay seasons is none other than Austria’s Dominic Thiem.
Thiem has been the only player in the last two years to have defeated Nadal on clay. He achieved the feat in the Rome quarterfinal of 2017 and the Madrid quarterfinal of 2018, causing a few problems to the Spaniard.
Moreover, Thiem has been a finalist at Barcelona and Madrid in 2017, and at Madrid and Roland Garros in 2018. He has a game that is best suited for clay.
Thiem has a thunderous single-handed backhand, along with the ability to hit deep and hard on clay. His water-tight defense and outstanding court coverage make the Austrian a strong contender on Court Philippe-Chatrier.
He can draw inspiration from his experience of playing big matches against top players in the past, and especially from his appearance in the final at last year’s Roland Garros. If he continues to keep believing in his prowess to secure his first ever Grand Slam on a surface where he feels he belongs the most, he could well go all the way this year.
Wimbledon 2019: Marin Cilic / Juan Martin del Potro / Kevin Anderson
On the lush green grasscourts of SW19 at Wimbledon, the story of the dominance of its men’s champions is not too different as compared to that of Roland Garros.
Right since 2003, the year when Roger Federer won his first ever Wimbledon title and made the grasscourts at All England Club his own, all the way until 2018, the coveted Wimbledon trophy has circulated among just four 'gentlemen', as they call them at London - Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and the Brit himself, Andy Murray.
The likes of Andy Roddick, Tomas Berdych, Marin Cilic and many others have desperately tried to put their hands on the prestigious title, only to go through the pain of ignominious defeat.
The fast grasscourts at SW19 have always showered unadulterated love on the big servers of the game and will continue to do so this year too, offering them chances in abundance to serve and volley, by far the most lethal strategy on grasscourts. In light of all these factors, I believe the veterans in Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro, as well as last year’s Wimbledon runner-up Kevin Anderson, stand a fair chance to lift their maiden Wimbledon title.
All the three players possess a really good serve and have a good overall game that is especially well-suited for grass.
Cilic not only had a dream run at Wimbledon 2017 before eventually capitulating to the great Federer in the final, but also was a runner-up at the Aegon championships at Queen’s club in 2017 and a champion in 2018. He is very much capable of walking off with a Grand Slam title at this year’s Wimbledon Championships.
Del Potro’s biggest nemesis is not his opponent but his own injury-prone body; if he is fit and raring to go, we all are well-aware of what he is be capable of. Even though he lost on both the occasions, his epic performances against Djokovic and Nadal in the semi-final and quarter-final of 2013 and 2018 respectively were nothing short of spectacular, and are still fresh as new in our minds.
Del Potro has one of the most powerful and deadliest of forehands in the game. And if he remains injury-free, which he unfortunately isn't at the moment, he has all the experience, techniques and tricks under his belt to have a serious shot at SW19.
As for Anderson, I know he is not getting any younger, but the last two years have easily been his best years on the tour so far. Defeating Federer after trailing 0-2 in the set count in the quarter-final last year not only speaks about his immense potential but also about his resilient character and unconquerable self-belief.
Moreover, Anderson's calm and composed demeanor along with nerves of steel helped him get past the tall American John Isner in what was an epic 6 hour 36 minutes semi-final. If Anderson has a bit of luck on his side with a relatively easy draw, unlike last year which was full of tricky and tough players, the tall South African has a game tailor-made for grasscourts and an attitude of a champion.
US Open 2019: Kei Nishikori / Alexander Zverev / Stefanos Tsitsipas
If there is one Grand Slam that was open, up for grabs and a little unpredictable in nature, it has to be the US Open. The factors like soaring high temperatures, at times extreme humidity of New York and slow nature of the courts, have proven to be impactful more often than not - and so cannot be neglected if one has to predict the probables for the title.
The US Open remains the only Slam where players outside of the Big 3 have tasted a fair bit of success in recent times. Flushing Meadows is home to various opportunities and surprises.
Based on his performances in the past not only at Flushing Meadows but also at the other hard court events, Japan’s Kei Nishikori would start as a plausible contender to lay his hands on this year’s US Open title. His quarter-final run at this year’s Aussie Open and a semi-final run at last year’s US Open are nothing but encouraging signs for Nishikori going forward.
He has the right amount of experience; he knows the courts at Flushing Meadows really well, thanks to his one final and two semi-final appearances. And his at times unconventional, yet diverse and effective approach would give him a good chance to finally break the jinx at this year’s US Open.
The German Next Gen star Alexander Zverev, who will turn 22 this April, has been on the tour for a while now but unfortunately has promised a lot more than he has actually managed to deliver. In spite of having a relatively disappointing 2018, he had a shining moment, an inspiration to build upon, at the year-end Nitto ATP Finals when he toppled No. 1 seed Novak Djokovic in the finals.
Zverev is still extremely young and will only improve with time. His all-round display of power, timing, precision, good serving, finesse and agility certainly makes him a forerunner on the hard courts of Flushing Meadows. If he can manage his composure and get some of his technical shortcomings fixed, he will surely be one of the men to beat at this year’s US Open.
The Greek sensation Stefanos Tsitsipas, who idolizes Federer, may be one of the most complete players among the Next Gen stars we have on tour currently. Not only did he have a sensational run at this year’s Australian Open, where he managed to reach the Grand Slam semis for the first time ever, but he was also phenomenal at last year’s Toronto Masters where he reached the finals after getting the better of Thiem, Djokovic, Zverev and Anderson.
Tsitsipas has modeled his game around that of the great Roger Federer, and his single-handed backhand, ability to serve big and lightning quick court coverage make him a player for the future. From what we saw at the Aussie Open, the signs look promising for the young Greek.
Is this year going to be the one where we finally come across the changing of the guard in tennis? Or will the Next Gen stars have to wait a little longer before they can make a long-lasting impression on the sport? It will be interesting to find out.