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Daniil Medvedev is all set to overtake Rafael Nadal & become World No. 2, but does that really mean anything?

Rafael Nadal and Daniil Medvedev
Rafael Nadal and Daniil Medvedev
Rudra Biswas
ANALYST
Modified 26 Feb 2021
Feature

Novak Djokovic took another giant step in his march towards immortality on Sunday, by winning his ninth Australian Open title. Perhaps just as significantly though, he once again denied the charge of the Next Gen - and that too with consummate ease.

In the final of the tournament, Novak Djokovic completely overwhelmed Daniil Medvedev for the loss of just nine games. And Medvedev is supposedly the best of the young group.

The entire tennis world knows how hard it is to beat Novak Djokovic in a Grand Slam final. But the one-sided nature of the Serb's win has reignited questions about whether the Next Gen is even close to making its long-awaited breakthrough.

Daniil Medvedev's stock has risen considerably over the past few months, having won titles at the Paris Masters, the ATP Finals and the ATP Cup. Before the final, the 25-year-old was on a 20-match winning streak - which included victories over Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal.

While Medvedev failed to win his first Major title in Melbourne, his run propelled him to a career-high ranking of No. 3 in the world. The Russian's recent good form has now brought him within spitting distance of the World No. 2 spot, currently occupied by Rafael Nadal.

Medvedev, in fact, can take over the No. 2 ranking when both men play at the Rotterdam Open next month - provided he fares better than Nadal. But can he really be considered a better player than the Spaniard, given that he keeps falling short at the biggest of stages?

Daniil Medvedev could soon become the first non-Big 4 World No. 2 since Lleyton Hewitt in 2005

Daniil Medvedev will be looking to overtake Rafael Nadal in the rankings
Daniil Medvedev will be looking to overtake Rafael Nadal in the rankings

At the moment Rafael Nadal occupies the No. 2 ranking with a tally of 9,850 points, just 115 points ahead of Daniil Medvedev who is at 9,735 points. Nadal has not been able to gain any new points under the new COVID-adjusted ranking system, while Medvedev has been accumulating points by the truckload over the last four months.

Moreover, Daniil Medvedev had lost in the first round of the Rotterdam Open last year, gaining zero points from the event. In his next tournament of the 2020 season, the Russian had won just one match before being bundled out by Gilles Simon, earning 45 points from the event.

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That means the Russian has only 45 points to defend going into the Rotterdam Open. In other words, the Spaniard would have to win the Rotterdam title if he hopes to keep Medvedev from snatching the World No. 2 ranking.

Even if he makes the final and loses (thus earning 300 points), Nadal will suffer a net shortfall of 200 points.

Moreover, Daniil Medvedev can also take the matter out of Rafael Nadal's hands entirely. If the Russian reaches the Rotterdam semifinals, he will have gained 135 points (180-45), thus overtaking Nadal no matter what the Spaniard does.

Either way, Daniil Medvedev is firmly in line to become the first non-Big 4 player to be ranked World No. 2 since Lleyton Hewitt occupied that spot back in July 2005. In the 16 years since Hewitt's feat, the top two rankings have been monopolized by the 'Big 4' - Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

Medvedev's achievement looks like tennis history in the making, when you consider how long the Big 4 have occupied the top two coveted spots. But the fact remains that the Russian needed Roger Federer to go AWOL and Rafael Nadal to struggle with physical problems for his ascent to become a reality.

Despite putting together a 20-match winning streak, Medvedev still has a long way to go before he can be considered a contender for the title of best player in the world.

The current Next Gen is the most successful young generation since the Class of 2009, but that isn't saying much

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Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in 2008
Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic in 2008

Over the last few decades, the sport has exponentially evolved when it comes to the relationship between players' ages and their corresponding success. In the early 90s, tennis was dominated by players in their 20s; in fact, in April 1991, there were only three players in the top 50 of the rankings who were aged 30 or older.

A lot of time has passed since then, and the ranking trends have changed drastically. The game became a lot more physical at the advent of the new century, requiring players to raise the bar in terms of physical conditioning and training. Now, the top male players are able to prolong their careers and play at a high level well into their 30s.

The generation that was supposed to be at its prime in the mid-2010s decade is sometimes called the 'Lost Generation', and was spearheaded Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and Kei Nishikori. The inconsistent results of the players from this generation gave the veterans a boost, eventually leading to the transition of men's tennis into a so-called 'old man's game'.

Currently, about 50% of the players ranked in the top 50 of the ATP rankings are aged 30 or older. That said, 30-year-old players doing well on the tour doesn't exactly mean the Next Gen are sitting ducks everywhere.

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In 2018, the Next Gen became the first generation since the Nadal-Djokovic-Murray generation of 2009 to have at least 10 23-and-under players inside the top 50 of the official rankings. Since then the Next Gen have continued their climb up the rankings, and have even started winning tournaments regularly.

In 2020, the likes of Andrey Rublev, Jannik Sinner, Felix Auger-Aliassime, Ugo Humbert, Alex de Minaur, Casper Ruud, Cristian Garin and Reilly Opelka gave the veterans a significant pushback, accounting for a hefty percentage of the tour titles. The likes of Denis Shapovalov, Matteo Berrettini, Borna Coric and Karen Khachanov also have world-class games, even if they have not won a title recently.

So is the Next Gen breakthrough really happening? Yes, but only in terms of statistics

Daniil Medvedev looks on as Novak Djokovic delivers the Australian Open winner speech
Daniil Medvedev looks on as Novak Djokovic delivers the Australian Open winner speech

During the Australian Open, Novak Djokovic laid down a challenge to the Next Gen by insisting that their takeover wasn't "realistically happening". But how much truth was there to the Serb's warning?

The trio of Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have dominated the top echelons of men's tennis for well over a decade, and are still a cut above the Next Gen. The trio's legacy has also put a lot of pressure on the younger generation, the best of whom are Daniil Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev and Andrey Rublev.

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Blessed with a great deal of talent and willing to put in the hard yards, each of these youngsters has been touted as a future Slam champion. But outside of Dominic Thiem's 2020 US Open title, no player other than the Big 3 has actually been able to deliver on the Slam stage.

Thiem himself is 27 years old, which means he isn't exactly a part of the Next Gen. In other words, the Next Gen still has no representative in the Slam champions' circle, suggesting that they are nowhere close to taking over the mantle from the Big 3.

As cruel as this might sound, ranking breakthroughs mean little in front of honors like the Wimbledon trophy or the Coupe des Mousquetaires. The Next Gen needs to win Slams to truly announce themselves in the sport. Stringing together a few wins against top players and reaching new ranking highs are impressive feats, but they are nothing in comparison to Grand Slam glory.

The Next Gen still has a lot to learn before they can match the Big 3 in terms of big stage performance. Don't let Daniil Medvedev's No. 2 ranking let you think otherwise.

Published 24 Feb 2021, 17:32 IST
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