New rivalries ready to ignite men's tennis

Federer and Nadal have squared off 39 times and Federer and Djokovic 47 while Djokovic and Nadal’s 54-match rivalry is the most prolific and competitive in the history of men’s tennis.

Stefanos Tsitsipas goes through to the Australian Open semifinal after sweeping past Spain's Roberto Bautista Agut. Picture: @AustralianOpen/Twitter

LONDON - For more than a decade, tennis fans have been over-indulging in the greatest box-set rivalries the sport has known as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic battled for supremacy.

Federer and Nadal have squared off 39 times and Federer and Djokovic 47 while Djokovic and Nadal’s 54-match rivalry is the most prolific and competitive in the history of men’s tennis.

Compelling and addictive as they are, those hooked by them know with each passing episode the end moves a little closer.

In the case of the big three, now aged 37, 33 and 32 respectively, it could be argued they have already exhausted the narrative, claiming 53 Grand Slams between them since 2003.

They have won 15 of the last 18 Grand Slam titles and all of the last 10 — sending new sub-plots to the cutting room floor.

Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, each with three Grand Slams, have been impressive co-stars while Andy Roddick, Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro have briefly shone.

But the nagging fear has been what would happen when the credits roll for the final time.

New flames are emerging from the embers of arguably the greatest ever era, however, with 20-year-old Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas, Germany’s Alexander Zverev (22) and Canadian duo Denis Shapovalov and Felix Auger-Aliassime, aged 20 and 18 respectively, set to ignite the next generation.

World number six Tsitsipas has career wins over the big three and is being tipped as the man most likely to win the race to a first Grand Slam title — taking over from 2018 ATP Tour Finals champion Zverev in the pecking order.

Shapovalov became the youngest player to beat a top-two opponent for 13 years when he overcame Nadal in Montreal in 2017 and while he is still striving to harness his electrifying game he will be seeded 29th at Wimbledon.


And Shapovalov is not even the best youngster in Canada anymore. That title goes to Auger-Aliassime who will head to his first Wimbledon seeded 19th after a whirlwind rise from outside the top 100 at the start of the year.

“It’s boring to see these guys win all the time,” Tsitsipas said last week at Queen’s Club where he was beaten by Auger-Aliassime in the quarterfinals.

“We are responsible, we work hard and believe in ourselves if we can come up with something new, come up with our best games to beat those guys.”

There has been impatience that the passing of the torch has yet to happen but seven-times Grand Slam champion John McEnroe believes the new crop are closing in and will inspire each other to forge rivalries that will sustain the sport.

“Tsitsipas I think is going to be a great champion and player. He’s got everything that you could hope for. And I think that this Canadian, Aliassime, is going to be — to me he’s going to be a number one,” the American, who will be working for broadcaster ESPN as a summariser, said.

“We all know that (Federer, Nadal and Djokovic) have gotten better because of each other, I know I got better because I had to get better in a way with (Bjorn) Borg, (Ivan) Lendl and (Jimmy) Connors.

“An individual sport desperately needs (rivalries).”

While people will mourn the day those greats call it a day, Shapovalov said his peer group will fill the void.

“People say what are we going to do when they are gone,” he told Reuters at the Boodles exhibition event where he beat Djokovic this week.

“But we have so many great young players. We don’t know who will be at the top but we are going to see rivalries that are just as good or even better.

“I think it’s an exciting time to be part of the Tour.”

At the moment those rivalries are in their infancy. Time will tell whether they turn into blockbusters.