MIKE DICKSON: Novak Djokovic, 35, and Rafa Nadal, 36, still look so dominant and could rule the Slams next year… so are the Big Two supermen or is the new generation just WEAK?
- The men’s and women’s top 10 in its weakest state so far this century
- Rafa Nadal finished 2022 ranked No 2 despite playing only 12 tour events
- Novak Djokovic is world No 5 without the ranking benefits of three majors
As Lionel Messi, 35, prepares to play in his fifth World Cup on Tuesday — great rival Cristiano Ronaldo, 37, will join him on Thursday — over on planet tennis, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, 36 and 35, keep producing too.
In the wake of the latter’s triumph at the ATP Finals in Turin, nobody would be surprised if the men’s honour roll at 2023’s first three Slams reads Djokovic-Nadal-Djokovic.
The Spaniard finished 2022 ranked No 2 despite playing only 12 tour events; the Serb is No 5 despite featuring in only 11 (and without the ranking benefits of three majors).
When it most matters they are still streets ahead. This leads to an unavoidable conclusion: not only is the women’s top 10 in its weakest state so far this century, so is the men’s.
Novak Djokovic and Rafa Nadal still look so dominant and could rule the Slams next year
Djokovic’s rivalry with Nadal as been compared to Ronaldo’s (L) rivalry with Messi (R)
There is a frisson of anxiety around tennis. Roger Federer, Serena Williams and Ash Barty all retired this year.
Broadcasters — obliged by their bosses to talk the product up — do not like to ask the question, but why do the Big Two still look so dominant when past their physical peak? One interesting pointer in Turin came in the press conference of Stefanos Tsitsipas after defeat by Andrey Rublev.
Djokovic (above) beat Casper Ruud of Norway the singles final of the Nitto ATP Finals 2022 tournament at the Pala Alpitour arena in Turin on Sunday
The Serb is No 5 despite featuring in only 11 (and without the ranking benefits of three majors)
The Greek declared that his opponent ‘prevailed with the few tools that he has’. Great offence was taken on the Russian’s behalf, but there was some inconvenient truth in it.
Rublev has a limited game, but it has not stopped him becoming entrenched in the top 10. And at No 4, Tsitsipas was admitting he was not good enough to deal with it.
Djokovic beat Casper Ruud on Sunday, despite a shaky first set. Once he began hitting deep to the backhand the outcome was never in doubt.
Ruud has improved a lot this year and is a fine athlete, yet it is fair to question if he would be good enough in another era to reach two major finals.
Meanwhile, Nadal (above) finished 2022 ranked No 2 despite playing only 12 tour events
This is not to deny the brilliance of Djokovic or Nadal, but it should be asked how they keep doing it. One reason might be the universality of playing conditions; another may be the deference towards the big beasts in the locker room (Nick Kyrgios is a rare exception).
In Carlos Alcaraz there is the promise of a generational talent. Maybe Jannik Sinner and cocksure Danish teen Holger Rune too. If he stays fit Jack Draper could be part of that conversation.
Yet it is hard to escape the vision of a greying Djokovic and Nadal lifting the trophies they care about. And also hard to escape that everyone else might not be as good as we are told they are.
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