Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal | AP
As 2021slowly fades away into history the one thing sports fans did not miss in the year despite the threat of the pandemic has been the action on the field be it tennis, football or cricket. From restrictive settings to partial opening up of the stadiums, fans were ready to complete the picture of sporting arenas. Yet it will be for a different reason that tennis fans would be waiting with bated breath as 2022 nears! Yes, the excitement will be on knowing whether the famed triumvirate Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic will continue to earn the focus that had been their right or will the next generation players step in to announce a change of order. So much has been happening behind the scene to add an element of suspense to the settings, so to say! Federer has another knee surgery, his third while Nadal is nursing a foot injury while Djokovic to start with is unclear whether he would be there for the Australian Open considering the latest stipulation of wanting players to be vaccinated before coming over to Melbourne. The Serbian great is silent on his vaccination status and that adds to the mystery of his participation!
At the start of this year too there were discussions on whether the trio would continue to ride high and surely as we had seen they had demanded attention. Djokovic in particular had the spotlight on him as he looked tantalisingly close to winning his 21st Grand Slam (U S open) and stay clear of the other two in the race for most Grand Slam title wins. As it happened the defeat there also ended his dream of a Calendar Grand Slam. The Russian and the lead aspirant from the next Generation players, Daniil Medvedev was the reason. Leaving aside all that, what has to be considered as we look ahead is age and other factors. Nobody is growing younger. At 40 Federer many would believe he is very much on the last phase of his illustrious career. True nobody would wish to see that happen. For what will tennis be without his presence and his class not to mention the way he conducts himself on and off the court. Talk of excellence and both Nadal and Djokovic too have an enviable record each. If Nadal is considered a clay-court specialist then the Serbian is considered one of the greatest in terms of his return of serves and all round play. Djokovic still remains the best bet to move ahead and perhaps realise the dream of a 21st Grand Slam but who knows. Change after all is the essence of life and so too in sports.
One clear pointer to what is in store for the coming year was reflected from the year-ending ATP Tour finals_ the emergence of the Gen-Next players. Djokovic for instance will have his hands full as he virtually attempts to stave off the challenge from Medvedev, Alexander Zverer, Dominic Thiem and Stefanos Tsitsipas. Federer on the other hand is clearly past his prime and now injury prone. Following his latest surgery he aims for serious competition only towards the middle of 2022. His last Grand Slam triumph was at the Australian Open in 2018. As for Nadal who is five years younger does not appear the force he was. His last Grand Slam triumph was at his favourite French Open in 2020 and since then he too has had his fitness issues and the going has not been smooth for this Spaniard.
At 34 Djokovic has been relatively free from injuries and in good touch to boot. Since the February of 2020 he has been at the summit of the ranking and finishes this year remaining there at the top, a record seventh time, eclipsing all other greats in the sport. True he may be firmly perched on top of the ATP rankings table but he is aware the challenge from the GenNext of players is growing. If it was Medvedev who ended Djokovic’s calendar Grand Slam hopes at the US Open then it was Zverev who dashed his dreams of a Golden Slam in the semi-finals at the Tokyo Olympics. At the ATP Tour finals in Turin, Zverev faced the test of his abilities and composure by playing Djokovic and Medvedev in back to back matches and indeed he came through with remarkable success, becoming only the fourth player in the tournament’s history to register semifinal and final wins over the world’s top two players. What is more, he was the first player to do so since 1990.
Indeed even though it was Medvedev who was placed second in the year-end ranking, it was Zverev ranked third who it can be said had a most impressive run. Such closeness is the rivalry of these two. Zverev's victory at the ATP Tour finals gave the 24-year-old German the most number of titles for the year (6) and his 59 victories overall in ATP tournaments were the best on the Tour. The one thing that eluded him is a Grand Slam glory and last year’s entry into the US Open final must have inspired him to set his sights on changing all that this time. Only time will tell if Zverev or Medvedev can dislodge Djokovic for the world No 1 position in the near future. But their chances are looking better than ever. Tsitsipas No 4 in the year-end rankings is another major challenger even if his Grand Slam record has not been impressive while Thiem’s rather indifferent form seen in last year’s US Open champion has pushed him down to No 15 in the rankings one above Federer. Indeed it is unusual for Federer to finish the year with such a low ranking as it is for Nadal who is No 6. And therein lies the indication of what is in store!