The BNP Paribas opened begins this week as professional tennis comes to a crossroads, navigating an uncertain future without the great rivalry between the “Big Three” of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic on the men’s side and without Serena Williams’ charisma and historic achievements to set standards for women.
Stars appear, peak, fall. It’s the cycle of athletic life on the field, ice, field or field. But as the main draw kicks off at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden on Wednesday, the sport is facing the absence – permanent or temporary – of many of its most recognizable stars from one of its biggest stages.
Tennis desperately needs successful, magnetic players to fill the void as an exceptional generation dies out. Carlos Alcaraz of Spain, last year’s US Open men’s champion at age 19, and Iga Swiatek of Poland, who won the women’s titles at Indian Wells and the US Open last year, are leading the talk of the next generation, but have left their long longevity not proven. They would move the conversation forward significantly by winning at Indian Wells where each is No. 1.
Williams, who prefers to “evolve” to “retire”, retired last year with 23 Grand Slam titles. Naomi Osaka, seemingly poised for a stellar career after winning four Slam titles, was slowed down by mental health issues. She is now taking time off while pregnant. Ash Barty retired last year after winning her third Slam championship in her native Australia.
The male landscape is also dramatically different. Federer retired last year with 20 Grand Slam titles. Plagued by frequent injuries, Nadal has a leg problem that will keep him out of the Indian Wells and Miami hard-court events. He will fall outside the top 10 after Indian Wells for the first time since April 2005.
Djokovic, who recently broke Steffi Graff’s record for most weeks at No. 1 when he hit 378, pulled out of Indian Wells after being denied a waiver from government regulations requiring non-citizens to be vaccinated against COVID-19 before they entering the U.S. That rule will probably be repealed before the U.S. Open where he could break his tie with Nadal with 22 Slam titles each but his absence this week will add to the big loss tennis has taken since the Big Three Became Big Two. And, at Indian Wells, a big zero.
“Our greatest curse and also our greatest blessing is the dominance of these three great players. These guys are legends,” said Paul Annacone, a former tour player who provides commentary for Tennis Channel and helps the coach defend Indian Wells champion Taylor Fritz.
“What we are used to now has never been seen in the history of the game. You have three guys who have over 60 major titles combined. That’s the most ridiculous thing in the history of tennis,” Annacone added. “We are used to that. It feels normal because we’ve seen that for the past decade and a half or two.
Welcome to a new normal. That won’t be a bad thing at all if players take the avenues open to them in Slams and tournaments like Indian Wells, widely regarded as the fifth major. At the top there is room for new faces.
Some are well on their way – among them Swiatek, seeded number 1 and favorite to defend her title. No. 3 Jessica Pegula is the top ranked American woman. Coco Gauff, seeded No. 6, is in the same bottom quarter of the draw as No. 2 seeded and recent Australian Open winner Aryna Sabalenka. Somewhere out there is someone who will end a Grand Slam singles drought among American men dating back to Andy Roddick’s 2003 win at the US Open.
Nostalgia is fine, but anticipation is also powerful. “It’s also really exciting now to see the possibility of ‘Who’s next?’ Annacone said. “Now, as a tennis fan, I’m like ‘Which one of you is capable?’ And for me that’s exciting. It’s exciting as a fan. Intrinsically for me, as a coach, it’s exciting because I get to see who can best manage that environment.
“Who of you can handle that possibility and not necessarily handle the physical skill it takes? I think there are a lot of players who can handle that. But I think there are very few who can deal with the mental expectation and the mental pressure, and I think whoever does that best will be the one who comes forward.”
That person could be Alcaraz, who proved his mental and physical stamina at the US Open last year. But he’s been troubled by a hamstring injury that has seen him skip a tournament in Acapulco, Mexico, and an exhibition in Las Vegas, leaving his fitness unclear.
The last man standing could also be Daniil Medvedev, who last year became the first man other than Djokovic, Federer, Nadal or Andy Murry to be ranked No. 1 in the world since 2004. Seeded No. 5, he rides a 14 match winning streak including a win over Djokovic last week in Dubai and three titles in a row.
It could also be Fritz, who is ranked No. 5 best in the world and placed No. 4 at Indian Wells. Annacone is biased, of course, but said he thinks the Southern California native is willing to step up after winning the title last year, reaching the Wimbledon quarterfinals, winning a tournament in Tokyo and advancing to the semi-finals at the year-end tour event.
“I think he’s at the top of all young boys in terms of the ability to manage big moments, trust himself in big moments and play his best tennis in big moments,” said Annacone.
The sooner such players appear on both tours, the better. Not to make anyone forget about Williams or the Federer-Nadal-Djokovic rivalry, but to honor them by striving for their level of excellence.