ANALYSIS: How often did the young big three lose first round matches, and how does it compare to Next Gen?

In all honesty, the young players of today are on a hiding to nothing when it comes to comparisons with the big three – Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Roger Federer.

When you are talking about arguably the three greatest male players of all time, all playing at the same time, you are dealing with a major anomaly.

And, in fairness, that is taken into consideration. The best young players on the ATP Tour are not criticised for not winning as many majors, and as quickly as, the big three because, frankly, no other generation has had so many legends to have to overcome.

This week, though, both Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev crashed out of Rotterdam at the first hurdle. There were mitigating circumstances, of course, most prominently that they were coming off the back of a particularly tough Grand Slam played with unique physical challenges.

That said, it didn’t exactly feel all that unusual either, and that got us thinking…

We know Djokovic, Federer, and Nadal now as colossuses of the game, but at one point they were in the same position as the Next Gen are today.

So we took a look at their record in tournaments for a five year period from the day they broke into the top ten.

They were young, they were inexperienced, and their games as we know them today had not yet fully developed. However, they were still top ten players, meaning first-round matches against players they’d expect to beat.

So, how many times did the big three lose in opening matches in tournaments, and how does it compare to the top young players in the ATP today?

Roger Federer

Roger Federer at Wimbledon

Top Ten debut: 20-05-2002
Opening match defeats in next five years: 9
Average opening match defeats/year: 1.8

We have grown so accustomed to the graceful silky smooth game of Roger Federer now that it is easy to forget that it took him a little while to truly find himself on a tennis court.

Once it all clicked, it was sensational, but before that he was definitely more vulnerable than his legacy would suggest.

After breaking into the top ten he lost twice in opening matches of a tournament to lucky losers, and three times his Grand Slam campaigns came to an end in round one.

As fate would have it, his future coach, Ivan Ljubicic, dumped Federer out after one match in Cincinnati too.

27-05-2002 – Hicham Arazi – French Open (C)
24-06-2002 – Mario Ancic – Wimbledon (G)
29-07-2002 – Guillermo Canas – Canada (H)
04-08-2002 – Ivan Ljubicic  – Cincinnati (H)
19-08-2002 – Nicolas Massu – Long Island (H)
06-01-2003 – Franco Squillari – Sydney (H)
26-05-2003 – Luis Horna – French Open (C)
02-08-2004 – Dominik Hrbaty – Cincinnati (H)
05-03-2007 – Guillermo Canas  – Indian Wells (H)

Rafael Nadal 

Rafael Nadal celebrates at US Open

Top Ten debut: 25-04-2005
Opening match defeats in next five years: 2
Average opening match defeats/year: 0.4

Rafael Nadal has a well-earned reputation for being an incredible competitor, and that’s very much on display here too.

Nadal never seems to give anything away for free, and that was the case in his earlier days too. Indeed, the only two men to eliminate him during his first matches at a tournament were fellow Spaniards – both of whom were former Grand Slam winning world number ones.

Like Federer, his future coach also got the better of him. It should also be noted that Nadal lost twice more in opening matches during this period ,but they were due to retirements.

20-03-2006 – Carlos Moya – Miami (H)
05-05-2008 – Juan Carlos Ferrero – Rome (C)
* Two further occasions due to retirements

Novak Djokovic 

Novak Djokovic celebrates at ATP Cup

Top Ten debut: 19-03-2007
Opening match defeats in next five years: 5
Average opening match defeats/year: 1

Novak Djokovic is the toughest man to beat in tennis today, and he has never really been much of a soft touch.

The Serbian was beaten just five times in opening matches of tournaments during this period of his career. One of those was against a former world number one, and another against a future multiple Grand Slam finalist.

It is also worth noting that this was the time in his career that Djokovic was, unbeknownst to him, a gluten intolerance, which makes his figures all the more impressive.

29-10-2007 – Fabrice Santoro – Paris (H-i)
13-08-2007 – Carlos Moya – Cincinnati (H)
27-03-2008 – Kevin Anderson – Miami (H)
04-01-2009 – Ernests Gulbis – Brisbane (H)
24-03-2010 – Olivier Rochus – Miami (H)

Alexander Zverev

Alexander Zverev follow through

Top Ten debut: 31-07-2017
Opening match defeats in next five years: 13
Average opening match defeats/year: 3.7

Alexander Zverev has been in the top ten for so long now you almost forget how young he still is. At just 23-years-old, there is still a lot of room to improve.

Whilst consistency is certainly something he needs to work on, Zverev immediately highlights how far behind the big three the Next Gen are here.

Zverev’s elimination at Rotterdam was the 13th time he has fallen at the first hurdle since breaking into the top ten, and he hasn’t even completed the five year period we allowed yet.

In his defence, there are some very good players in the list of players who have felled him, but there were good players in the big three’s lists too. They beat theirs more often than not, though.

14-08-2017 – Frances Tiafoe – Cincinnati (H)
30-10-2017 – Robin Haase – Paris (H-i)
05-03-2018 – Joao Sousa – Indian Wells (H)
18-06-2018 – Borna Coric – Halle (G)
13-08-2018 – Robin Haase – Cincinnati (H)
18-03-2019 – David Ferrer – Miami (H)
22-04-2019 – Nicolas Jarry – Barcelona (C)
13-05-2019 – Matteo Berrettini – Rome (C)
01-07-2019 – Jiri Vesely – Wimbledon (G)
12-08-2019 – Miomir Kecmanovic – Cincinnati (H)
21-10-2019 – Taylor Fritz – Basel (H-i)
24-08-2020 – Andy Murray – Cincinnati (H)
03-03-2021 – Alexander Bublik – Rotterdam (H-i)

Dominic Thiem

Dominic Thiem at US Open

Top Ten debut: 06-06-2016
Opening match defeats in next five years: 21
Average opening match defeats/year (approx.): 4.2

Dominic Thiem certainly can’t be considered a Next Gen player anymore, and nor would he want to. He is a Grand Slam champion in his own right and will be backing himself to win more of them.

That, though, makes it all the more surprising that in the five years after he broke into the top ten, Thiem was knocked out of tournaments at the first hurdle a staggering 21 times – an average of more than four times a year. There are also three retirements to add on as well.

What is maybe even more surprising is that a quarter of them were in clay court events. In fairness, though, you look down the list and there are some very talented players on it.

18-07-2016 – Jurgen Melzer – Kitzbuhel (C)
03-10-2016 – Alexander Zverev – Beijing (H)
31-10-2016 – Jack Sock – Paris (H-i)
06-02-2017 – Nikoloz Basilashvili – Sofia (H-i)
20-03-2017 – Borna Coric – Miami (H)
26-06-2017 – Ramkumar Ramanathan – Antalya (G)
07-08-2017 – Diego Schwartzman – Canada (H)
25-09-2017 – Guido Pella – Chengdu (H)
02-10-2017 – Steve Johnson – Tokyo (H)
09-10-2017 – Viktor Troicki – Shanghai (H)
14-05-2018 – Fabio Fognini – Rome (C)
30-07-2018 – Martin Klizan – Kitzbuhel (C)
06-08-2018 – Stefanos Tsitsipas – Canada (H)
08-10-2018 – Matthew Ebden – Shanghai (H)
31-12-2018 – Pierre Hugues Herbert – Doha (H)
18-02-2019 – Laslo Djere – Rio (C)
18-03-2019 – Hubert Hurkacz – Miami (H)
13-05-2019 – Fernando Verdasco – Rome (C)
01-07-2019 – Sam Querrey – Wimbledon (G)
26-08-2019 – Thomas Fabbiano – US Open (H)
24-08-2020 – Filip Krajinovic – Cincinnati (H)
* Three further occasions due to retirements

Stefanos Tsitsipas

Stefanos Tsitsipas ATP Finals

Top Ten debut: 04-03-2019
Opening match defeats in next five years: 8
Average opening match defeats/year (approx.): 4

Ah Stefanos Tsitsipas. The Greek is a player who is pretty much impossible to not love, although we’d argue no player swings so often and so spectacularly from one end of the performance spectrum to the other.

You sit down to watch him play and you know that the name of his opponent is largely irrelevant because he is capable of beating anyone and capable of losing to anyone.

That is highlighted by his eight opening match defeats in tournaments since he broke into the top ten almost exactly two years ago.

Like for Thiem, though, you’d have to say there are players on the list that would be very tough opening rounds for anyone.

04-03-2019 – Felix Auger Aliassime – Indian Wells (H)
10-06-2019 – Nicolas Jarry – s-Hertogenbosch (G)
01-07-2019 – Thomas Fabbiano – Wimbledon (G)
05-08-2019 – Hubert Hurkacz – Canada (H)
12-08-2019 – Jan Lennard Struff – Cincinnati (H)
26-08-2019 – Andrey Rublev – US Open (H)
14-09-2020 – Jannik Sinner – Rome (C)
02-11-2020 – Ugo Humbert – Paris (H-i)
* One further occasion due to retirements

Daniil Medvedev

Daniil Medvedev at Australian Open

Top Ten debut: 15-7-2019
Opening match defeats in next five years: 5
Average opening match defeats/year (approx.): 3.3

Daniil Medvedev is 25-years-old now although he is still a relative newcomer to the top ten.

It is surprising, then, that he has lost five opening matches in the short time since his breakthrough, particularly given there was a five month Tour suspension for Covid in the middle of it.

Medvedev, though, can be a bit of a slave to his moods, and if he’s not in the groove he can struggle to find it.

28-10-2019 – Jeremy Chardy – Paris (H-i)
10-02-2020 – Vasek Pospisil – Rotterdam (H-i)
21-09-2020 – Ugi Humbert – Hamburg (C)
28-09-2020 – Marton Fucsovics – French Open (C)
03-03-2021 – Dusan Lajovic – Rotterdam (H-i)

Conclusions

It is clear that the top younger players on the ATP Tour today lose in their first matches in tournaments far more often than the big three did at comparable times in their careers.

The reasons, though, are much harder to pin down.

The obvious temptation is to say they simply are not as good as the big three are, or were – and they’re not. That much is obvious.

But the really interesting question is whether that can singularly explain the disparity of the figures or is it just one factor?

For example, has tennis itself moved on so that lower ranked players are more competitive than ever? Perhaps modern string technology and training methods have levelled the playing field more than when the big three were making their mark?

It is tough to say ultimately, but one thing that is certain is our initial hunch was right – the younger players on the ATP Tour today make far more early exits from tournaments than those they hope to emulate ever did.

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