Wimbledon men's champions: Will 19 years of dominance enter a more open era?

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The men’s draw for Wimbledon 2022 was a slightly weakened field, with no Russian players and ranking points taken away. Looking at it then, the thought that came to mind was: “where are the big upsets going to come from?” This wasn’t because of that weakened field; it was because there were two players that were simply miles ahead of the rest. And the feeling proved to be prophetic, as both Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal went through the tournament undefeated.

The former won it; the latter had to withdraw ahead of his semifinal against Nick Kyrgios, because of an abdominal tear.

Two years on the picture is different, and an event that was a closed shop for so long now feels a bit more unpredictable. The opening started last year, when Carlos Alcaraz dethroned Djokovic, the seven-time champion. Prior to that, just four men had won the 19 Wimbledons between 2003 and 2022, engendering a feeling of hopelessness in the rest of the field. If Roger Federer (eight titles) or Rafael Nadal (two) didn’t get you, then Djokovic (seven) or Murray (two) invariably would.

Federer’s first Wimbledon title in 2003 began 19 years of dominance at SW19. (Thomas Coex / AFP via Getty Images)

Taylor Fritz, world No. 13, told The Athletic that then, and up until very recently, have been pyrrhic times to play tennis on the grass.

“In that era it took just one of them to be playing incredibly well … And all of them were playing. We were younger and not as good as we are now, so it did feel like you were almost hoping that they’d have an off day and you’d have an on day.

“It’s tough.”

Not so much anymore. Federer has retired, Nadal is missing to prepare for the Olympics, Murray is close to the end, and Djokovic is only a few weeks out from meniscus surgery. He is expected to play the event, and appeared to be moving fine in a practice set against Jannik Sinner on Thursday and an exhibition match against Daniil Medvedev on Friday, but even for him, winning seven best-of-five-sets matches in a row so soon after surgery would be a monumental achievement.



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The recent injury will certainly give rivals encouragement, especially in the context of a difficult year for Djokovic, in which his aura appears on the wane. No finals, and defeats to the likes of Luca Nardi and Alejandro Tabilo — the latter albeit after being struck on the head by a water bottle that fell from a spectator’s bag in Rome — reinforce that point.

The feeling among some players at the Eastbourne and Queen’s warm-up tournaments over the last couple of weeks is that this is a much more open Wimbledon than in previous years. Other than Djokovic, the reigning champion Alcaraz and the world No. 1 Sinner are the two favourites. But while they have transitioned from being the future of men’s tennis to being its present, they are still young and they still have weaknesses — Alcaraz can lose his focus, while Sinner is yet to reach a Wimbledon final and hadn’t won a title on grass until last week.

Sinner Wimbledon scaled

Jannik Sinner has fallen to Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon on two consecutive occasions. (Clive Brunskill / Getty Images)

They don’t yet have the All England Club fear factor that multiple champions like Federer, Nadal and Murray enjoyed.

Fritz has seen the transition of the men’s tour close up, and he was the guy Nadal beat in that Wimbledon quarterfinal two years ago despite suffering an abdominal tear.

“We’re in an era right now where if anyone has a good week then it could happen,” Fritz says.

“So it’s exciting for all of us because we know that all it takes is two weeks or 10 days of playing really high level tennis and taking the opportunity.”

Perhaps these are just platitudes, something he and others would have said even during the height of the Big Three or Big Four era, with the naive air of Jim Carrey saying “so you’re telling me there’s a chance” in Dumb and Dumber. But listening to Fritz, it’s clear there’s been a genuine change in what the rest of the field believe is possible.

He, along with other players like Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev, now have more belief that they can do something — even if players like Andy Roddick, Juan Martin del Potro, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Grigor Dimitrov, and the unfortunate contemporary, Dominic Thiem, might want to collar them in conversation with wide eyes and broken souls and remind them of what they went through in the 2000s and 2010s. Forget Wimbledon for a second: This year’s French Open final between Alcaraz and Zverev was only the ninth Grand Slam final overall since 2003 not involving one of Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic.

berdych wimbledon scaled

Tomas Berdych reached the quarterfinals or better at Wimbledon five times; he lost to one of the “Big Four” on all five occasions. (Julian Finney / Getty Images)

Fritz, for his part, seems aware that he and his generation aren’t the only ones. “They didn’t really have off days at slams ever,” he said.

“The fact that Novak’s still playing… I mean I can’t say anything as my record against him is not the best. But people are beating him, and hypothetically if you’re in the final or a semi of a Slam, he might not be the one you have to go through.”

Zverev, who has been on both ends of the Nadal-Federer-Djokovic past and the Alcaraz-Sinner present at the latter stages of Grand Slam tournaments, was a little less phlegmatic. “2018 was a joke,” he said, referring to Nadal’s season when he returned to the tour after an injury in the North American swing.

“I’d just played Miami and in first match in Valencia (for the Davis Cup) I destroyed David Ferrer – if I can say that in a nice way. And then I played Rafa and had absolutely no chance at all. No chance. And I just thought that’s a player who’s just come back from injury.”

This feeling of suddenly arriving in a land of possibilities surged through the locker room at the 2022 U.S. Open too. On that occasion, Federer was injured, Djokovic couldn’t enter the country because he hadn’t had the COVID-19 vaccine, and a physically impaired Nadal was eliminated by Frances Tiafoe in the fourth round. Tiafoe and others have spoken about the tingle of opportunity they felt at that event; until Alcaraz stormed to the title, eliminating Tiafoe along the way.

Alcaraz Tiafoe scaled

Alcaraz vanquished Tiafoe in a five-set classic at the US Open in 2022. (Elsa / Getty Images)

The current crop of top 30 players agree with Fritz that there are other contenders at each Grand Slam now, including Wimbledon — against more vulnerable players, surface preference and style matchups are more in play, even if Alcaraz, already having completed the surface slam, is ahead of the pack on that score too.



Surface mastery: How Alcaraz won Grand Slams on hard, grass and clay courts

The Queen’s runner-up Lorenzo Musetti told The Athletic that Jack Draper and Alex de Minaur are his dangerous players on the grass, and also mentioned Matteo Berrettini, who missed 2022 with Covid-19 having reached the final in 2021, where he lost to Djokovic. Berrettini could play Sinner in the second round, the kind of draw that will give the current world No. 1 pause for thought, where one of the Big Three might not think about it very much at all.

Tommy Paul, the Queen’s champion and new American No. 1 who has beaten Alcaraz twice in four meetings, should also be put in that category, and possibly the big-serving Hubert Hurkacz too, a former semifinalist. Fritz meanwhile is a one-time quarterfinalist, and a two-time Eastbourne champion. He’s in the final of that tournament this year too, and has a serve that makes him a threat on grass.

Tommy Paul grass scaled

Paul impressed during his run to the title at Queen’s. (Henry Nicholls / AFP via Getty Images)

Paul said last week that “it’s definitely different” now compared to the Big Three era, but admitted that most would prefer Djokovic wasn’t there rather than having to play him. “I’m pretty sure a lot of players are hoping that (Djokovic missing Wimbledon with injury),” he added.

It hasn’t worked out that way, just as tennis has been for this group for most of their careers. So now it’s up to the chasing pack to show they’re ready to step up, and not just revert to hoping that the best three players fail to deliver on the stages where they’ve done it many times before.

(Top photos: Julian Finney; Glyn Kirk/AFP; Visionhaus / Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton for The Athletic)

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