With Novak Djokovic finally appearing to fulfill his potential and consistently play at the highest level at age 23, and Rafael Nadal already being a candidate for best player of all time at age 24, I ask if the future of men’s tennis lies in their hands, or if there are other players ready to challenge them for every grand slam.
Novak Djokovic, 23 years old
Even though Djokovic won the Australian Open at age 20, his true breakthrough came at last year's US Open Semifinal vs Roger Federer.
Back in his first grand slam tournament win, Djokovic was a free-hitting carefree player who clearly enjoyed the game without pressure, however the scrutiny placed on him over his on-court limitations and apparent numerous early retirements appeared to dilute his love of the game.
Djokovic was further criticized over his racquet change, and his serve suffered badly at the hands of Todd Martin, but at the US Open everything clicked into place and his belief in his own ability was clear to see.
Recovering from two sets to one down against Federer (saving two match points) highlighted the new mental strength that has propelled Djokovic to the top of the game. Djokovic finally broke a three year losing streak to Federer at the US Open, thus removing the mental block of playing Federer at the US Open.
Djokovic proved his US Open run was no fluke, spearheading the Serbian Davis Cup success that meant as much to him as his first grand slam victory. He took this momentum and proceeded to dominate every single player he faced in the 2011 Australian Open, dropping one set along the way and demolishing Federer and Murray with ease.
To beat both of these players in straight sets is a rare feat in a best of five match, but Djokovic achieved it with plenty left in the tank. Djokovic allowed neither player many opportunities and was able to keep his level high throughout both matches, something that was missing in previous years.
Now that Djokovic has dropped the tag of being a "one grand slam wonder" the pressure is further alleviated, making him a frightening proposition to the rest of men’s tennis. He can be more relaxed about his tennis having multiple grand slams and, now, a Davis Cup triumph under his belt.
Djokovic has reached the semifinals or better at every grand slam, and even pushed Nadal on clay; having match points in a Madrid Masters match that lasted well over three hours, weeks after again pushing Nadal in the Rome Masters tournament.
It seems to be only a matter of time before he takes the No. 2 ranking slot from Federer and keeps it for much longer than his last fleeting stint in this position. The all-court ability of Djokovic will allow him to stay with Nadal at the top of the game.
Rafael Nadal, 24 years old
The dominance of Nadal cannot be questioned, even though he was impaired in his Australian Open Semifinal against Ferrer by injury; there is no doubt he will be back winning grand slams.
The ability of Nadal was questioned when he had a more serious knee injury back in 2009, but he responded with some of his best tennis ever, winning three out of the next four grand slams, culminating in winning back his French Open and Wimbledon titles, then proceeding to accomplish the career grand slam at the US Open.
Nadal showed his ability to adapt his game; the tennis balls used at the US Open never suited Nadal, yet he changed his game and developed a ferocious serve, winning him free points he never used to get, and when his first serve was returned he invariably won the point anyway.
Nadal has matured as a player by making his schedule work better for him. In previous years after winning Wimbledon, he went on to play tournaments a few weeks later. This year, he has realized the need to rest during the season and took a month off after winning Wimbledon, and the end result was a first US Open title.
Nadal only needs to ensure he plays in the most important Masters tournaments to alleviate the pressure on his knees, and he will remain at the top of the men’s game. Considering Nadal possesses nine grand slam titles at the age of 24, the potential to replace Federer as the greatest of all time is a very achievable, and almost expected possibility.
Roger Federer, 29 years old
There can be no doubt that Federer is the greatest player ever to grace the tennis court. However, I am discussing the future of men’s tennis and recent events suggest that Federer will not be a leading player in this case.
In the past, Federer in top form was unbeatable for anybody barring Rafael Nadal; however the emergence of Novak Djokovic becoming the only player other than Nadal to beat Federer in straight grand slam tournaments (US Open 2010 and Australian Open 2011) shows that Federer no longer possesses the aura that he once had.
Federer gets more easily frustrated on the court and attempts high-risk shots in annoyance that he cannot dominate players like he used to.
Tomas Berdych beat Federer in the Quarterfinals of Wimbledon 2010, something that was considered unthinkable in the past, by outhitting and dominating Federer from the baseline.
The slight decline of Federer is natural considering he is four to five years older than the other top-ranked players. Djokovic and Nadal have plenty of time to further improve deficiencies in their game; combined with the natural decline in Federer’s game this will only push those two further ahead of him in the rankings.
Andy Murray, 23 years old
While nobody can argue that Murray does have the talent to win a grand slam, he appears to be very far from reaching that goal after losing another grand slam final in straight sets.
His grand slam final sets record of 0-9 does not bode well for Murray.
Many thought he would win the Australian Open in 2011 because he finally had the opportunity to face someone other than Federer in a major final. He stayed with Djokovic up until 5-4 in the opening set but got broke to drop the set, and then appeared to lose confidence for the rest of the match; these are not the actions of a budding grand slam champion.
Some of the problems for Andy Murray stem from his instability at the coaching position, parting ways with Miles Maclagan and not replacing him with a suitable coach, instead opting to stick with clay court specialist Alex Corretja.
Murray needs to find a coach who will help him to be aggressive throughout the match against top five players, and not just against lower-ranked opponents early on in tournaments if he is to effectively compete with Djokovic and Nadal.
Robin Soderling, 26 years old
Soderling appeared to be on the brink of becoming a champion when he knocked out Nadal and Federer in successive years at the French Open, falling at the final hurdle and appearing to have no Plan B other than trying to hit the ball even harder.
The heavy-hitting ability of Soderling is well suited to the clay courts because the slow pace of the courts makes up for his lack of mobility. The inability of Soderling to move swiftly around the hard and grass courts will always limit his potential to compete at the later stages of tournaments on those surfaces.
The loss of long-term coach Magnus Norman (who was credited with the surge in the form of Soderling) has not helped Soderling in his quest for a grand slam title, as Norman was often the calming presence on the fiery temperament of Soderling.
Juan Martin Del Potro, 22 years old
Del Potro is more set than any other player to join Djokovic and Nadal at the top of the game in the next five years, the only question being his ongoing wrist problems.
He is a phenomenal tennis player with the natural power of a tall man combined with quick movement around the court, which is usually a weakness for a man his size (Ivo Karlovic for example).
A surprise US Open win in 2010 removes a lot of pressure for any player winning that first grand slam, something that appears to be becoming more of a mental issue for someone like Andy Murray.
However, injuries remain a big problem. Unlike Nadal he has not returned from a major injury and managed to get back to his previous level, losing to Marcos Baghdatis in his grand slam return in Australia. The question remains whether he will ever fully overcome his wrist injury, but if he does then it is undoubted he will be a major threat to the likely dominance of Nadal and Djokovic.
Players such as Fernando Verdasco, Andy Roddick, David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych all appear to have the potential but consistently fail at the final hurdle.
Since an Australian Open Semifinal appearance in 2009, losing an epic match to Nadal, Verdasco has failed to repeat that feat in any grand slam. Roddick was set to be at the top of men’s tennis after winning his first grand slam in 2003, but in the seven years to date he has failed to add to the one grand slam victory.
Players like Ferrer and Berdych seem destined to be top 10 players, but do not have the depth in their game to reach the upper echelons of the rankings.