Australian Open 2023: From generation next to generation now

Not far behind is another Italian, 20-year-old Lorenzo Musetti, while Americans Seb Korda, Brandon Nakashima and Jenson Brooksby, Argentine Sebastian Baez and big-striking British left-hander Jack Draper are in the top 50.

Alcaraz’s US Open title in September gave this newest group of phenoms the grand slam glory of the slightly older brigade – Alex Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Casper Ruud, Andrey Rublev and co. – are still desperately hunting.

Rune wants to, and thinks he can, do the same as soon as this year.

“My goal is to win a grand slam and I believe I’m ready to do it,” he said The Age this week.

“I know it takes more work, and it’s going to be harder than everything I did last year because I’ve never done it, but I’m ready to put everything into it that I have inside me. I believe I’m capable of doing it.”

During Alcaraz’s New York run, the kid touted as Rafael Nadal’s long-term successor at the top of Spanish tennis saved a match point and rallied from a breakdown in the final set to eliminate Sinner in the quarter-finals.

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Sinner, at 21, has already made the last eight at all four grand slams, been inside the top 10 and won six ATP singles titles, but watched Alcaraz beat him to a major title.

Australia’s Darren Cahill is part of Team Sinner after previously coaching Lleyton Hewitt, Andre Agassi and Simona Halep. The next step for Sinner is becoming physically stronger to meet the sport’s intense demands.

“It was not easy, for sure,” Sinner said of his US Open loss. “It was tough, especially that night – I didn’t sleep – but after, fortunately, it was Davis Cup, which, for me, was very important.

“Slowly, slowly, of course, I’m on my way. I know that I have to improve many, many things.

“You watch the other players, especially young players because most likely you’re going to play against them many times in the future … but being part of this is a huge pleasure.”

So, what does all this mean?

Tennis fans are rightly impatient to see a new wave of talent sweep through the men’s tour after two decades of overlapping dominance from Djokovic, Nadal and the retired Roger Federer.

Previous generations promised to do it, only to fall short of the tour’s elder statesmen. But those in the know are cautiously optimistic that this is finally the group to do it, admittedly with Djokovic at 35 and Nadal turning 37 in mere months.

“The biggest thing is a lot of these young guys haven’t lost 10 times to Novak, or Rafa,” ESPN tennis expert and former player and coach Brad Gilbert told The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

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“The last generation maybe didn’t come through because they had so many losses to the big three.

“I think it’s an exciting bunch. Novak is still there, and it’ll be interesting to see where Rafa is this year, but I do see that there is going to be more opportunity. I think what we saw from Alcaraz will spread.

“Some of these other guys, it’s like, ‘OK, you know what? If he can do it, then there’s an opportunity for me’. I’m expecting one of these other young guys to make the final of a slam this year and win some [Masters] 1000s. I’m excited to see that.”

Nakashima echoes those sentiments after his own breakthrough season.

The 21-year-old American won the end-of-year Next Gen ATP Finals and his first ATP 250 title, as well as reaching the last 16 at Wimbledon – losing to Australia’s Nick Kyrgios – and the third round at the US and French Opens.

Nakashima wants to crack the top 20 by the end of 2023.

“We have a lot of good young players coming up, able to challenge the top guys. You see Alcaraz and Sinner making deep runs at these slams,” Nakashima said.

“I try to focus on myself, but anytime they have big results; I’m super happy for them. To have a bunch of us coming up to challenge each other and see who’s going to make a big run first is always nice.

“Last year was a great year for me. Winning those two titles in San Diego and also the Next Gen finals was super good for my game and confidence, to know that I’m able to compete against these top guys.”

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The looming specter is the irrepressible Djokovic, whose main obstacle still seems to be his unvaccinated status and travel bans rather than his playing peers.

If not for that, as well as all ranking points being stripped from Wimbledon, he would still be No.1.

Rune, for all his confidence, remains highly respectful of the big three, so much so that he studies them to see what he can add into his own game in a bid to “kind of build the perfect player”.

“It’s definitely going to be tough for the young guys, but I feel we have a lot of fire and energy inside, which can help us beat them,” Rune said.

“I’m not saying we’re going to do it, but it’s definitely one thing that can help to win, and I did it last year in Paris against Novak, and it took something really extra to do it. Still, when I look back, it was quite unbelievable.”

The final word, naturally, goes to Djokovic, who eagerly opines about the emerging pack, from Rune’s backhand, to Alcaraz’s forehand and how Auger-Aliassime is playing “the tennis of his life”.

Many pundits tip Djokovic to still be playing at 40 years of age, but he believes the future is bright for the sport, even if he is far from ready to hand over his mantle.

“What Alcaraz [did] last season [was] extremely impressive and historic for our sport, so he deserves praise, no doubt. He’s already No. 1 in the world,” Djokovic said.

“I think it’s nice for tennis because we need – other than great tennis players – good personalities, good characters [whom] respect the game and also carry the weight of the top players in this sport in a proper manner … I think that’s something that over time they will understand better.

“It seems like men’s tennis is in good hands for the future. I’m sure that Nadal and myself will try to mess up their plans a little bit for I don’t know how long, but we’ll try.”

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