Thiem, Zverev challenge ‘Big Three’ dominance in Australia

Thursday, Jan 30

It’s time.

Time for change. Time for a breakthrough.

Time for a Grand Slam singles championship not to be owned by one of the Big Three: Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Rafael Nadal.

Just one. That’ll do for now.

Time, after 12 consecutive victories by the Big Three in the majors, for a younger man to step forward and prove it can be done.

Either Dominic Thiem or Alexander Zverev is going to get that chance. The same chance Daniil Medvedev had in New York last fall against Nadal and couldn’t quite grab.

Thiem eliminated Nadal at the Australian Open this week in a true slugfest, while Zverev bounced back from a nightmarish start to defeat Stan Wawrinka, who at the U.S. Open in 2016 became the last ATP player other than the Big Three to win a Grand Slam title.

Thiem and Zverev now meet in one semifinal, which means one of them will get that chance this weekend to at least temporarily put an end to the dominance of Nadal, Djokovic and Federer.

Should we be hoping for this to happen? Absolutely.

Look, you can be a fan of one of the Big Three, and a fan of superstars in the sport, and still recognize a change in the narrative of men’s tennis can only add intrigue to the competition as 2020 begins. Since 2003, the Big Three has won 55 of 66 Grand Slam titles, and quite frankly, that’s just not quite enough variety.

It’s making for a great argument about whether Federer, Djokovic or Nadal is the greatest player of all time. Fed is barely hanging on to the record of most Grand Slam singles titles, and it stands to reason he’s got fewer chances left than his two pursuers. We’re going to watch this race until all three of them have finally packed up their tennis shoes and called it a career.

That said, the game needs some new champions. If Zverev or Thiem takes Melbourne, it’s only going to add to the conversation when the French Open rolls around.

In other words, having a player other than the Big Three capture a Grand Slam title won’t diminish the accomplishments of those three legends. Indeed, if they can then bounce back and win a major in 2020, it should only add to their mystique as they grapple with yet another generation of up-and-coming talent.

Remember when Kei Nishikori and Marin Cilic and Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov were going to take down the Big Three? It never really happened. Now it’s up to the likes of Thiem, Zverev, Medvedev, Stefanos Tsitsipas and Denis Shapovalov. This is going to be the group that rules the game when, finally, the Big Three are gone, so they might as well get started.

Both Thiem and Zverev had significant obstacles en route to the semifinals. Thiem had to overcome coaching uncertainty, with Thomas Muster leaving his team in the middle of the Aussie Open and Nicolas Massu taking full control.

The Austrian needed to find another gear, another level of aggression to beat Nadal. He also had to overcome trying and failing to serve for the match in the fourth set.

“I’m really proud how I stayed in the match after a very tough situation when I served for (the match),” said Thiem. “I really threw away that game with pretty stupid mistakes.”

En route to the 7-6 (3), 7-6 (4), 4-6, 7-6 (6) victory, Thiem became the first to ever beat Nadal in three tie-breaks in one match.

“If you want to have a chance against (Nadal). . . everything has to work in your game,” said Thiem.

Zverev, meanwhile, went into his quarter-final with Wawrinka having emerged from a dreadful slump that was still ongoing a few weeks ago at the ATP Cup where he played “horrible,” in his own words. Against the Swiss veteran, he was down 0-5 in the first set before all the fans were even in their seats.

“I was getting ready to talk to the press after losing in straight sets,” he laughed afterwards.

The German then came roaring back, winning three straight sets. The serving hiccups that had so befuddled him for the past few months were gone. In 16 sets in Melbourne, he has only double-faulted 11 times.

“You can’t imagine how much this means to me,” said Zverev, who also had corrective eye surgery late last year.

Thiem looks to have the combination of experience, all-court game and confidence to get to the Aussie Open final. That said, when the 6-foot-5 Zverev has his mind and body in synch, he’s an intimidating force. It’s no wonder many have long believed he’ll be the first of the NextGen crowd to break through.

Thiem has a 7-2 record against the Big Three in the past year. Zverev knocked off Federer to win the Rogers Cup in 2017. This is a doable task. For both. Hopefully, one of the two will get it done this week.

It’s time for tennis to get a new storyline.