Damien’s Spin: Can these players still break the ‘Big Three’ dominance?

Thursday, Feb 13

The collateral damage caused by the dominance of a small group of tennis superstars has been extensive.

Specifically, there are a lot of very, very good players who, in another era, might have won at least one Grand Slam title but have yet to win any. Such has been the excellence of Messrs. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic that there has simply been almost room for others to taste victory in one of the tennis world’s top four competitions. Even at Rogers Cup, the Big Three has 10 of the last 15 titles.

Last year, both Tomas Berdych and David Ferrer retired without a Grand Slam title to their name. Both ended up as well-decorated players. Ferrer won 27 tournaments and got to one Grand Slam final, losing to Rafael Nadal in the 2013 French Open. Berdych won 13 tournaments, and lost to Nadal in the 2010 Wimbledon final. Neither, despite their substantial talents, ever won the big one.

Of the generation of players currently aged 28 to 35, only Andy Murray, Stan Wawrinka, Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic have been able to fight their way through and get a major win. That leaves a lot of talented players who haven’t been able to make that breakthrough in the Big Three era.

Here’s the list of those from that group who still have a chance:

GAEL MONFILS

The 33-year-old Frenchman looked set to have a career as a dominant pro when he was No. 1 in the world as a junior in 2004, winning the Australian, French and U.S. junior titles. But he was a contemporary of the Big Three, and has been totally denied of any Grand Slam glory.

Monfils won his ninth title last weekend in Montpellier, beating Canada’s Vasek Pospisil in the final. Most would suggest he has underachieved in his career, although he did get as high as No. 6 in the world and was a semi-finalist in the French Open (2008) and U.S. Open (2016).
Could he win a major before he’s done? Theoretically. But how about a final first.

GRIGOR DIMITROV

The 28-year-old, to this day, remains the enigma of the men’s tour. All that polished talent, all that game, but no Grand Slam titles. His best year was 2017 when he won the Cincinnati Masters and ATP Finals, and jumped up to No. 3 in the world.

Now, he’s at No. 22, and was outside the top 50 for much of last year after suffering a shoulder injury late in 2018. Dimitrov has eight titles, but has never really shone at the big events.
He’s got the game to win a major. And he’s still got time.

JOHN ISNER

Now 34, the 6-foot-10 American will go down as one of the greatest servers in ATP history. Two years ago, when he reached No. 8 in the world after winning Miami and getting to the Wimbledon semi-finals, it seemed like he might have enough other tools to win a major.

He’s fallen down the rankings to No. 19. Isner tends to play his worst tennis at beginning of the year, and sure enough went 0-3 as the No. 1 American at last month’s ATP Cup.

Still, he’s got 15 career titles in singles, and another five in doubles. In singles, it’s all about the tiebreaks. If it’s going to happen, 2020 might have to be the year.

KEI NISHIKORI

When Nishikori lost the 2014 U.S. Open final to Cilic, it didn’t seem like such a big deal since he’d surely have other opportunities. Well, it hasn’t turned out that way, largely because of an unending series of injuries. He’s struggling to stay in the top 30 these days, although he won at Brisbane early last year and got to the quarters at Australian and French opens, as well as Wimbledon.

There have been other close calls. A bronze medal at the 2016 Summer Olympics. A loss to Djokovic in the 2016 Rogers Cup final. The 30-year-old Nishikori, meanwhile, had elbow surgery last fall and still isn’t back.

With the Olympics in Tokyo, there’s lots of pressure on him to get back soon and take a run at a gold medal. That scenario did a lot for Murray’s game once upon a time. You get the sense Nishikori’s still got that one big win in him.

KEVIN ANDERSON

The 33-year-old missed the last portion of last season with a right knee injury and has sunk out of the top 100 in the world. But he was a 2017 U.S. Open finalist and a 2018 Wimbledon finalist, proving he’s got the game to put himself in a position to win a Grand Slam.

Like Isner, we’re at the point where it’s now or never for Anderson. Getting healthy would be a nice start.

MILOS RAONIC

The Canadian surprised a lot of people at the Australian Open last month by beating Stefanos Tsitsipas and Cilic before bowing out to Djokovic in the quarter-final. His overall game looked great, and he served exceptionally well after a back injury prevented him from serving at all in the final months of 2019.

At 29, Raonic has amassed eight titles. He was a 2016 Wimbledon finalist and a 2016 Australian Open semi-finalist. He’s got more time than some of the others to still win, and might be in a position to do so when Federer is gone from the scene and Nadal and Djokovic aren’t quite the forces they are now.

Assuming that ever happens.

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