Men’s Tennis Waits (and Waits) for New Blood

Marin Cilic remembers looking up and seeing the confirmation that he had achieved a dream.

His name on a screen with “Champion of US Open 2014,” after he defeated Kei Nishikori to claim his first Grand Slam title.

“Time flies really, really quick,” Cilic, 30, said in a recent interview. “I just can’t believe it’s now going to be the fifth year since.”

Five years on, no other man has gained a comparable experience. Men’s tennis has been without any first-time singles champion in the last 19 Grand Slam events, a record stretch that’s longer than any other since the formation of the sport in the 1800s.

“If I don’t win anything else in the rest of my career, I’m still going to be incredibly proud, because in those moments I was feeling so proud, so happy,” said Cilic, who defeated Roger Federer in the semifinals that year. “It’s impossible to compare it with anything else.”

Men’s singles at Grand Slam tournaments has been dominated by the so-called Big Three of Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic, who continue to glide through draws at ages when they would have been thought to be well past their peaks. Since the Cilic-Nishikori final in New York, only one other major final — Andy Murray vs. Milos Raonic at Wimbledon in 2016 — has not featured at least one member of the Big Three.

Among them, they have won the last 11 major championships. They are jockeying for the record for men’s Grand Slam titles — Federer’s 20 leads Nadal (18) and Djokovic (16). And they are the top three seeds at the 2019 United States Open, which begins Monday.

“The three of them are always fighting for those records, and because of that, they’re pushing each other more and more,” said Cilic, who has posted a middling 15-13 record this season and seen his ranking sag from seventh to 23rd. “They’re always feeling challenged, and that makes it more difficult for the rest of us.”

ImageMarin Cilic celebrated after winning the U.S. Open in 2014.
Marin Cilic celebrated after winning the U.S. Open in 2014.CreditBarton Silverman/The New York Times

At Wimbledon, where Federer, 38, lost a tight final to Djokovic, 32, after beating Nadal, 33, in the semifinals, they seemed further from the pack than ever.

“They are so dominant in those tournaments, and it just proves to be incredibly tough to break them,” said Cilic, who has reached two other major finals since 2014 and lost to Federer both times. “I believe the youngsters are coming up and their time is coming, but who knows when? Is it next year, or the year after? We don’t know.”

The obvious contenders among the “youngsters” inspire as much exasperation as excitement. At Wimbledon, the players ranked No. 4 to No. 6 — Dominic Thiem, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas — lost in the first round.

Thiem came closer to a first Slam title than any man had since Cilic when he won the second set of this year’s French Open final against Nadal. Then Nadal pummeled him, 6-1, 6-1, in the third and fourth sets.

“I got a lot closer; still not there,” Thiem said. “I’ll try to get my next chance in New York.”

Still, Thiem, 25, is the only man currently under 30 to have won a set in a Grand Slam final.

Though the old favorites remain popular, the lack of new winners makes men’s tennis unusually stale on the sports landscape. Since Cilic won the U.S. Open in 2014, there have been 13 new major winners in men’s golf, and nine first-time Grand Slam singles champions in women’s tennis.

Kamau Murray, who coached Sloane Stephens to a breakthrough win at the 2017 U.S. Open and will resume coaching her at this year’s tournament, said the parity on the women’s tour showed that those working with top female players were “doing a bad job of turning good results into motivation, and not into pressure.”

“If we were doing a great job, we’d have people winning multiple weeks in a row; we’re not,” he added.

Women can quickly vault up the rankings: The two most recent No. 1 players in the WTA, Naomi Osaka and Ashleigh Barty, had each spent only a few months in the top 10 before reaching the top spot. Nishikori, though, has spent much of the five years since his U.S. Open final in the top 10, and has yet to crack the top three in the rankings.

Daniil Medvedev is a player to watch, surging into the top 5 after reaching the finals of Washington and Montreal and winning Cincinnati in a three-week stretch.CreditRob Carr/Getty Images

The man who appears to be knocking most loudly on the door of a Grand Slam breakthrough this summer is Daniil Medvedev, a 23-year-old Russian who surged into the top 5 after reaching the finals of Washington and Montreal and winning Cincinnati in a three-week stretch.

“He doesn’t miss,” David Goffin gushed after losing the final in Cincinnati. “It’s like playing against a wall.”

But Goffin hesitated when asked if Medvedev’s momentum would carry over to New York.

“To win a Grand Slam it’s another story,” he said. “It’s best of five. It could be unbelievably hot and humid in New York, as well. It’s something different. This year, I don’t know. Maybe it’s too early, but one day, yes. Why not?”

Djokovic, whom Medvedev beat in the semifinals of Cincinnati, sounded similar notes.

“He deserves to be in the contention for the championship in New York,” Djokovic said. “But again, it’s best of five, it’s two weeks, it’s a Grand Slam. It’s a different environment, different experience. It just takes much more, I think, than just your game. I think it takes patience and ability to know how to deal with all the off-court things, the importance of a Slam.”

After winning in Cincinnati last Sunday, Medvedev himself said he would be “satisfied — doesn’t mean happy — with a quarterfinal,” having only reached one fourth round at a major previously.

Earlier in the tournament, he elaborated on the challenge of scaling up his success.

“A Grand Slam is two weeks, so for two weeks you need to be consistent, you need to feel well, you need to not get crazy,” said Medvedev, who, if he does reach the quarterfinals, could have a rematch with Djokovic. “Everything needs to come together, and talking about myself, I need more experience.”

Get Ready for the Open

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