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The time is right to topple the big boys – but is the Next Gen ready?

By Alix Ramsay

They are like the Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail – no matter what the enemy does to them, they will not give up.

As King Arthur hacks away at the Black Knight in their duel, he – quite literally – cuts his foe down to size. Yet as each limb is chopped off, the Black Knight will not admit defeat (“’Tis but a scratch, a flesh wound, I’ve had worse”). Finally, armless and legless, the Black Knight yells to the retreating King Arthur: “Running away are you? Come back here and take what’s coming to you. I’ll bite your legs off!”

So it is with Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic (if a little less bloody). No matter what the younger men, the much-vaunted Next Gen, do, they cannot stop the current and former world No.1s when it really matters.

We are a week and a half away from the start of the French Open. Normally, at this stage, Rafa would be at home in Mallorca trying to find shelf space for his most recent collection of trophies and Djoko would be doing likewise in Monaco with his bagful of runner’s up plates and maybe a cup or two. And then they would march on Paris with serious intent.

But these are not normal times. Djoko has cherry-picked his tournaments since Australia – he doesn’t want to be away from his family for too long and he is not allowed to bring them with him due to the pandemic – and, so far, he has harvested little fruit. He has played just three events since leaving Melbourne and Sunday’s three-set loss to Rafa in the Rome final was his best result.

Rafa, too, has not had an easy time of it. He and his bad back were ushered out of the Australian Open quarter-finals by Stefanos Tsitsipas and, since then, he has played four clay court tournaments, winning two and reaching two other quarter-finals. This is not Rafa in his pomp but after a solid month on the red dirt, he feels he has struggled, he has suffered and, as a result, he has improved.

By the time he got to the Rome final, he felt that his work for Roland Garros was done. Now it was time to focus solely on the Italian Open trophy – he was aiming for his 10th – because he knew he was ready.

“In terms of preparation for Roland Garros, I consider the job done,” he said before the final. “I consider done because I have been through positive process during the last month, no? I played four events. That’s the main thing for me. I was able to do my full schedule. I played two quarterfinals. I won a tournament. Now a final here.

“I have been playing better, worse, but always in a positive line. I mean, playing better when the weeks are coming. Here I had I think a very tough draw and I was able to find a way to be in the final. I know I had to face some very critical moments in my second round against Shapo. That’s like this. I fighted.”

That is what Rafa – and Novak – do: they fight. They fight from first ball to last; they fight when they are playing well and when they are playing poorly. They fight every time they step on to a tennis court which is why, between them, they have won 38 grand slam titles. And why, between them, the Next Gen, has won one.

Tsitsipas was looking unstoppable on the clay…. until Rafa stopped him. With a newfound inner calm and confidence, he was patient and dogged to wait for his moment to come. And when it came, he was fiercely aggressive. It was the perfect balance and one that almost won him the Barcelona title (to add to his Monte Carlo silverware from the previous week). But Rafa fighted and fighted – and fighted some more – to win that final.

No matter, Tsitsipas went to Rome with hope and confidence. But there he ran into Djokovic and over the course of two days, three sets and more than three hours actual playing time, Djokovic fought and scrapped and forced his way through to the semi-final. Tsitsipas had his chances but he was not allowed to take them.

Had the weather held on the Friday and had the match been allowed to run its course in one afternoon, the Greek might well have won. Bit it didn’t and he didn’t.

It is one of the laws of tennis: never, ever give Djokovic time to hit the reset button. It is the biggest weapon in his armoury. Regardless of how badly he is playing, how tense and tight he may be (even serial winners get nervous), he has the facility to hit that button, wipe the memory banks clean and start again with no hint of baggage: you are the world No.1, you begin from here. That he had a whole night to hit that button just meant that Tsitsipas’s chances had gone from slim to next to none. How long that loss stays with the Greek, we will only learn in Paris.

So where does that leave us? The established big boys are not at their best but, then again, neither are those in the chasing pack.

Tsitsipas may be mentally wounded; Daniil Medvedev hates clay, Andrey Rublev can be terrifying but he has never got beyond the quarter-finals of a slam and has yet to collect a Masters 1000 title. Sascha Zverev can have his moments but while he managed to beat Rafa at altitude in Madrid, Rafa put him back in his place at sea level in Rome. And then there is Dominic Thiem.

The two-time finalist in Paris has not been the same player since he won his first major title at the U.S.Open last year. A combination of mental burnout having achieved his lifetime’s goal and the energy-sapping frustrations of life in the bio-bubble on tour have, it seems, has robbed him of his powers.

The lockdown and enforced time off gave Thiem the chance to relax a little and now that he is back at work, he has realised that he needs to be utterly focused, totally dedicated and working at 100 per cent capacity to get the best out of his game. And that is an exhausting way to live. Every now and then, he needs a break. But Thiem is a fabulous player (and an extremely nice bloke) and he knows that if he can get all those component parts synchromeshed together, he will be able to find top gear and start winning again. It is just that he has shown little sign of it this year.

Change will come – it has to. Whether it will come in Paris is the big question. As Thiem pointed out, the rest are getting closer and closer but taking on Rafa and Novak at a grand slam is, as yet, a step too far.

“It’s way tougher to beat them, to win three sets against them, it’s way more difficult of course than to win two,” he said. “That’s one of the big reasons. But we have a lot of finals already in grand slam tournaments. I think in the near future it’s also going to happen that somebody else is going to win them.”

The Black Knights of the tennis world, then, are still refusing to let anyone pass. They may have had their rough patches of late but the French Open is a grand slam and that makes all the difference in the world.

As Rafa and Novak have never been heard to say: “Come back here and take what’s coming to you. I’ll bite your legs off!” But that’s what they mean.