Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have been absent from the title match in the ATP final for the past two years, replaced by younger rivals trying to beat their monopoly.
Instead of “the big three”, it was Dominic Thiem and Daniil Medvedev who took center stage in London’s O2 Arena on Sunday, where Russia’s Medvedev came out on top.
But does the result at the season’s final tournament signal the end of an era for men’s tennis or another false dawn for the self-paced package?
Djokovic’s and Nadal’s passing of younger rivals on a dramatic Saturday in London felt significant and not just for the results themselves.
Austria’s Thiem, 27, produced an astonishing comeback from 4-0 down in the decisive tie-break to beat the world’s leading Djokovic – after wasting four match points in the second set of tie-breaks.
Fourth-seeded Medvedev did not let the loss of the first set to Nadal fool him, rushing back to end the Spaniard’s record of 71 wins in a row after winning the opening set.
But recent history shows that the ATP final at the end of the season does not provide a reliable indicator of what will come next season.
Medvedev, 24, is the sixth different winner of the event in six years.
Since Andy Murray lifted the trophy in 2016, the champions have been Grigor Dimitrov, Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, who can boast only one Grand Slam final between them.
Indoor hard courses are Nadal’s weakest surface while Djokovic has not played his best in London since a run of four titles in a row from 2012 to 2015.
Federer, absent this year with an injury, lifted the last of his six titles at the 2011 event.
Grand Slam dominance
Grand Slams are still the ultimate prizes in tennis and the period of unprecedented dominance for the big three is far from over.
They have won 56 astonishing of the last 67 majors between them, including 14 of the last 15.
Thiem finally broke the tie by winning this year’s US Open but Nadal and Federer did not participate and Djokovic was the clear favorite until his disqualification.
Nadal has just won a 13th French Open title without losing a set, and especially he and Djokovic will still be the strong favorites until 2021.
The Spanish veteran issued a cooling warning to young people pretending to defeat Medvedev in London.
“My motivation has always been the same,” he said. “Next year will be an important year. I hope to be ready to fight for the things I want to fight for.”
Pundits have predicted a change of guard many times in recent years, but such predictions have always proved premature.
Of course, it is impossible to delay the inevitable – Federer will be 40 next year and has missed almost the entire 2020 season after two knee surgeries.
Nadal is 34 and Djokovic 33, and both can be more shaky during the big moments than they once were.
Thiem, Medvedev, Zverev and Tsitsipas have had greater success against the big three than the ones before them, and an even younger group is making waves.
But with Federer and Nadal tied for 20 Slams and Djokovic three behind, the three dominant players over the past 15 years are playing for history and hugely motivated to achieve more.
Medvedev, who reached the US Open final in 2019, where he lost to Nadal, welcomed the emergence of the young weapons.
“I think it’s great for tennis,” he said. “We’re starting to get our points. Dominic won his first Slam and was playing incredible tennis right now.”
But second place in the ATP final Thiem believes that it is too early to discount the old guard and predict “exciting times” in the future.
“We proved that we can play with the legends, that we can also beat them, that we can also win the biggest tournaments,” he said.
“I think in the next few years the big three will still play for every big title, but I guess there will still be a time when these guys retire, I do not know, in three, four, five years. And then I guess we will be favorites for all the big titles. “