The dominance of the Big Four has stunted the winning potential of a promising crop of men’s tennis players who are good, but not that good. This group of twenty-something not-so-hopefuls has earned the shopworn label “Lost Generation.”
Aside from the time Marin Cilic levitated and glowed in the dark for a New York fortnight in 2014, they have no major titles to show for their efforts. No man currently under the age of 30 has one, in fact. The grouping gets fuzzy, depending on who’s getting lumped in on either end of the age bracket, but Kei Nishikori (age 29), Milos Raonic (28), and Grigor Dimitrov (27) all land firmly in the Lost Generation. As of today, they’re all out of this Australian Open, despite some deep runs.
They’ve had their openings. Dimitrov—fast, flexible and capable of any shot you might want to see on a tennis court—was once hailed as Baby Fed. His game superficially resembled Federer’s, even if his gameplan is what would happen if you xeroxed Fed’s then xeroxed that xerox then xeroxed that one too and then worked off whatever pointillism came out of the printer. Dimitrov enjoyed an easy road in Melbourne for a No. 20 seed, taking out three unseeded players until he ran right into Frances Tiafoe. Their fourth-round meeting was a woozy, disorienting match that the Bulgarian probably “deserved” to win by some measures. But he couldn’t buy a break, managing it just three times in 18(!) chances, so Tiafoe passed through to the quarterfinal, where he was scrubbed by Rafael Nadal. Despite an incredibly impressive semifinal appearance here in 2017, falling to Rafa in five sets and laying a blueprint for Federer to follow in the final, Dimitrov hasn’t matched that result at any major since.
And then there’s Nishikori. The No. 8 seed had perhaps the hardest path to the quarterfinal—three gutting five-setters—but that’s only if you accept that the five-setters were necessary in the first place. Polish qualifier Kamil Majchrzak played well, but not well enough to drag their first-round match out to five sets. Ivo Karlovic might be the servebot protoype, but he’s also 39 and that’s a puzzle that Nishikori, an elite returner, should know how to solve by now. Pablo Carreño Busta is a solid player, but Nishikori should still come through that one, and in faster than five hours. The Japanese star’s historically high win percentage in five-setters is often held up during broadcasts as an example of resilience; it might also be read as evidence that he tends to let his prey try and wriggle free instead of snapping the trap shut. All that time on court took a toll on Nishikori, who retired against Novak Djokovic—a nightmarish mirror match—while down 1-6, 1-4.
“Before the match, I was okay. Of course, I wasn’t, like, fresh, fresh. I thought I was going to be okay,” he said in press. “After third game or fourth game when I was serving, I felt pretty heavy to my right leg. After that I couldn’t really bend my knees and couldn’t jump up. Yeah, I decided to stop.”
It’s been an injury-fraught few years since that 2014 U.S. Open final. He’s one of my favorite players to watch, so it pains me to say this, but at this juncture of his career, it’s harder and harder to envision Nishikori ever getting through seven matches in two weeks before coming undone.
Raonic, the most recent slam finalist of the bunch, might be the only one who will probably leave this Open with confidence renewed. He served bombs all week to dispatch Nick Kyrgios (who was actually trying), Stan Wawrinka (who played like his old self), and Sascha Zverev (who played like his preteen self) on his way to this quarterfinal. Raonic’s four-set loss to Lucas Pouille today is more a testament to the Frenchman’s outstanding returning than to any failing on the Canadian’s part. He appears to be benefiting from good coaching, as Goran Ivanisevic has had him conserve energy by running around his backhand less, instead finding ways to make his weaker wing more useful. Raonic will be back in the top 10 soon enough. If any of these three are going to sneak a slam in edgewise, on Djokovic’s watch, it’ll likely be him. Raonic is the only one who can dine out on free points; he’s been winning 91.3 percent of his service games over the last year, third on tour. He’s also third all-time, since serve statistics were first gathered in 1991. He doesn’t have to toil as hard for these first-week victories. Even if the viewer might toil to stay awake.
As for these players’ longtime tormenters, they’re mostly still there. Andy Murray’s already gone; Federer, for all the hyperbole found here and everywhere else, can’t possibly have too many more seasons left in the tank. Rafa’s wear and tear on hardcourts will bring him back to earth not too long after. Djokovic will be operating as the lone dream-crusher at some point in the near future. The younger ranks will apply some pressure, too. Early-20s prospects like Stefanos Tsitsipas and Frances Tiafoe wildly outperformed expectations at this Australian Open, but they still don’t project to be block-out-the-sun dominant players. The Lost Generation will wander on and hope to find salvation.