Challenge Accepted

2017 has been the year of the resurgence.  A resurgent Roger Federer, has been on a tear this year, picking up two grand slam titles in Australia and Wimbledon, as well as sweeping the sunshine double.  In all, he’s won five titles this year.  Rafael Nadal has also enjoyed a resurgence this year.  He won almost every title during the clay court swing and posted a solid showing, including the Australian Open and Miami finals, during the spring hard court swing.

The Fedal rivalry also experienced a bit of a resurgence.  The 2017 Australian Open final was their first Grand Slam title contest since the French Open in 2011.  They’ve also played three times this year, twice in the finals.  Most importantly, they are both locked in a two man race for the year end number one.  Frankly, it has been just like old times and while the resurgence has been great for tennis, it has posed a troubling question.  When will the next generation step up?

If we were waiting for a defining moment, this week was it.  However, there has been a build up.  Alexander Zverev was coming into Montreal, one title behind Roger Federer in the title’s race – they are now neck and neck with five apiece.  More impressive is that one of those titles was a convincing Masters 1000 victory in Rome.  The vanquished in that final?  Novak Djokovic.  With this victory in Montreal, Zverev has defeated two champions with a combined 32 grand slam titles between them, for his first two Masters 1000 titles.  What’s more?  He didn’t drop a set in either of those finals and they were by similarly convincing scores.

Federer, who had looked a tad bit off all tournament, was completely out of sorts for this final.  His movement appeared hindered and his serve was rushed and weak.  Most of his holds came from smart placement of serve, rather than pace.  By the second set, even the placement was gone and he began throwing in a few double faults.  The ground strokes did not fair any better.  One of the greatest footwork exponents of the game, was found reaching for his shots more times than not and missing badly on a number of occasions.  It was obvious the Swiss was far from his best and more about going through the motions than being competitive.

Yet credit must go to Zverev.  Playing a champion of Federer’s caliber, wounded or not, is never easy.  Zverev did not allow himself to be distracted by Federer’s physical struggles and he did a great job of silently urging himself on rather than riling up a Montreal crowd that desperately sought for a reason to galvanize their beloved champion.  The lanky German played a solid game from start to finish.  He played smart too.  Noticing Federer’s hindered movement, Zverev went out wide on his serve a couple of times, and hit the safe shot to the open court – sometimes for a winner, and most times drawing a mistake from Federer.  This was a man who knew how to win one of these and was going about this task as professionally as possible.

With this win, and with the way a few others like Dominic Thiem and Denis Shapovalov have played in stretches this year, do we still say Generation Next or do we coin a new title?  How about Generation Now?  Federer and Nadal’s resurgence threw down the gauntlet.  How could two men with a combined age of 67, dominate the tennis world after coming off of long injury lay offs?  As thrilling as their stories have been, it has been a challenge to the younger ones to step up or risk being dominated like those a generation ahead of them had been.

Challenge accepted.

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