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Top Trio In Men’s Tennis Is Being Tested By Toughest Foe Yet: Time Itself

I’m here to perform a public service, like a Boy Scout helping an old lady across the street.

The Australian Open final is set between Novak Djokovic and Daniil Medvedev. Tennis’ Big Three — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Djokovic — might possibly be losing their stranglehold on the sport they’ve owned for 18 years.

Of course, people have been saying that for years, and then Generation Next always proves to be inadequate. And while I think Djokovic is going to win, this isn’t a gimme. There are signs of change.

Federer thought he was having minor knee surgery that would keep him out for a few months. More than a year and another surgery later, he still isn’t back. Nadal’s back started hurting for no known reason a few weeks before the Australian. He lost the ability to hit his normal serve in practice or to fully get in condition. Then, he lost in the quarterfinals after taking a huge lead over Gen Next’s Stefanos Tsitsipas and then running . . . out . . . of . . . gas.

And Djokovic himself slipped on the painted word “MELBOURNE’’ on the back of the court and had some level of injury, though it’s hard to know what level. Djokovic, who loves to create melodrama and then conquer it, made it sound as if it were somewhere between a torn oblique muscle and something terminal. Two days later, he was fine.

These things are seen as flukes, or maybe even fiction, but they actually scream out one thing:

Old.

We’ve been duped lately into believing our all-time great athletes can beat the undefeated: Father Time. Tom Brady wins the Super Bowl at 43, says he’ll get to 45 at least, and people close to him are talking about him sticking around until he pushes 50. LeBron James is still the best at 36.

But in tennis, the three legends who have dominated the game for so long, are finally starting to show cracks. Frankly, it’s harder to dominate in old age in tennis — a sport based on quick-twitch — than in a sport where teammates can help you out. I get that you’re not being chased by angry 300-pound men in tennis, but you’re also standing out there all by yourself, without replacements if you get tired or hurt temporarily.

So my public service is to speak from experience about what the future holds for the 39-year-old Federer, 34-year-old Nadal and 33-year-old Djokovic. Just to help you guys out, to help you prepare. Here’s the news for you:

Remember when you were younger, beating down on an old, bald guy named Andre Agassi? When Agassi was young, he had long, blond hair, flowing past his shoulders. When you were beating him, he said his back felt like it had one of those locking devices you put on your steering wheel.

There is a difference between sports gods and god gods. Sports gods have to deal with ligaments and tendons and things that start getting stretched out and cracked like old rubber.

Bad news, guys: Everything is going to get worse from here.

Your back won’t just go out from excessive training, Rafa. It’ll also go out from bending down to pick up the dog’s water bowl, as mine once did. Your knees won’t just take forever to heal, Roger, but you’ll start limping when it does, and that limp will throw out your back, which will make you hobble and hurt the other knee.

And your obliques won’t just tear (Strain? Pinch? Get an owie?) from slipping on a court, Novak, but also from sneezing one time. Don’t feel bad about slipping on paint. When Agassi was your age, he could barely lift his feet high enough to keep from tripping over the paint that defined the baseline. He stopped standing way back behind that line and instead stood on it to cut angles and keep him from having to run/waddle.

I know you guys are new to this stuff.

I mentioned some of these things to my friend, Dave, the other day. He and I have played tennis together since we were kids.

“What a snide remark,’’ he said. “I literally hurt my ankle the other day while pulling the sheets over my pillow while making my bed. Doesn’t mean I’m old. It was just a fluke.’’

Well, Roger, Rafa and Novak, you’re going to start having more flukes.

I can venture to guess that if Djokovic were 23 and not 33, his obliques wouldn’t have hurt when he slipped. He also wouldn’t have slipped in the first place.

Well, Federer missed the U.S. Open last year because of his knee. Nadal sat out because he was scared of going to New York and getting COVID. And Djokovic seemed to be headed for the title until he angrily hit a ball that accidentally hit a line judge in the throat. He was kicked out of the tournament.

And that led to two Generation Next players — Dominic Thiem and Alex Zverev — in the final. Thiem won, though it was one of the worst-played major finals ever.

Then Nadal came back to dominate the French Open — and Djokovic. So here we are in the first major of 2021. And Medvedev, 25, has beaten Djokovic three of the past four times they’ve played.

I’ll still take Djokovic for the win, and then Nadal at the French Open. But the future of tennis is one dog bowl or bedsheet fluke away.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

4 Comments

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  1. Serena could play on the mens tour and few would notice.

    seems only fair that one of the men in the trio tries womens senior temnis at least.

    i’m 53 and i still play hard and get hurt hard. running out of gas happens in the middle of a serve sometimes. sometimes it happens after breakfast.

    i run low on energy so often, that i’m thinkin of running for POTUS – if Biden can do it, i can do it without leaving my couch.

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