Tennis fans of today often feel blessed to be living in one of the greatest periods of the game with not one but three players who could be considered the GOAT when all is said and done – Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Throw Andy Murray into the mix and tennis’ Big Four have captured 99 of the last 124 Masters 1000 titles and 49 of the last 56 majors stretching back to 2004.
Not only do they win, they do it with style and a great sense of genuine camaraderie. In one of the greatest rivalries in all of sports, Nadal has faced Federer 37 times, including nine finals at the majors. Still, Nadal said this week of Federer: “We have been under pressure situations during all our careers playing against each other, so I think is very good news that at this point we still have that very good relationship, no?”
While no one wants to contemplate what the tennis landscape will look like post-Big Four, the truth is that all four are in their 30’s. Even though 30 is the new 20, nothing lasts forever.
“Our fans, you know, hopefully will still follow tennis, or it’s going to be different for them or unfortunately they will leave tennis,” Federer said. “You know, the new generation is going to bring in new fans. The wheel keeps turning.”
There is much the new generation can take away from the legends of the game.
“I have made my mistakes early on, as well,” Federer who was known as being a petulant teen, said. “From the outside, Rafa looks like he’s done everything right. He won 10 French Opens, and he’s had a Hall of Fame career. But I’m sure also he thinks he could have maybe done things a bit different.”
Something every young player needs to be successful is a good team, according to Michael Luevano, Tournament Director of the Shanghai Rolex Masters. “It all starts with the family. Look at Sascha Zverev now and Jimmy Connors and Jennifer Capriati before. You need complete commitment to pursue a professional sports direction. Especially in the world of tennis, it’s a tremendous amount of travel and requires a lot of support.”
China has a chance to get things right with 17-year-old US Open boys’ champion Wu Yibing. “His mother and his family knew this is what he wanted to do, they supported it and continue to support it, and that is what has allowed him to be successful,” Mr. Luevano said.
Wu adds that teamwork has to be equal parts family and child. “Kids today cannot express their own will,” Wu said. “Most of the time, they are under the will of their parents. But kids should be straight with their parents and the parents should listen to their kids more often.”
Federer also talked about the weight of expectation being a double-edged sword.
“It can be a hindrance,” Federer said. “Yet it can also be a tailwind, you know, where you feel, jeez, I’m doing so well already, the press is loving it, my friends are loving it. Everybody is in euphoria. But I think if you analyze it all together, I don’t think it’s the best thing.”
Federer specifically referred to the pitfalls of too much media attention too early, taking tennis-crazed France as an example of making “their players too big too soon, and then they become a bit, I don’t want to say ‘spoiled’, but a bit too happy too soon rather than finishing their development at every stage throughout”.
That’s where the support team comes in, according to Federer. “I think the entourage is key in the player development to remind them, okay, you maybe made first page of the newspaper or the magazine or whatever it is, but it doesn’t change one thing of what we’re trying to achieve,” he said.
That’s a lesson that young Wu is learning early. Despite the media hype in a country desperate for a male champion, Wu seems to be well-grounded. “I don’t give too much thought to what people on the outside think of me,” he said. “You should know that you are not who the media is trying to portray you as. I just try to do things my own way.”
The 19-time major champion had some final words of advice for Wu. “I think just as important is that you don’t get carried away too soon as a player and you really want to try to become the best player you can become and not just be happy to be famous for winning something in the juniors or winning a few matches on the tour,” Federer said.