'We are the Next Gen': Novak Djokovic insists youngsters still lagging behind him, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer

Serbian world No 1 expects veterans to continue to dominate at the biggest stage

After the first three Masters 1000 events of the season were captured by players aged 24 or under, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic restored the tennis order by making it to the Rome final on Sunday – once again quashing the hopes of the tour’s ‘Next Gen’ on the big stage.

Nadal saved match points against 22-year-old Canadian Denis Shapovalov in the third round on his way to his 10th title triumph in Rome, while Djokovic advanced to his 11th final in the Italian capital by posting two victories in one day – first rallying back against 22-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas before defeating Lorenzo Sonego.

Djokovic’s path to the semis saw him swat away three players aged 23 or under (Taylor Fritz, Alejandro Davidovich Fokina and Tsitsipas), while Nadal’s victims en route to the final were all in the 24-and-under bracket.

The result was a 57th meeting between Nadal and Djokovic, who at 34 and 33 respectively, became the oldest Rome men’s finalists in Open Era history.

The ATP has done a great job with promoting the younger crop of talent on the circuit by creating the Next Gen Finals – a showpiece that began in Milan in 2017 featuring the top eight 21-and-under players.

But three-and-a-half years later, Nadal and Djokovic battled through tricky draws in Italy to pose the question, “Next Gen who?”

“We are reinventing the Next Gen, Rafa, myself and Roger. We are the Next Gen,” said Djokovic with a smile during his runner-up speech at the Foro Italico on Sunday.

The Serbian world No 1 has been in fighting talk all week, reminding everyone that he is not letting his age hold him back.

All six finalists of the opening three Masters 1000 events of 2021 belonged to the 25-and-under age group with Hubert Hurkacz (24), Stefanos Tsitsipas (22) and Alexander Zverev (24) reigning supreme in Miami, Monte Carlo and Madrid.

But when it comes to the grand slams, Djokovic and Nadal have won 10 of the last 11 majors, and along with Federer, have claimed 58 of the last 70.

“I said it thousand times. I don't know how many times people want me to repeat it. Of course the Next Gen is there, is coming, whatever. But here we are still winning the biggest tournaments and slams. I don't know what to tell you other than that,” Djokovic told reporters in Rome on Sunday.

“I'm not focused on the Next Gen even though I know it creates a story. People like to talk about it; fine. The guys are there. They are already establishing themselves in the top five, top 10 of the world, nothing new. But we are still there.”

Djokovic is an expert at finding ways to fuel his own motivation, whether it is by chasing records or holding off the younger group of challengers rising on the tour.

Nadal is proud of how he has proven his doubters wrong by showing such incredible longevity despite the numerous injuries he has had to contend with throughout his career.

And both players are undoubtedly driven by their rivalry – the most contested men’s match-up in Open Era history – and it seems that as long as one of them is still fighting for the big titles, the other one will continue to do so as well.

Of course the Next Gen is there, is coming, whatever. But here we are still winning the biggest tournaments and slams.

Novak Djokovic

“Rafa and I had a little laugh today in the locker room after I won against Tsitsipas,” Djokovic revealed on Saturday. “We kind of joked around that the old guys are still not giving up. I saw he said somewhere a few days ago that Roger, him and I are old, but I disagree with him. I think we're showing some different, fresh energy.

“It's great to play Rafa again in the final. He's the guy that I have encountered the most in my career. Definitely my biggest rival of all time. Playing him on clay in the finals of one of the biggest tournaments in the world is always extra motivating for me.

“Even after all we have been through in our careers there's still this excitement when we have to face each other. At least from my side I know that that's going to be the case as long as we play against each other on this level. I'm really glad that we are showing we're not backing off from the Next Gen attacks.”

Nadal is the joint all-time record holder, alongside Federer, for the most men’s grand slam titles won (20), with Djokovic just two behind. The Spaniard has now won 10 or more titles at four different tournaments but is still hungry for more. Nadal’s adopted mentality is one that focuses more on the present and future rather than the past – a philosophy that helps keep him motivated.

“Well, past is past, so it's not good to be thinking about the past all the time,” he said in Rome.

“The best thing for me, without a doubt, is that 15 years later, I’m still here. Something unexpected for a lot of people, and for me too.”

One thing that is not unexpected is that Nadal and Djokovic are heading to yet another grand slam as the top contenders – a fact that will likely remain true until the day they choose to retire.

Published: May 18, 2021 08:15 AM

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