This is men’s tennis, but not as we know it. Semi-finals day at a Masters 1000 event – and not a wrinkle in sight?
In Shanghai on Friday, the ages of the four participants added up to just 89 years. The statistic might not seem all that startling in most sports, where the saying goes that “a good young ’un always beats a good old ’un”.
But in tennis, where the Big Three have spent recent seasons crushing all challengers beneath their collective jackboot, it feels like a revolutionary moment. To find the last Masters semi-final line-up of comparable greenness, you have to go back 20 years to Hamburg in 1999. That quartet included a pair of world No 1s in Carlos Moya and Marcelo Rios, which should encourage this year’s crop.
So what happened in Saturday's twin battles of the babes? The first match, which pitted 23-year-old Daniil Medvedev against 21-year-old Stefanos Tsitsipas, produced quality ball-striking but disappointingly little drama, especially when you consider that these two have a frosty relationship off the court.
Having taken out reigning world No 1 Novak Djokovic in a fine three-setter on Friday – a result which ensures that Djokovic will give up that top spot to Rafael Nadal early next month – Tsitsipas looked a little flat yesterday as he succumbed to a 7-6, 7-5 defeat in 96 minutes.
Still, looking at the bigger picture, Friday’s quarter-final represented Tsitsipas’s second win over Djokovic, and thus his fourth over a “Big Three” opponent in nine attempts. In Generation Z’s assault on the citadel, he has become the most effective battering ram. And in the coming months, other members of the group may be able to march through the hole he has created in the legends’ collective aura.
None of this was much use to Tsitsipas on Saturday, however. Medvedev has thus far given him more problems than any multiple slam-winner, dominating all five of their meetings. Tennis is a sport of match-ups, and it feels as though Tsitsipas struggles with Medvedev’s spindle-legged retrieving game. As, indeed, has everyone else on the tour. For this was Medvedev’s 58th win of 2019, ten more than Djokovic and Nadal have managed for equal second place.
Medvedev’s opponent on Sunday will be another man with Russian parentage, although Alexander Zverev grew up in Hamburg and plays under the German flag. Like Tsitsipas, Zverev stuck it to the tennis establishment on Friday, when he beat Roger Federer in a melodramatic three-setter.
The main story from their quarter-final was that Federer grew so testy that he whacked two balls out of court in frustration and received a penalty point from the chair umpire for “unsportsmanlike conduct”. It was the first such penalty, Federer later admitted, that he had incurred for “a long, long time”.
But that sub-plot obscured the fact that this was comfortably Zverev’s best win of a difficult year. As Telegraph Sport reported in the summer, he split with manager Patricio Apey at the end of 2018, and has since been organising his own affairs with little support. It was only seven weeks ago that he announced a deal with a new agency – ironically, Federer’s own Team8 – and began to regain some winning momentum.
We thought that 2019 would be Zverev’s time when he finished last season by winning the ATP Tour Finals – the youngest man to do so since Djokovic in 2008. We were wrong. But this week has found him serving like a siege gun and blanketing the baseline with his giant strides. Another thing these four semi-finalists have in common is their stature: Zverev is 6ft 6in, Medvedev and Matteo Berrettini 6ft 5in, with Tsitsipas the little brother in every sense at 6ft 4in.
In the other semi, Berrettini never made any impression on that booming Zverev serve. Which was hardly surprising when you consider that Zverev was landing 81 per cent of his first serves, while generating a terrifying average speed of 135mph. Berrettini must have felt like a coconut at the fairground as balls kept whizzing past him, and it was only 67 minutes before he was back in the locker-room, a loser by a 6-3, 6-4 scoreline.
Calling the final is a tricky business. Medvedev has the form: just one defeat, against Nadal in a superb US Open final, in his last 21 matches. But he has also never beaten Zverev in four previous attempts.
Ultimately, though, this is not the match to change the tennis world. These young firebrands need to produce over the best-of-five sets, at the majors, before they can claim to be the finished article. Together, they represent a far more convincing package than the early 1990s-born generation of Grigor Dimitrov, Milos Raonic and David Goffin. Yet until one of them receives one of the biggest trophies, on one of the biggest stages, the glass ceiling of tennis will remain intact.