FRENCH OPEN 2021: Is it time for the changing of the guard?

Forgive Novak Djokovic if he’s just a little bit tired of hearing about, and being asked to address, how much longer he, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer can stay at the top of tennis.

Or, put another way, whether a younger generation of men finally is poised to consistently win Grand Slam titles.

“I mean, I said it a thousand times. I don’t know how many times people want me to repeat it. Of course the ‘Next Gen’” — a marketing slogan pushed by the ATP — “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 said.

“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 5, Top 10 of the world. Nothing new,” he continued, then noted with pride: “But we are still there.”

When the French Open begins in Paris on Sunday, it will feel in some ways like order restored after the 2020 edition was altered in two significant ways because of the coronavirus pandemic: Only 1,000 spectators were let into Roland Garros per day, and competition started in September instead of May. Back in its rightful spot on the calendar — well, delayed by a week because of COVID-19 concerns, but close enough — and with about 5,300 fans allowed in each of the first 10 days, then 10,000 or more each of the last five days, could the clay-court championship serve as the setting for a symbolic changing of the guard?

Or, to Djokovic’s point, will the elders remain in charge?

“A lot of people underestimate the time and the era we are playing in, with by far the three best players in the history of the game,” said Dominic Thiem, whose U.S. Open title last September makes him the only first-time major men’s champion since 2014. “It’s more than clear that it’s incredibly tough to win Grand Slam tournaments, having to beat, most of the times, two of them.”

A glimpse at the dominance:

— 15 of the past 16 Grand Slam tournaments were won by the Big Three;

— starting with the 2005 French Open, they collected 54 of the past 63 major titles;

— in that same span, 23 Slam finals involved one of these matchups: Djokovic vs. Nadal, Djokovic vs. Federer, or Nadal vs. Federer.

That can’t happen at Roland Garros because they are in the same half of the bracket for the first time at a Grand Slam tournament. No. 1 Djokovic could face No. 8 Federer in the quarterfinals; one of them could meet No. 3 Nadal in the semifinals.

The other half includes No. 5 Stefanos Tsitsipas and No. 6 Alexander Zverev, who are among the 20-something men considered contenders to grab a first major trophy, along with No. 2 Daniil Medvedev (although even he would acknowledge not in Paris, where he is 0-4 so far) and No. 7 Andrey Rublev.

Things look quite different in the women’s game, where the question is which player might extend the recent run of success of the younger set in women’s tennis. Iga Swiatek, for example, won last year’s French Open at age 19 (she turns 20 on Monday). Other relatively recent Slam champs include Ash Barty, 25, Sofia Kenin, 22, and Bianca Andreescu, 20.

And then there is someone like Coco Gauff, still just 17, who keeps moving up the WTA rankings. She, like 19-year-old Jannik Sinner in the men’s game, is seen as part of a group of possible future stars, ready to step forth as Serena Williams, who is 39, and the top men move on.

As in any sport — or, truthfully, any business — eventually there is turnover. Has to be, of course.

The guessing game in tennis has been about both who will break through and when.

With Federer turning 40 in August, Nadal turning 35 next week and Djokovic now 34, there did seem to be some recent evidence that such a shift might be happening, including in the rankings, where Medvedev is the first man other than the Big Three or Andy Murray to be ranked in the Top 2 in 15 years.

Thiem’s triumph in New York at age 27 made him the first man born in the 1990s to win a Grand Slam title. Runner-up Zverev and the other semifinalists at Flushing Meadows also belong to that decade — and the 2020 U.S. Open was the first Slam since 2004 without at least one of Djokovic, Nadal or Federer in the semifinals.

A caveat, though: Neither Federer ( coming off two knee operations that sidelined him for more than a year ) nor Nadal entered the U.S. Open, and Djokovic was disqualified in the fourth round.

Three recent Masters 1000 finals featured matchups between up-and-comers, including Tsitsipas vs. Rublev at Monte Carlo.

But at the last Masters 1000, on clay at the Italian Open this month, Djokovic faced Nadal in the final (Nadal won, perfect preparation for his bid for a 14th French Open title and 21st Grand Slam trophy overall).

After beating Tsitsipas in the semifinals in Rome, Djokovic ran into Nadal in the locker room.

“We kind of joked around,” Djokovic said, “that the old guys are still not giving up.”

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More AP Tennis: https://apnews.com/hub/tennis and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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