OVER the last 18 years, Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have won a staggering 15 years’-worth of the Grand Slam titles on offer. They have secured 20 of the games’ biggest titles each, and at this week’s US Open Djokovic could move into pole position, wrapping up a calendar Grand Slam in the process.
With Federer and Nadal sadly absent, the biggest threat to Djokovic’s chances at Flushing Meadows is expected to come from the so-called “Next Generation”. The likes of Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Daniil Medvedev, and latterly Andrey Rublev, have long threatened – but failed – to overhaul the Big Three, despite the physical advantages afforded by their relative youth.
There is no doubt that Djokovic, Federer and Nadal are three of the greatest players of all time. However, has their job been made easier in recent years by the Next Gen’s inability to make the most of their undoubted potential, ultimately through no fault of their own?
The only member of the Next Gen to have won a major is Dominic Thiem, who picked up last year’s crown at Flushing Meadows (after Djokovic was expelled from the tournament for hitting a line judge with a ball).
Thiem is a Next gen outlier, however, in that he was born in 1993. That means he is the only one of them not to officially belong to what is known as IGen. Born between 1995 and 2012, IGen are the first generation to have had social media accounts before starting High School and can’t remember a time before the internet.
In an article for the Atlantic in 2017, the American psychologist Jean Twenge – who has studied generational trends and differences for 30 years – wrote: “It’s not an exaggeration to describe iGen as being on the brink of the worst mental-health crisis in decades. Much of this deterioration can be traced to their phones.”
Cal Newport, best-selling author of “Digital Minimalism”, cites Twenge’s research in stark terms, highlighting the rapid increase in mental health difficulties seen in IGen.
“Twenge asks ‘what is the dividing line between young people who have this big rise in mental health and those who don’t’?” Newport said. “It was exactly, were you born just late enough that when you got to your early adolescence, smartphones had crossed the 50 per cent of the population mark? In other words, smartphones had become ubiquitous.”
Federer, Nadal and Djokovic all honed their games before smartphones and social media took off. The same is true of the double-Wimbledon champion Andy Murray. Before returning to the All-England club this summer, the former world No.1 spoke about how common it now was to see younger players and their coaches scrolling on their phones during practice sessions.
Newport, asked whether the inability of the Next Generation to break through could be because they belong to IGen, and so have been impacted by smartphones and social media at least to some degree, said: “You’re on to something big. If you’re in an elite sport, little differences make a big difference.”
“If you’re on these things all the time, you get a distractable mind,” he told me for my Life Lessons podcast. “A distractible mind means you’re going to lose that focus by some epsilon. That epsilon is the difference between being able to get in position and block that shot or not. And so, I think this is an emerging trend in sports. If I was an up-and-coming elite athlete, this would be one of my secret weapons: I want nothing to do with my phone.”
One question to consider is whether members of IGen, who do choose to turn their back on smartphone and social media use, might remain negatively impacted. There is a question mark over brain plasticity and whether smartphone induced changes are reversible or not, but Newport still has his concerns.
“I’m worried about developing adolescent brains,” he said. “Because so much is forming, it could have a relatively permanent effect.”
There is no doubt that one of the Next Generation could derail Djokovic’s bid to win the calendar Grand Slam this week. Zverev is in the form of his life, while Medvedev and Tsitsipas are the world’s second and third ranked players. But the Greek is the youngest of the Next Gen at 23; by that age all the Big Three were well up and running on the Grand Slam scene.
If it was not for the impact of smartphones and social media, there is a good chance that one of the Next Gen would have already won a major title, and the landscape of men’s tennis would look very different.
Simon Mundie hosts the “Life Lessons: From Sport and Beyond” podcast. He also presents on the Today programme on BBC Radio 4, and is a reporter for BBC TV at the Wimbledon Championships. His website is www.simonmundie.com