NextGen vs Nole: What rising stars in men’s tennis have to do to defeat the dominant Serb

The ATP’s NextGen has made significant strides in many ways. However, the recent Wimbledon final showed that they still have some catching up to do when it comes to beating Novak Djokovic

For years we’ve wondered which NextGen ATP player would finally break through and win a major title. Since 2019 we’ve seen great achievements from this group of players (born no earlier than 1996), which includes world No 2 Daniil Medvedev, world No 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas, world No 6 Alexander Zverev, world No 7 Andrey Rublev and world No 8 Matteo Berrettini.

Medvedev has reached a pair of major finals and won 11 titles; Tsitsipas notched his first major final appearance last month at Roland-Garros; Zverev played the 2020 US Open final, while Berrettini fell to Novak Djokovic in his first Major final at Wimbledon but none of these players has been able to break through and lift a Grand Slam trophy. 

One doesn’t need to look far to find the reason: Novak Djokovic has been running the table at the majors of late, and has now won 8 of the last 12 majors – and 20 overall. 

At the moment the NextGen is standing right at the precipice of a major breakthrough. Now all they have to do is figure out a way to beat Djokovic at a major, a feat that none of the NextGen has ever accomplished (except for South Korea’s Hyeon Chung, who was born in 1996 but is now ranked 185).

Here’s a look at all the players getting closer to winning major titles, and how they have fared against Djokovic overall, and at the Slams… 

Denis Shapovalov, so close, so far

  • Head-to-Head v Djokovic: 0-7
  • Grand Slam Head-to-Head with Djokovic: 0-2

How their rivalry shapes up: Shapovalov was defeated by Djokovic in the Wimbledon semi-finals in a tough straight-setter. The Canadian has lost all seven matches he has played against Djokovic, but did manage to take him to a third-set tiebreaker at the ATP Cup in 2020. 

Djokovic himself is aware of the threat as he mentioned before his semi-final clash:  “It seems like he’s maturing, which is also something that is normal, it’s logical,” he said. “You would expect that from a player like him that has really an all-around game. Huge serve, lefty, which is always tricky to play someone who is left-handed on the quick surfaces. …  I’m sure that that’s going to be the biggest test I will have so far in the tournament.”

What Shapovalov needs to do to beat Djokovic: The Canadian needs to continue to develop his consistency while at the same time embracing his aggressive tactics. He could also step up his return game. In truth, he is progressing nicely, but is still far from matching Djokovic. 

Daniil Medvedev, the Melbourne final that hurted

  • Head-to-Head v Djokovic: 3-5
  • Grand Slam Head-to-Head with Djokovic: 0-2

How their rivalry shapes up: Medvedev has scored three wins over Djokovic and clearly knows what it takes to beat him. But he took a step back with his dismal performance against the Serb in this year’s Australian Open final. 

What Medvedev needs to do to beat Djokovic: Medvedev needs more cracks at Djokovic in the majors. If he can take a set or two off him the next time they play, his confidence will grow. He’s closer than the rest of the group, except for…

Stefanos Tsitsipas, one set from paradise

  • Head-to-Head v Djokovic: 2-6
  • Grand Slam Head-to-Head with Djokovic: 0-2

How their rivalry shapes up: Tsitsipas has taken Djokovic to five sets in the last two years at Roland-Garros and the Greek is steadily improving all the while. It seems like clay will be Tsitsipas’ best chance to topple Djokovic at a major, but he could do himself a favour by working his way deep at either the US Open or the Australian Open. Another match or two against Djokovic will help him develop the tactics and tools he needs to take on this challenge. 

What Tsitsipas needs to do to beat Djokovic: The Greek needs to keep improving his all-around game, especially the return, and grow his confidence by winning more big titles and pushing deeper into more Slams. He may match up better than any of the NextGen against the Serb.

Matteo Berrettini, 4 sets in the fare

  • Head-to-Head v Djokovic: 0-3
  • Grand Slam Head-to-Head with Djokovic: 0-2

How their rivalry shapes up: Berrettini pushed Djokovic at Roland-Garros, taking him to four sets and in that contest he really found ways to used his forehand as a destructive weapon, and then to four sets in the final at Wimbledon. The Italian has devastating power and is one of the few players that can take the racquet out of Djokovic’s hands if he executes well on a faster surface. 

What Berrettini needs to do to beat Djokovic: Keep working to strengthen his backhand, so it isn’t a weakness, and keep improving tactically, so that he can find more ways to use his strengths to win points on his terms. 

Hubert Hurkacz, souvenirs de 2019

  • Head-to-Head v Djokovic: 0-2
  • Grand Slam Head-to-Head with Djokovic: 0-2

How their rivalry shapes up: Hurkacz took a set against Djokovic at Wimbledon in 2019, which is a good sign. It wasn’t the case in Roland-Garros one month earlier.

What Hurkacz needs to do to beat Djokovic: The Pole is an underrated talent, as we’ve all seen this week at Wimbledon, where he knocked off Daniil Medvedev and then Roger Federer to reach the Wimbledon semis. Now Hurkacz needs to learn to play at that high level more consistently, and that could start by reaching the Wimbledon final to earn another shot at facing Djokovic. 

Alexander Zverev, five in a row

  • Head-to-Head v Djokovic: 2-6
  • Grand Slam Head-to-Head with Djokovic: 0-2

How their rivalry shapes up: Like Tsitsipas, Zverev won two of his first three against Djokovic, but he’s lost five in a row since. 

What Zverev needs to do to beat Djokovic: The German has a disruptive power game that gives Djokovic problems. He demonstrated that by taking the Serb to four sets at this year’s Australian Open. He needs to continue working on his second serve, and impose himself on Djokovic in rallies. More aggressive court positioning, and less passive play. 

Felix Auger-Aliassime

  • Head-to-Head v Djokovic: 0-0
  • Grand Slam Head-to-Head with Djokovic: 0-0

How their rivalry shapes up: It hasn’t, yet. 

What Auger-Aliassime needs to do to beat Djokovic: Auger-Aliassime is very much a work in progress. He’ll need a lot more seasoning and a lot more experience in big matches at the Slams to be able to handle the Djokovic challenge. 

Andrey Rublev

  • Head-to-Head v Djokovic: 0-0
  • Grand Slam Head-to-Head with Djokovic: 0-0

How their rivalry shapes up: It hasn’t yet. 

What Rublev needs to do to beat Djokovic: The Russian is still improving, and really hasn’t put up a signature performance at the Grand Slams. He needs to start by getting a match or two against Djokovic under his belt. Difficult to say how he matches up until then. 

Jannik Sinner

  • Head-to-Head v Djokovic: 0-1
  • Grand Slam Head-to-Head with Djokovic: 0-0

How their rivalry shapes up: So far, not so great. 

What Sinner needs to do to beat Djokovic: The Italian is in a phase of his career where he is learning from all his experiences. He needs time. He’s 19 now, by the time he gets into his tennis playing prime, Djokovic will be 37 or older. The Italian might enjoy facing that Djokovic more than the 34-year-old version who is playing some of the most lethal tennis of his career. 

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