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With the Grand Slam season in the books, what's the state of the ATP Tour in 2023?
From Djokovic's dominance at three of the four big ones to the success of American tennis on hard courts, here are the top takeaways of the year to date.
Published Sep 12, 2023
With the Grand Slams in the books, Joel Drucker takes a closer look at the five major storylines that have defined the ATP season so far:
Novak Djokovic continues to redefine greatness and longevity in unimaginable ways
With great wins, impressive runs, and high-quality tennis, such titans as Pancho Gonzales, Ken Rosewall and Jimmy Connors defined longevity in powerful ways. But Novak Djokovic has taken the concept of an epic career to levels that no could have ever foreseen. Sixteen years ago at the US Open, a 20-year-old Djokovic reached his first Grand Slam singles final and went on to finish 2007 ranked No. 3 in the world. Now, the year he turned 36, Djokovic advanced to the finals of all four majors, won three of them, and is once again No. 1 in the world.
On the list of his many achievements, Djokovic’s 2023 campaign ranks right up there, and while Djokovic is increasingly prudent about scheduling–only playing one tournament between Wimbledon and the US Open–he remains supremely fit and focused.
Not so fast, Carlos–and maybe he likes it that way, too
For the second time this year, Carlos Alcaraz was beaten in a major semifinal, a situation he explained far differently than by offering the generic statements we’re used to hearing from the defeated. “I'm not mature enough to handle these kind of matches,” he said following his loss to Medvedev. “So I have to learn about it.”
This was similar to what Alcaraz said at Roland Garros after losing in the semis there to Djokovic. He too is aware that the train has gone quite swiftly for him; not too fast, for no one would decline such spectacular achievements. But Alcaraz’s candor about even his developmental needs reveals yet again why he is one of the most refreshing people to ever play tennis.
For American men, a hard court is good to find
For the current crop of promising Americans, there remains work to be done on clay and grass. But when it comes to the consistent, firm bounce of a hardcourt, the contemporary cohort group has taken major strides forward. For the first time since 2005, three American men reached the quarterfinals or better at the US Open–Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Ben Shelton. Following a first-round exit in New York last year, Fritz played much better tennis to make the last eight. Tiafoe also went that far before being beaten by Shelton.
“I always say that American tennis seems to be moving in a great direction, the right direction,” Shelton said. “We have guys making it deep in Slams. ... So it's a pretty cool time to be an American in tennis.”
The long-term quest for these and other Americans is to improve their skills for better efforts in Paris and London. Near at hand, the short term offers tremendous opportunity: the fall circuit of events, many played on hardcourts.
Where have you gone, Next Gen ad campaign?
For well over a decade, hopeful contenders have surfaced, skilled enough to vie for major singles titles. Recall the early flowerings of Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov. Look now at more recent notables, including Dominic Thiem (who did win a major at the 2020 US Open), Stefanos Tsitsipas, Matteo Berrettini, Nick Kyrgios, Casper Ruud, Andrey Rublev, and Karen Khachanov. All are great players, but of late, each is also currently fighting hard to stay significantly in the mix at the very highest levels.
Call them victims of what I’ll call “The Alcaraz Effect.” The Spaniard’s skills and results have raised the bar and left others scurrying to catch up. As we’ve seen over the last few years, these men all have excellence.
But can they find the magic?
Excluded from this list of mid-career answer-seekers: Jannik Sinner, Holger Rune, Alexander Zverev and Daniil Medvedev. The 22-year-old Sinner is still in the early phase of his career and this summer posted a pair of breakthrough results–at Wimbledon, an inaugural Slam semi run, followed in Toronto with a first Masters 1000 title. Ditto for the 20-year-old Rune. Like Alcaraz, each of these two is a diamond in need of more polishing. Zverev has recovered well from last year’s ankle injury and made excellent runs this year to the semis of Roland Garros and the quarterfinals at the US Open, in the latter earning an impressive five-set win over Sinner. Medvedev’s US Open journey, highlighted by his win over Alcaraz, proved once again what makes him formidable.
College tennis is indeed a viable path
Largely due to the lightning-like ascent of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang in the late 1980s, college tennis over the last few decades had become less of a viable pathway to the top 100. But of late, its credibility has been given a big boost. An early signal of things to come occurred in 2007, when, just after finishing four great years at the University of Georgia, John Isner commenced a productive and lengthy career that ended last month in New York. Soon after came another college star, Kevin Anderson.
According to a late August story from ITA Tennis, 20 men who’d played college tennis were in the main singles draw of the US Open. Most have built their tennis journeys in a methodical way, as has been the case for former UCLA stars Mackenzie McDonald and Marcos Giron, as well as TCU letterman Cameron Norrie and the sensation of Wimbledon, Georgia Tech’s Chris Eubanks.Perhaps one reason for this is that, thanks to upgrades in prize money and tons of new approaches to fitness and nutrition, pro careers are lasting far longer than was once the case.
The comet-like outlier is Shelton, who turned pro shortly after winning the 2022 NCAA singles title as a sophomore, reached his first Grand Slam singles quarterfinal in January ‘23 and went one step further in New York. This was similar to the swift rises of Shelton’s fellow left-handed Americans, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, each of whom won the NCAA singles title as freshmen.
But again, if greatness in college doesn’t necessarily rocket all players as quickly up the ranks these days, it sure seems helpful on the sustainability front.