In with the new: The next generation of men’s tennis takes center stage at Miami Open

Tribune Content Agency

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The early rounds at the Miami Open only provide a small glimpse at what’s to come at the stadium court next week.

Hard Rock Stadium provides a unique venue for a tournament and the main court, plopped right on the field where the Dolphins usually play, can create a major stage — “a stadium within a stadium,” Taylor Fritz called it after breezing to victory there in the second round of the 2023 Miami Open on Friday.

This year, it will be a high-profile backdrop to showcase the future of men’s tennis.

This tournament, which has been won six times by Novak Djokovic and four times by Roger Federer, features neither Djokovic nor Federer, who retired last year. Rafael Nadal isn’t in the field, either, and past champions Andy Murray and John Isner both got bounced in the first round of the main draw earlier this week.

Only nine active men have won a Grand Slam event and just two — Spanish teen Carlos Alcaraz and Daniil Medvedev, 27 — were still playing by the start of the weekend in Miami Gardens.

Alcaraz, the newest addition to the list of Grand Slam champions with his win at the 2022 US Open, is the top seed closed out the daytime session in the stadium by beating Facundo Bagnis, 6-0, 6-2, in 1:04. It came right after Fritz, the No. 9 seed, pounded Emilio Nava, 6-4, 6-1, in just 58 minutes.

Although the Open lost some star power with Djokovic unable to play because the United States still bars unvaccinated foreigners from entering the country, the 35-year-old Serbian’s absence has cleared the way for the new generation of the sport to seize the spotlight.

Alcaraz, 19, seems like the clear-cut next star of the sport, with a chance to to pile up Grand Slam champions just like Federer, Djkokovic and Nadal did before him. Stefanos Tsitsipas and Casper Ruud, both 24, are now the top-ranked players in the world without a Grand Slam title, and are seeded Nos. 2 and 3, respectively. The oldest player among the top 10 seeds at Miami is Medvedev and all rank in the top 11 of the Association of Tennis Professionals rankings. Miami is getting the best of the best — with the exception of Djokovic, the only top-12 player absent — and they’re all in their mid-20s or younger.

“You’re going into these tournaments feeling like anyone could win,” said Fritz, 25. “It’s changed a lot for me over the last year and a half or so because I always wanted to win tournaments, and I felt like a lot of times it was highly unlikely that it was going to happen with these guys in the draws, with how unbeatable they were.”

It is a pivotal moment for men’s tennis.

Federer once held the record for most Grand Slam titles and retired with 20. Nadal, 36, now shares the record with Djokovic at 22. Those three have combined to win 21 of the last 24 Grand Slams and 62 of 78 going back all the way to 2004. For two decades, they’ve been essentially the only faces of men’s tennis and they won’t be around much longer.

While Djokovic remains No. 2, Nadal has slipped to No. 13. Each of the last three years has seen a first-time Slam champion after the so-called “Big Three” swept the four majors for three straight years from 2017-2019. Slowly but surely, a changing of the guard is taking place.

“I think a lot of people are missing Novak, Rafa and Roger, but, for me, I love it,” said 25-year-old Tommy Paul, who’s seeded No. 16 and beat Marc-Andrea Huesler, 5-7, 6-3, 6-4, in Round 2 on Friday. “If you’re a true fan of the evolution of tennis, you would love where we’re at right now. I think there’s such good and promising young people that are coming into the game, that are going to be at the top of the game for a long time.”

The first is there are already budding stars. Alcaraz’s win at the US Open last year made him the youngest ever No. 1 player and he has won two more tournaments since, including a dominant performance at the 2023 BNP Paribas Open earlier this month in Indian Wells, Calif. He’s quickly ascending toward superstardom and got prime booking in the stadium for his first match of the Miami Open on Friday because of it.

The other is these rising stars — and particularly the young Americans like Fritz, Paul and Frances Tiafoe — are making a concerted effort to be stars.

Morgan Riddle, Fritz’s girlfriend, maintains a robust following on Instagram and TikTok, and uses social media to give a behind-the-scenes look at Fritz’s life as a professional tennis player. Tiafoe, 25, is one of the biggest personalities in the sport and played one of the best matches in recent memory against Alcaraz in US Open semifinals last year, and has already made a stir this week when he advocated, to Forbes, for fans to be allowed to be a bit rowdier.

“It’s always been one of my goals just to see tennis grow and make tennis more popular outside of the casual tennis fan. I want tennis to become a more well known and more talked about sport in the US,” Fritz said. “In our generation, it’s much more of a thing. I think that maybe the older generation, they just played and it was what it was. I don’t think they cared too much about the popularity of it and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong to just want to play and just have your own life, and do what you do, but I think this group — like me, Frances and Tommy — we do care.”