GQ Hype: It’s the big story of right now.
The new generation of elite men’s tennis players is a small, tight-knit group. With a pro tour that stretches from January through November, and from Melbourne to New York, Tokyo to Monte Carlo, they spend a lot of time together, shooting the shit in locker rooms, ice baths, and hotel restaurants—and in group chats that date back to their early teenage years. They talk about tennis, mostly. And lately, the conversations have revolved around a new line of speculation: Which one of them is up next? In other words, as the 25-year-old American rising star Frances Tiafoe put it to me recently, “Who’s going to be the guy out of our group to win a grand slam, and then continue to win grand slams and be at the top of the game?”
The crop of players in contention to be that guy has arrived like an answered prayer. For the better part of the past two decades, tennis was dominated by the so-called Big Three: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic. From 2004 to last year’s US Open, the trio won 62 out of 75 grand slams, the historic and moneyed quartet of tournaments that make or break legacies. But by the end of last year, Federer had retired, Nadal had begun to grapple with ever-more frequent injuries, and an unvaccinated Djokovic’s major appearances had become contingent on travel rules and restrictions.
Consequently, there’s something of a vacancy at the top of the sport—an opening for a superstar (or a few) to set himself apart, just as a dynamic mix of creative young players are coming into their own. To survey that new bevy of talent, GQ traveled last fall to the Paris Masters, one of the tour’s most prestigious tournaments outside the slams, where the game’s top players were vying for one of the last trophies of the year. Gathered in an athletic club in the city’s Left Bank on the eve of the event, seven of the draw’s hottest talents joked and gossiped and discussed the year their generation broke out—and what might be ahead. “2022 was one of the first years where I felt like, going into the really big tournaments, anyone could win,” Taylor Fritz, a 25-year-old baseliner from San Diego, told me. According to Tiafoe, the gap between the top players and the rest of the field has all but vanished. “It’s getting wild, man,” he said. “If you don’t come correct, you can get it from anybody.”
Tiafoe knows this better than anyone. At last year’s US Open, he had the misfortune of drawing a fourth-round match against Nadal. Going into their contest, Nadal, despite his injuries, was still undefeated in major matches in over a year, and he’d dusted Tiafoe in two previous meetings. Then Tiafoe, the son of a janitor at a tennis academy in Maryland, took the Spaniard down in four sets of furious shot making. “I never knew if I was going to beat one of those dudes,” Tiafoe said of the Big Three. Now, Nadal might be entertaining similar doubts. A few months after the Open, Tiafoe and compatriot Jack Sock vanquished Nadal and Federer in a match that sealed the Swiss legend’s retirement. Said Tiafoe, “I don’t believe in flukes.”