Why you should care

It’s year 16 of the “Big Three” Grand Slam dominance, and we’re anxiously looking for a little variety.

More stunned than angry, the crowd of tennis-crazed New Yorkers let world No. 1 Novak Djokovic hear it as he walked off the court Sunday. Perhaps they didn’t quite grasp the circumstances, booing the defending champion who, down two sets to none in the fourth round of the U.S. Open, chose to retire from the tournament due to a weekslong shoulder injury. It mattered little.

The boos echoed a sentiment that has taken over men’s tennis in recent years. Perhaps we’re spoiled, but when fans tune in to a Grand Slam tournament, we expect to see three of the greatest tennis players of all time — Djokovic, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal — produce at a level worthy of the coronation.

Djokovic was not booed on Sunday for losing to Stan Wawrinka, who also defeated Djokovic in the 2016 U.S. Open final. Fair or not, he was booed for not holding up his end of the bargain. As men’s tennis’ “Big Three” know, there are responsibilities that accompany a No. 1 Open seeding. In fact:

The last No. 1 seed in New York who wasn’t Djokovic, Federer or Nadal was Andre Agassi in 2003.

The dominance hardly stops there. We’re currently witnessing the 16th year of the Big Three Era. Since 2004, Roger, Rafa and Novak have won all but two U.S. Opens. Moreover, the triumvirate has combined to win 53 of the 63 majors between them over that span. A win this week would make it 54 of 64, and 12 straight since Wawrinka beat Djokovic in four sets to win the 2016 U.S. Open.

Yet those top names don’t often meet in the Open finals. Federer and Nadal have played each other 40 times but never at the U.S. Open. With Federer’s shocking upset loss to Grigor Dimitrov in the quarterfinals on Tuesday night, they won’t this year either. Entering the tournament, world No. 1 Djokovic looked like a near-lock to reach the final. Now only Nadal remains to keep the Big Three’s streak alive.

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Novak Djokovic hits a forehand against Stan Wawrinka on Sunday.

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Djokovic’s choice to surrender early provided a glimmer of opportunity for faces outside the Big Three to make a run at U.S. Open glory. Dimitrov’s victory over the Great One, Federer, marked an official crashing of the party. Injuries can claim any player old or young, but there’s no question that the aging Big Three are more susceptible to wear and tear. Federer was clearly snakebitten as he watched Dimitrov clinch an easy fifth set.

In a tournament without any unforeseen circumstances, a player would likely have to beat two — if not all three — of the Big Three to win a major. “That’s seemingly almost impossible to do,” says ESPN analyst John McEnroe. But this is not one of those tournaments. “They’re human. You’ve seen that over the years. It takes a bit of luck for a draw to open up,” McEnroe says.

When one giant goes down, the other two have continually been there to carry the torch. “It seems like the same guys are the favorites again this time around,” Federer told reporters last week, prior to the first round. “It will be a surprise if anybody else won.”

For years, tennis fans have been waiting for a young player to change that. As women’s tennis soars to global popularity, men’s tennis languishes behind several other sports in terms of fandom. Part of that is due to a lack of exciting, marketable young champions. “It’s an uphill battle for men’s tennis,” says ESPN analyst, and 18-time women’s Grand Slam winner, Chris Evert. “Let’s just get a [Nick] Kyrgios who doesn’t lose his temper so much, get a guy like him to really enhance and promote the sport even more for the younger kids.”

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Rafael Nadal in action against Marin Cilic at the U.S. Open.

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Three young players pegged for that type of success — No. 4 Dominic Thiem (26 years old), No. 6 Alexander Zverev (22) and No. 8 Stefanos Tsitsipas (21) — all possess the talent to break through, yet their performance is spotty. All three lost in the first round at Wimbledon. In Queens, Thiem and Tsitsipas both lost in the first round again. Zverev has performed better, but he fell to Diego Schwartzman on Monday.

Schwartzman fell to Spain’s Raging Bull last night. Nadal next meets 33-year-old Frenchman Gaël Monfils (No. 13) or 23-year-old Italian star Matteo Berrettini (No. 24) in the semifinals.

On the flip side of the bracket, anything is possible. Dimitrov, 28, once ranked as high as No. 3 in the world, is on fire. Hopeful fans itching to see Wawrinka return to what was once considered the sport’s “Big Four” were disappointed earlier on Tuesday, as he was thoroughly overpowered by one of tennis’ fastest-rising stars — and the soon-to-be new world No. 4 — Daniil Medvedev.

Coming off a torrid summer, the 6-foot-6 Russian is perhaps the most dangerous young player — and certainly one of the most polarizing characters — in the sport. He’s an elite athlete with a funky, awkward style of play that challenges opponents. Dimitrov will be the next to find that out in their semifinal match on Friday. And unlike other young prospects who have been mentally overwhelmed against the Big Three, Medvedev appears to relish the spotlight. In the fourth round on Sunday, Medvedev was on the receiving end of the displeasure of 23,771 vocal fans. After the match, he took the microphone and egged them on, thanking the New Yorkers for powering him to victory.

“People don’t like playing him,” says McEnroe. “He understands strategy and subtleties of the game better than almost any of the other younger players.”

On Tuesday, after disposing of Wawrinka in convincing fashion, he won them over. “Thank you, and I’m sorry,” Medvedev told the cheering crowd.

The villain is officially a favorite. And he might just tame the Raging Bull.

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