For some time now, many have proclaimed that an end to the long reign of tennis’s Big Four hegemony is nigh; with injuries to Federer and Nadal, followed by Djokovic and Murray, it seemed a mere formality that the next generation would finally usurp the powers that be.
Yet a stunning 2017 renaissance by the oldest pair of the quartet saw those claims silenced; it was almost as if the rising stars were reluctant to extinguish the last embers of the trailblazing flames left behind by their idols.
At the 2018 Australian Open, that reluctance has, in a subtle sense, given way to urgency. It is most rare that three of the big four enter a slam and only one reaches the semi-finals.
Although it was a very familiar face holding the trophy aloft – with no doubt now that the sporting world has never seen an athlete of the pedigree, humility and longevity of 20-time grand slam champion Roger Federer – the way the tournament unfolded was proof: a change in the guard is now upon us.
In the lead-up to his truncated semi-final against 21 year-old South Korean sensation Hyeon Chung, Federer noted the wondrous uncertainty of playing, this late in a grand slam, someone about whom he knows so little.
Indeed, as intimately as each fan knows and loves everything about their Big Four favourite, there’s a dearth of knowledge when it comes to the next generation – so we’ve picked out a few of this year’s rising stars who fans don’t know quite so well – for now.
Chung Hyeon (South Korea)
Ranked 58 going into AO2018, the inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals champion became a household name when he defeated his boyhood idol and former world number one Novak Djokovic in a stunning straight-sets fourth round upset.
The first South Korean to ever reach a grand slam quarter final, let alone semi-final, Chung only took up tennis as a way to improve his eyesight, having required glasses at a young age.
Although his glasses have now become a signature trait, it would be unfair to label Chung a cult hero; with his combination of movement, mental strength and power from both wings, he is destined for bigger things.
Dominic Thiem (Austria)
One of the few youngsters to use a single-handed backhand, Thiem’s on-court flair is matched equally by his quiet and steadfastly private off-court persona.
A strong baseliner, and the only player to beat Nadal during the Spaniard’s otherwise unblemished 2017 clay court season, Thiem has long been touted as one of the more exciting prospects in the tour, and has locked himself into the top 5 having already racked up 8 ATP titles, with over $10 million in prize money, to boot.
Yet, despite his undeniably abundant talent, the 24 year-old is yet to reach the quarter-final stage of a grand slam other than on his favoured clay.
Having fallen in the fourth round to unheralded American Tennys Sandgren, who was eventually brushed aside by Chung, Thiem will rue having failed to make a deeper run in AO2018.
Kyle Edmund (Great Britain)
Yet another English athlete born in South Africa, Edmund took up tennis at the age of 10 after his exasperated mother attempted to burn off his excess energy on weekend mornings.
Britain’s number 2 began the year by beating two of the most exciting prospects on the tour in Chung and Canadian teenager Denis Shapovalov, and then backed it up with a stunning defeat of world number 3, Grigor Dimitrov, in the AO quarter-finals.
In fact, if Edmund had reached the final, he would have overtaken Murray in the rankings – a feat that was unthinkable even a month ago.
With British number 1 Murray struggling to return from a debilitating hip injury, 23 year-old Edmund has finally given British fans hope of life after Murray, and may well eclipse his compatriot sooner rather than later.
Yuki Bhambri (India)
This year marked the third time that India’s number one player qualified for the Australian Open main draw, almost a decade since he won the junior title here in 2009.
Having lost in the first round to Murray and Berdych in 2015 and 2016, Bhambri may have entertained hopes of finally recording a win having drawn fading Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis, but he was brushed aside in straight sets.
A child prodigy, Bhambri was the world’s top-ranked junior in 2009 at just 16 years of age.
But if there were a story of unfulfilled talent, Bhambri would be it – with injuries halting his rise into the top 100, Bhambri’s body has so far prevented from reaching the heights that have long been expected of him.