When Marin Cilic blew the candles out on his birthday cake last week, it marked a significant milestone for both the Croat and his sport.
With the 2014 US Open champion turning 30, the men’s game does not have a grand slam singles champion in their 20s, let alone teens. This has never happened before in the professional era.
For those keeping count, there are only seven men on the ATP Tour who have tasted major success: Roger Federer (37 years old), Stan Wawrinka (33), Rafael Nadal (32), Andy Murray (31), Novak Djokovic (31), Juan Martin del Potro (30) and Cilic.
Djokovic’s straight sets defeat of del Potro in the US Open final made it nine straight majors won by a man 30 years or older. Federer, Nadal and Djokovic account for 51 majors between them and look set to continue their dominance for the next 12 months at least.
The question is: can any of the 20-something brigade dislodge the veterans in Melbourne, Paris, London or New York? Let’s take a look at the chief contenders and some outsiders.
25 years old
The Austrian comfortably heads this group given his run to the final of Roland Garros this summer and all-round consistency. A supreme athlete with devastating power, Thiem is particularly comfortable on clay with eight titles already on the dirt.
The 25-year-old made the semi-finals of the French Open in 2016 and 2017 before going a step further in June. He has made at least the fourth round of every major and earned his first quarter-final at Flushing Meadows last month.
Moreover, Thiem displayed impressive resilience in New York when he forced Nadal to five sets after falling to the Spaniard in Paris.
21 years old
The German occupies unusual territory. Zverev has deciphered the code for Masters 1000s with three victories in the past two years, but grand slams are still a puzzle to him.
Despite his wonderful talent and a strong support team, the 21-year-old has only one major quarter-final (Roland Garros 2018) on his CV. The omens for Zverev are good though. He has beaten Federer and Djokovic before and the addition of Ivan Lendl to his coaching team can only enhance his chances.
Remember that Andy Murray won all three of his majors under the guidance of the Czech legend.
27 years old
Like Thiem, Raonic is one of the few players on tour outside the usual suspects to reach a Grand Slam final.
The Canadian fell to Andy Murray in the championship match at Wimbledon in 2016 and injuries have stalled his progress since then.
However, he is fit again and encouragingly for next season, the gigantic server made deep runs at SW19 and Flushing Meadows this summer.
28 years old
The Japanese made the US Open final in 2014 and is a two-time semi-finalist in New York (2016, 2018).
Nishikori is a wonderful player who has the ground game to tear through a singles draw. However, when he meets Messrs Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Murray, the result usually goes against him.
23 years old
This unassuming lad, born in the Johannesburg, South Africa and raised in Yorkshire, shot up the rankings after his breakout performance in Melbourne.
Edmund, who possesses one of the game’s great forehands, made the last four of the Australian Open and followed that up with decent showings at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.
I don’t think the 23-year-old will win a major in the next 12 months, but he has the tools and attitude to capture one at some point.
Denis Shapovalov, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Karen Khachanov, Hyeon Chung & Borna Coric
All inside the top 31
We have officially hit the wildcard section. I have grouped these players together because we simply don’t know enough about them yet to project their Grand Slam potential.
Chung and Coric are mobile backboards who use their superb athleticism and consistency to extend rallies.
Khachanov is 6’ 6” and has the powerful game his frame would suggest. However, there’s more to him than just brawn and he gave Nadal a massive scare at the US Open last month.
Fans who like flamboyant shotmaking are going to relish the careers of Shapovalov and Tsitsipas. Both players should at least make the top 10 given their talent. Whether they can compete for majors will depend on how they utilise those unique skills in pressure moments.
Out of this section, I believe Shapovalov can achieve the most in the game if he gets all parts of his game firing.