2016 Year in Review: Has the “Old Guard” Finally Fallen?

Change is inevitable. Sometimes it happens quickly (remember Pokemon Go? Me neither), sometimes slowly (I’m sure the Browns will be good one of these years), but it always happens, and after what can generously described as a leisurely pace, change has finally come into full effect on the ATP tour.

That’s because while the guys winning the majors and masters remain the familiar faces, that next tier of players which for so long provided a buffer from any prospective up-and-comers has completely eroded. David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and (to a lesser extent) Richard Gasquet have long been the gatekeepers for others attempting to break into the upper echelon, but after an underwhelming 2016 it seems they’ve been almost entirely replaced.

In 2015 that foursome had 10 titles between them, in 2016 3 (Gasquet 2, Berdych 1), with none above 250 level. The highest-ranked is Berdych, clinging onto his spot inside the top 10, while Tsonga, Gasquet and Ferrer are 12, 18 and 21 respectively. It’s not exactly a colossal drop-off, but in a sport that is so delineated by the haves and the have-nots, it’s evident this is as far from grand slam contention as they’ve been in a very long time. When names are tossed around now of who might break out in the near future, the talk is of players like Milos Raonic, Kei Nishikori, and Dominic Thiem.

Simply because Ferrer, Berdych et al have been there so long it might seem like something of a surprise this happened – at least this quickly – but the truth is, this is a fairly routine transition in men’s tennis. The still impressive results and freakish longetivity of Roger Federer has obfuscated a historical trend that top-ranked players tend to drop-off quickly in their 30’s (Ferrer himself being one of the few exceptions), with Andy Roddick, David Nalbandian and Juan Carlos Ferrero being some of the more well-known recent examples.It’s not just declining athleticism either, as simple wear-and-tear begins to add up, and when you’ve been going deep at slams and masters for nearly a decade as the FBTG foursome has, inevitably that takes a toll that can’t be fully repaid.

What’s more is that for the guys who aren’t quite as good as a Federer, even the slightest decline can hit much harder. Declining athleticism is always going to impact players as reliant on it as Tsonga and Ferrer, but even for Berdych and Gasquet, losing a half-step can be enough to pull you back to the fold. Balls that were once there to be smacked are now there to be merely returned, with worse movement making it harder to find that perfect position – it may only be a margin of centimeters, but it’s enough to make a difference. In turn, with old legs the physical cost to maintain their spot can rise to a point that isn’t always worth paying. If it was just a question of healthier eating, more gym work and tougher post-match recovery that’s one thing, but what also of motivation? Unlike fellow senior citizens Federer and Wawrinka, they have no guarantee their games are good enough to win majors in the first place, and they’ve already had superb careers. If holding onto a top-8 spot requires a greater off-court commitment than they’ve ever had to give before, can we really blame them for not giving it?

That said, by no means are any of the four gatekeepers “done” as quality tennis players, but at the very least, the distance between the summit and the old folks’ home has become equidistant. It doesn’t even mean they’re done winning titles, but their previous role has already been filled – namely by Nishikori and Raonic – and those spots will be only harder to regain assuming the continued improvement of young players like Thiem, Nick Kyrgios (assuming his head remains screwed on straight) and Sascha Zverev, all of whom have already proven a handful.

Ferrer, Berdych, Tsonga and Gasquet well-and-truly are who they are at this point. Still good enough to mix-it-up with the top 20, but any hopes of gaining grand slam glory are decidedly behind them. How long they’ll persist in their current state of decline is anyone’s guess, but 2016 proved that decline is finally here. Their time at (or near) the mountaintop may be over, but with the careers they’ve had and the money they’ve made, I doubt they’ll be losing any sleep over it.