In tennis’s looming intergenerational conflict, Fabio Fognini has agreed to play the role of the old man while Denis Shapovalov will be the kid standing on his lawn.
Fognini’s cohort – those men’s players in their mid-20s to early-30s – has never had its full moment in the sun. They’ve spent their careers eclipsed by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. (Though Nadal is their age, he was precocious. The Spaniard arrived long before the rest of his peers.)
Their role was to be deferential, tug a forelock and let their betters beat up on them for sport, literally.
The generation following them shows less inclination to keep quiet and accept their place. Though the results have yet to come, the attitude has already changed.
Fognini, a journeyman so abrasive he may have iguana hide instead of skin, kicked off the fight.
At this year’s French Open, someone asked him about the ATP’s NextGen initiative – a corporate marketing push for pros 21 and under.
“This NextGen thing is bullshit,” Fognini said. “I don’t agree to all this attention given to these young players.”
Though no one asked him for a human example, he provided one.
“Rafa at 18 won Paris. Now we have Denis Shapovalov, who is 25 in the world, is improving but at the same time plays the first match on [Roland Garros’s No. 2 venue] the Suzanne Lenglen court.”
Going where he’s told to. The gall.
Fognini wasn’t picking a random example of someone who might theoretically be getting too big for his britches. This week, Shapovalov proved it.
The Torontonian has improved many parts of his game over the past year, but none is coming along so quickly as his championship swagger (minus actual championships).
Asked on his first day at the Rogers Cup if he would talk to the media, he huffed, “Do I have to?”
It would be hard to imagine, say, a Nadal trying the same nonsense in Mallorca. Or anywhere else in the world.
When Shapovalov’s second-round match against Fognini was bumped to a smaller court by rain delays, he whinged on Twitter.
Afterward, Shapovalov was regretful, but not for his presumption. He apologized to “the fans … who weren’t able to see me.”
Who did those fans at Centre Court get instead? Milos Raonic. You know, the other Canadian. The one who’s been in a Wimbledon final. That old has-been.
Meanwhile, over in the general-admission parking lot, Shapovalov was steamrolling Fognini. The done thing in tennis is never to rub it in. Shapovalov rubbed it in hard, celebrating one of the Italian’s decisive on-court errors.
As the pair passed during a changeover, Fognini appeared to shout, “You’re so arrogant.”
Shapovalov’s version of what went down: “I don’t speak Italian, yet,” and then a little smirk.
There is something wonderfully cheeky about the “yet.”
Two things are true here – Shapovalov gets a pass because he’s still a kid; and he’s also becoming a wee bit insufferable. The only sort of jerks admired in tennis are ones who win a lot, and often only after their careers are over (see under: McEnroe, John). He might want to reconsider the path he’s on, if only self-interestedly.
What’s also true is that if Shapovalov is looking for a way to carry himself, the example of his immediate predecessors can’t be very appealing. They’ve spent their best years being run over by the Gang of Four.
All the rest of them, Raonic included, play the right way, never pick fights and routinely kneel at the Holy Altar of Roger & Rafa. Where has their perfect classroom comportment gotten them?
In a sense, the Raonic generation live in the 1950s, still in thrall to its war heroes.
The new wedge of very young players represent the counterculture revolution on the horizon. They’re the 1960s.
They’re players like Shapovalov, American Frances Tiafoe, Australian Alex de Minaur and Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas. By this time next year, Montreal’s Félix Auger-Aliassime will be slotted in there as well.
They haven’t done much yet, but they are not shy about their goals. They don’t spend a lot of time out in public worshipping St. Roger. Instead, they’re focused on each other.
“You see these cats do well and, next week, you’re like, screw that. I’m going to do something,” Tiafoe said after beating Raonic on Wednesday. “It’s not like [the young players] are sitting there talking about it, but it’s been happening like that.”
You’ll notice that the definition of “doing something” there is not winning titles. Not yet. Like all the most vibrant youth movements, the oldsters are so unimportant to their worldview that they don’t even factor into the competition. The goal is beating each other.
The sandwich generation did not share that competitive camaraderie when they were new. They were too busy looking up in awe. It didn’t work – for them, or us.
If finally getting past men’s tennis’s preposterously resilient golden generation requires a certain amount of egoism, then so be it.
Tennis survived Andre Agassi – the deeply unlikable version with hair rather than the lovable bald one from later on. It’ll survive Shapovalov’s teenage petulance.
In fact, it’ll be better off.
The reason the NextGen initiative exists is because the PreviousGen never moved out of the ATP’s basement. They’ve been down there for the past decade, playing video games while their four dads do all the housework. We’ve gotten so used to it, we’ve stopped noticing how tedious it is.
What would you rather watch? Nick Kyrgios throwing a rod in the middle of a match, or Grigor ‘Baby Fed’ Dimitrov losing to the real thing, again. I’ll take an aberrant, interesting thing over a predictable, boring one any day of the week.
However this fight develops, one thing is certain – the Federer/Nadal generation will fall, and relatively soon. It’s a matter of temporality.
The open question is how they get pulled down – in orderly fashion by the next guys in line, or in chaotic splendour by that lost generation’s little brothers.