Tsitsipas, Zverev crash out, setting up crucial offseason

The fact that Stefanos Tsitsipas and Alexander Zverev crashed out of an Indian Wells tournament in which the Big 3 and Dominic Thiem didn’t enter, and in which Daniil Medvedev lost early, doesn’t mean they’re doomed in 2022.

I felt before this tournament started that we shouldn’t assign too much meaning to a tournament which won’t carry much of any predictive value for the 2022 Australian Open. We’re going to come back to Indian Wells in March, which is roughly five months away. Indian Wells will then regain its place as a tone-setting tournament for the spring and possibly beyond. This tournament, played in October, is a final reminder of the distorted pandemic tennis calendar, played mostly so that television and other revenues can be realized.

I’m not going to turn around now and say this Indian Wells iteration suddenly has more meaning than I was willing to acknowledge a few weeks ago. No, this tournament is still not a defining, landscape-changing event — at least not unless one of the eight low-seeded semifinalists has a breakout 2022. Then we can say this fortnight in the American desert possessed more meaning than previously thought.

We’re not there yet.

Discussing the relative lack of meaning at the 2021 Indian Wells tournament does not mean this fortnight is completely bereft of plot points, however. A tournament — any occurrence, frankly — can possess relatively little meaning in and of itself, yet still shape the future to a certain degree. A good example is the Olympic tennis tournament. It didn’t mean anything in terms of changing Alexander Zverev’s innergame against Novak Djokovic. Nole was the big dog, as usual, when it counted at the U.S. Open. Daniil Medvedev was a non-factor.

Those realities didn’t matter in New York.

However, the Olympics still did shape the U.S. Open — just not in the way many people thought.

Djokovic played the tournament and then, exhausted after all the heavy lifting he had done in the late spring and early summer, took three full weeks off and came to the Open undercooked. He wasn’t at his best in the Big Apple. The Olympics weren’t the main reason he fell short of the Grand Slam, but they certainly played a part.

The Olympics did have an effect, which leads us back to Indian Wells.

This event won’t be remembered as the main reason for a top ATP player’s rise or fall in 2022, but it still forms a real part of the subtext heading into next season. Instructively, it has reminded Tsitsipas and Zverev of the immense challenges and pressures which await them next year.

We saw this plot point emerge in full relief at the U.S. Open, but Indian Wells has offered an anything-but-subtle message that what happened in New York will be, in many ways, the top story of 2022 in men’s tennis.

Carlos Alcaraz isn’t ready to win majors right now, but after a year of learning in 2022, it will be fascinating to see where he and his game are able to travel in 2023 and 2024. Alcaraz, Jannik Sinner, Felix Auger-Aliassime, and other promising young players could attain much more evolved and textured games in two or three years. One or more members of that crop of players could become a championship-level player.

Alcaraz’s win over Tsitsipas in New York was a big, fat warning shot to Stef, and also to Zverev and the other players 23 or older who haven’t yet won a major or (more broadly) begun a true ascendancy to the top tier of the sport. The message was simple: “We (who are 20 years old or younger) are coming for you. If you don’t pounce in 2022 or 2023, we might steal your thunder in 2024 and beyond.”

Tsitsipas and Zverev are at risk of becoming what Andrew Burton’s “Generation Grigor” has become, a cohort of players born in a five-year period which is largely left out of the major title haul and leaves a gaping hole in the progression of men’s tennis.

That’s what this Indian Wells tournament has reaffirmed, one month after New York.

This Indian Wells fortnight doesn’t mean Stef and Zverev are less likely to thrive in 2022, but it certainly does underscore the test awaiting them next year, with all the pressure that test implies and involves.

Tsitsipas and Zverev did, at times, evolve in 2021 — Stef at Roland Garros, Zverev in New York — but they haven’t evolved nearly to the extent they hoped they would, or to the extent they know they NEED to evolve in order to forge fully realized tennis careers. Yes, they will be able to pursue tennis riches for the next decade, and nothing about this post-Big 3 future is secure. Yet, if they don’t thrive in 2022, their prime championship windows could close sooner than they expected.

That isn’t a guarantee, but it IS a possibility.

Indian Wells reminded Stef and Alex that constant improvement isn’t guaranteed either, even after attaining specific notable accomplishments (a first major final for Tsitsipas, an Olympic gold medal for Zverev).

Oh, and did I mention that Rafael Nadal and Dominic Thiem are likely to be back on the scene next year, physically and mentally refreshed?

Did I mention that Djokovic will still be the man to beat at the majors?

Reasonable people can and will disagree, but for me, the biggest storyline of 2022 in men’s tennis has already been written: Can Tsitsipas and Zverev break through while Rafole are still around and the younger set is sharpening its knives?

Indian Wells made sure the writing is very much on the wall.

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