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Wednesday, March 31, 2010
It's not easy being "the next big thing"

The changing of the guard. Generation Next. Young guns. Hot shots. New balls, please. Speculation about who might constitute the next group of stars is a staple of sports fandom everywhere. You know somebody is going to come along and upend the established order eventually. The fun is trying to figure out who it might be.

But what if, just when you think the guard is about to change, it doesn't? This is the situation that tennis is grappling with at the moment, on both the men's and women's sides. If the year's first major, the Aussie Open, is any indication, the "next" great players appear to be … Roger Federer and Serena Williams. This has been a decade-long issue with the WTA, which has had to rely on the return of old blood -- Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters -- to revive itself in 2010. Until now, the ATP seemed to be immune from this problem. Even as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have maintained their dominant form for the past five years, the men produced new and appealing young stars on a regular basis, from Novak Djokovic to Andy Murray to Juan Martin del Potro. Each of these guys has threatened Federer and Nadal just enough to make us believe that he might be the elusive Next.

As of this week, though, the ATP's future is lying, broken, in little pieces, on the asphalt courts of Key Biscayne. Del Potro has missed both spring U.S. Masters events with a right wrist injury that has been bothering him since last year. World No. 2 Djokovic, after throwing in the towel to Ivan Ljubicic in Indian Wells, lost early to veteran journeyman Olivier Rochus in Key Biscayne. Murray, the defending champion, turned in listless performances in both places, losing in straight sets to Robin Soderling and Mardy Fish.

It isn't easy being Next. Del Potro isn't the first player to have his momentum derailed by injury; staying healthy is the first requirement of any would-be champion. Djokovic isn't the first player to have trouble maintaining his focus and form through the weekly ups and downs that constitute the tour. He was on top of the world a few weeks ago when he clinched Serbia's Davis Cup victory over the United States in Belgrade. But tennis doesn't give you much time to celebrate. A couple days later, Djokovic had to get on a plane bound all the way to Indian Wells, Calif. He's been feeling the letdown ever since. Finally, though Murray's losses have been the most troubling -- he didn't appear to have any answers or options once he fell behind -- they shouldn't be too surprising, either. He's not the first player to reach a Grand Slam final, lose it -- to Federer in Melbourne -- and let the sting of disappointment affect him for months.

What this shows us, again, is how rare the experience of the past few years of men's tennis has been. Federer has avoided all injuries and recovered immediately from tear-filled defeats in major finals, while Nadal seems largely immune from the emotional letdowns that other players routinely succumb to over the course of a long season. What's happening to del Potro, Murray and Djokovic is closer to the norm; what Federer and Nadal have done is not. They're going to be a tough act to follow.