All posts by Yongjia Cui

Q&A with football referee Kaijing Mao

Kaijing Mao, 21, is currently studying medicine at the University of Bristol. He is also a Level 7 English FA referee and Chinese National second-level football referee.

Many Chinese students in the UK are football fans and watch live games, but Kaijing decided to get more involved in the game by becoming a ref.

Why did he choose this route, and how does he find refereeing football in China and the UK? Elephant Sport caught up with Kaijing for a chat.

When did you start refereeing football games?

I started when I was in my college, just for some informal competitions between students. I got my first official football referee certification at university.

Why did you want to be a referee?

I think it gives me a different angle to understand football. Besides, being a referee provides me chances to participate in some higher-level games – at least higher than games that I usually play.

What is the different angle of watching football that you have as a referee?

As a referee, I think I am a part of a game, so I can experience the match more closely than audiences. Also, I have a deeper understanding of the referee’s decisions and more empathy to referees when they deal with controversies than before. What’s more, I think my football skills could be improved through refereeing high-level games. Before I became a referee, watching football games is a happy and relaxing thing, and playing football is just for fun.

When I became a referee, I must focus on players of both sides and considering the opinions of other members of the officiating team. Sometimes I feel nervous, and sometimes I may feel the game is suffering and wish it could finish as soon as possible. Even if the game has been completed, it is still unavoidable for referees to hear complaints from coaches and players.

Have you ever thought that you are going to stop refereeing after being reviled by players or coaches?

No. I am an amateur referee at the moment so I am quite flexible to decide when and which game I want to referee. I haven’t been bothered by this kind of problem.

What certifications that you have got at the moment?

I have certificates in both China and the UK. I have certifications from the Chinese Football Association’s National second-level football referee programme, and I am also an FA Level 7 referee. I am still a grassroots ref.

What kind of games that you usually referee?

I have refereed in Chinese and UK’s amateur league games, youth games and university league games. I have also refereed Bristol City and Bristol Rover’s academies’ matches.

What difference you have found about refereeing games in the UK and in China.

I think in the UK, they have a more completed system for referees than in China. You can find a clear introduction and instruction about how to get training and promote to the higher level. In China, especially in amateur leagues, there are very few regulations and the authorities do not pay much attention to managing thosekind of games. So players usually do not respect referees very much because they know they will not be fined or punished. It is common to see referees being reviled in amateur football games in China.

What is the most difficult game that you have ever officiated?

It was an amateur league game in China. A massive conflict happened between players and referees during the match because of a disallowed goal. It happened at the end of a knock-out round match, and I was the second assistant referee. We were reviled by players and coaches horribly.

On the other hand, I think it showed that people have a strong bias toward referees. They tend to believe that referees are always partisan to one side. Compared to the UK, I feel players in Chinese amateur leagues show less respect for referees, especially for young referees like me. If players are older than you, then they will think you are not professional.

What have you gained from your refereeing experience?

I get to know a lot of friends by being a referee. Meanwhile, I think my social skills and my ability to deal with tough situations have been improved a lot through refereeing football games. After seeing so many quarrel and conflicts, some of them quite violent, I have become calmer. I really feel that my mentality is better than before. Of course, I also have received some novel understanding of the game.

What difficulties had you met when you started being a referee?

In China, it is hard to find out information about how to become a registered referee. There is limited resource of CFA’s training course, and the number of referees’ level is not as many as in the UK. That makes it difficult for referees to promote.

What is the future goal of your referee career?

Of course, I will try to improve my certification so that I can referee higher level games. The English FA has the requirement of the number of games for referees at different levels, and China has a similar condition. They have the requirement of time, so I need to wait for a few years after I got the second-level certification then I can apply for the first-level referee. The CFA also provides training lessons for being a first-level referee, but I always missed them because I was not in China.

sneakers designer

Emma George: Why I design cheerleading shoes

Miranda Cui sits down with the winner of 2019 Drapers Student Footwear Designer of the Year Emma George to talk about her cheerleading shoes collection.

Emma is a graduate of (BA)Footwear Design in London College of Fashion. Her experience in UAL cheerleading society gives her ideas of designing sneakers for this sport.

Presenter: Miranda Cui

Camera Operator: Paula Sanchez

Editing: Miranda Cui & Paula Sanchez

Shaolin Kung Fu in London

Shaolin Kung Fu in London: Interview with Master Shi Yanxiu

London Shaolinxiu Culture Centre is an overseas branch centre of the Shaolin Temple in China.

This is one of the most famous and historical Buddhism temples in the world, and also renowned for its martial arts and warrior monks.

The London Shaolinxiu Culture Centre was founded 12 years ago. Miranda Cui recently interviewed with its founder Master Shi Yanxiu. He shared his experience of teaching Shaolin Kung Fu in the UK and his understanding of Shaolin culture.

Enduring appeal of Chinese hoops confirmed by Guangdong derby

Although football has made great strides in China in recent years, basketball remains the nation’s pre-eminent sport.

Nowhere is this more evident than in Guangdong, China’s wealthiest province, which has three teams in the Chinese Basketball Association (CBA), including nine-time champions the Guangdong Southern Tigers.

The province is also home to China’s leading football club and double Asian Champions League winners Guangzhou Evergrand, but it was the CBA derby between Guangzhou Loong Lions and Guangdong which drew me to this city whose wider metropolitan area is home to 25 million people.

Hosts the Loong Lions went into the game on a dismal run of seven straight losses, languishing 17 places behind their top-ranked visitors to the Tianhe Arena, which is located in the city centre and next to Tianhe Stadium -Guangzhou Evergrand’s home.

Very few of the arena’s 8,628 seats were left unoccupied, but it felt like most spectators present had come to watch Guangdong’s star player Yi Jianlian, who is also captain of the Chinese national team.

Yi stands out on the court with a height of 2.17m

Yi is widely believed to be China’s best-ever domestic player after the legendary Yao Ming, an eight-time NBA All-Star with the Houston Rockets, famously known as ‘The Great Tall of China’.

Yi spent seven seasons in NBA with the Milwaukee Bucks, Brooklyn Nets, and Washington Wizards but failed to replicate Yao’s achievements in the USA. However, the 32-year-old centre is still a key performer for the national team.

In the 2019 FIBA World Cup tournament, he proved his continuing reliability whilst younger team-mates kept making mistakes as hosts China suffered the ignominy of failing to qualify from the group stages.

Since Yao’s retirement in 2011, Chinese basketball has stagnated, and this most recent World Cup performance frustrated fans further. To some extent, Yi represents a link in their memories to better times for Chinese basketball.

The home fans use the costume of traditional lion dancing, which originates in Guangdong

Back to the derby, and it the gap between the abilities of the two teams was evident, but the overall quality of the match was not bad. The Lions worked hard to stay in touch with the Tigers, but Yi carried the visitors to victory with a game-leading 21 points and 20 rebounds.

Despite the Tigers claiming a 116-90 victory, the atmosphere remained vibrant as the home supporters waved flags and balloons, whilst the away fans also cheered on their heroes.

The Southern Tigers are undoubtedly the best basketball club in China and have contributed multiple outstanding players to the national team. Their current coach, Du Feng, is also one of their legends as a player.

Whilst the NBA continues to set the standard for domestic leagues around the world, the CBA is arguably the second strongest, and the number of basketball fans in China far exceeds those for football. The Chinese Super League’s clubs represent 11 provinces, whereas the CBA’s 20 teams are from 14, including many remote areas such as Xinjiang, China’s western-most region.

Tigers head coach Du Feng is a former Chinese international and a Guangdong legend

Its widespread popularity throughout China is often attributed to the high profile of Chinese players such as Yao and Yi in NBA, but the reasons for basketball’s continuing dominance run deeper than that.

Firstly, it still has a far greater number of participants compared to football, especially in schools, and a system of youth camps enable promising players to gain access to professional-level training at a very early age.

Meanwhile, basketball hoops are nearly as common as ping-pong tables in China, with football pitches needing far more space in often crowded cities.

Despite the troubles of the men’s national team, basketball in China is also run very professionally, especially since Yao Ming has become the president of CBA. He cancelled many old policies and started a revolution in Chinese basketball. As China’s best-ever player, he has massive prestige and carried a huge amount of trust among fans.

Time will tell just how popular football can become in China but, for now, the nation’s No.1 sport will continue to be basketball.

CFA Cup Final shows football passions run deep in China

While Chinese football itself remains from the highest level, its fans are fantastic.

They turned out in force for the second leg of the 2019 Chinese Football Association (CFA) Cup final, which took place at the Hongkou Stadium in Shanghai. The hosts, Shanghai Greenland Shenhua, defeated Shandong Luneng 3-0 and won the trophy 3-1 on aggregate, qualifying them for the AFC Champions League.

Although their men’s senior team has yet to make a significant impact on the international stage, the passion that Chinese people have for football runs deep. For my first live professional match in China, the atmosphere was impressive as supporters sang and chanted both on their way to and then inside the 33,000-capacity venue.

Supporters took group photos with a scarf writing: " Shenhua is the Champion".
Supporters took group photos with a scarf saying “Shenhua is the Champion”

The Hongkou Stadium was China’s first purpose-built football ground, opening in 1999 on the site of a previous multi-sport arena. In fact, to this day, very few Chinese football clubs have homes built mainly with football in mind, with most still featuring an athletics track.

Most of the fans making their way to stadium were wearing home team’s blue colours, and they were looking to the CFA Cup for redemption after a season in which their club almost suffered relegation from the Chinese Super League’s top tier.

Shenhua is the oldest football club in Shanghai, but they have been overshadowed in recent years by Shanghai SIPG (the club that Espanyol’s Wulei used to play for). They remain, however, Shanghai’s best-supported club: a symbol of the city which has helped to define its football culture as the best China.

HongKou Stadium has 35,000 seats in total, 28954 audiences came to watch this final.

Luneng, who had won the first leg through a penalty, are the main team in the capital of my province. They have a glamorous past, wealthy owners, and a massive number of loyal fans. Shenhua also won this tournament in 2017 to lift their second CFA Cup. The away team have five CSL titles to their name and also appeared in this final last year.

The fans of both sides were excited by the occasion and energetic in their support, which made for an amazing atmosphere. The home fans made a tifo in their section of the stadium, while their rivals sang loudly throughout.

Shenhua, seeking to overturn that 1-0 first-leg deficit, played quite passively in the first half, and both sets of supporters became increasingly anxious about their team’s failure to score the all-important first goal.

Things changed in the second half, however, and Shenhua’s Kim Shin-woo scored the opener in the 60th minute. This served to ramp up the atmosphere even further, as did some controversial calls by English referee Mark Clattenburg.

Shenhua’s fans were now in full voice, but they had to wait until the 81st minute to go ahead for the first time across the two legs as Italian international Stephan Shaarawy made it 2-0. Just two minutes later, Qian Jiegei put the outcome beyond doubt to make it 3-0 on the day and 3-1 overall.

Shaarawy saluted the fans after winning his first trophy with Shenhua

Although there are many people who believe that the quality of Chinese professional football remains limited, this does not affect the enjoyment of watching a big match here. The atmosphere was incredible, and the stadium well equipped.

More importantly, Chinese fans are no less passionate or loyal than supporters in any other country, which bodes well for the future of the sport in China. Although there are many problems waited to be solved, it is not hard to be optimistic about the development of Chinese football.

An additional story…

Getting a ticket for this match was not easy. There was nothing on the official website of Shenhua about how to buy one. Local fans told me that they always go directly to the ticket office, but for a cup final that meant taking a risk of getting no ticket at all.

Luckily, I found a ticket dealer on Taobao, which is the most prominent Chinese shopping website, but collecting it on match day was another matter. Following the instructions received, I went to a Starbucks next to the stadium. There, I found five staff from the ticket dealer, with dozens of envelopes on the table.

This did not match the traditional impression of how such ticket dealers operate – not in such an open way. However, these people were so organised and seems to have plenty of tickets available – even for groups.

Ticket office outside the stadium said that all tickets for the final have been sold out
Hampden Park, Glasgow

Preview: Euro 2020 Group D

England

The Three Lions topped Group A in the qualifiers, suffering just one loss: a 2-1 away defeat against the Czech Republic. They are among the favourites to lift the trophy next summer, but it would be their first European title.

England have reached the Euro finals on 10 occasions, their best finish being third place in 1968, when Italy hosted. They have failed to make the knockout stages on four occasions, and in 2016 were famously beaten in the last 16 by tournament minnows and debutants Iceland.

In Group D, the Three Lions will again meet their Czech opponents from qualifying. Apart from October’s loss, they have beaten them in their three other encounters. Against Croatia, England have won five out of 10 meetings, but they ended English hopes in the semi-finals at the 2018 World Cup in Russia. If Scotland qualify, they will resume the oldest rivalry in international football, having played England 114 times. England have won both of their two matches against Israel, their only game against Serbia, and defeated Norway in seven of their 12 meetings.

Coach: Gareth Southgate has now been England’s manager for three years. At the 2018 World Cup, he led them to the final four, giving young talent a chance – having been England’s Under-21s boss – and signalling that the Three Lions could become a major force again.

Key player: Tottenham’s Harry Kane will be crucial to England’s hopes next summer, To date, he has 32 goals in 45 international appearances, with 12 of those coming in eight Euro 2020 qualifiers. He also became the first English player to score in every match of a qualifying campaign. Kane won the Golden Boot at the 2018 World Cup with six goals, and will surely be among the favourites to be the top scorer at Euro 2020.

Croatia

Croatia were runners-up to France at the 2018 World Cup in Russia, and topped their Euro qualifying group with just one loss. It will be their sixth appearance in the tournament, their best finish being as quarter-finalists. At Euro 2016 in France, they were eliminated by eventual winners Portugal in the last 16, and could face them again in next summer’s second round, depending on results.

Having defeated England in the semi-finals at the 2018 World Cup, Croatia lost to them in the Uefa Nations League group stage. Croatia has never lost to the Czechs in their three meetings, and have one victory and a draw in their two games against fierce rivals Serbia. They are unbeaten in nine against Israel, and have had three victories, a draw, and a loss against Norway. They have yet to beat the Scots in five encounters.

Coach: After guiding Croatia to their first-ever World Cup final in 2018, Zlatko Dalic is a national hero at home. Since taking the job in 2017, his team have only suffered seven losses in 30 games.

Key player: At 34, skipper Luka Modric remains Croatia’s main man. The 2018 Ballon d’Or winner is his nation’s second most-capped player, with 127 appearances, only seven behind Darijo Srna. The Real Madrid and former Spurs star pulls the strings in midfield and is also a goal threat.

Czech Republic

The Czechs have qualified for every Euro finals since 1996, when they were runners-up to Germany. The also sealed third place in 2004, but at Euro 2016 they failed to make it out of their group. They finished second behind England in qualifying Group A.

To date, they have lost two of their four meetings against the Three Lions, and have never beaten Croatia. Against their potential play-off path opponents, however, they have better records. The Czechs have only lost to Scotland twice in seven meetings, only once in seven against Norway, and have won both their games against Israel. Against the Serbs, they have a win and a defeat.

Coach: The former Czech international Jaroslav Silhavy took charge of the national team in September 2018. He also served as assistant coach from 2001 to 2009. Silhavy has won Czech league titles with Slovan Liberec and Slavia Prague, and the national team have eight victories in 14 games under him.

Key player: Forward Patrik Schick scored seven times during qualifying. Capped 19 times, the 23-year-old has nine goals in total and looks set to be his country’s main source of firepower next summer.

Who will become the play-off Path C winner?

Norway finished behind Spain and Sweden in their qualifying group, with two wins and three draws. Their only previous appearance at a Euro finals came in 2000, when their trip ended at the group stage.

Their only match to date against Serbia ended in a draw. Against Israel, they have had a win and a loss. Scotland have proved tricky opponents down the years, with nine losses, six draws, and only three wins in their 18 meetings.

Serbia were in Group B in the qualifying stage and notched up four wins in eight games. They have never previously qualified for the European Championship but have unbeaten records against Israel and Scotland.

Scotland have not qualified for a Euro finals since 2000, and in their two tournaments to date have never reached the knock-out stages. They have a good record against Israel, losing just once in five previous meetings. The Scots have the incentive of matches being played on home turf at Hampden Park in Glasgow if they make it through to the finals.

Israel will make history if they can reach the Euro 2020 as it will be the first time they have qualified. Their only previous appearance at a major football tournament was at the 1970 World Cup in Mexico. Israeli forward Eran Zahavi had 11 goals in qualifying, the same as Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

Norway v Serbia 26/03/2020, 17:00
Scotland v Israel 26/03/2020, 19:45

Group D schedule

The team which tops Group D will meet one in the next round from Group F, which includes France, Germany. Whoever finishes second could play either Portugal or Spain from the Group F in the last 16.

England v Croatia 14/06/20, 14:00, Wembley Stadium
TBD v Czech R 15/06/20, 14:00, Hampden Park
Croatia v Czech R 19/06/20, 17:00, Hampden Park
England v TBD 19/06/20, 20:00, Wembley Stadium
Croatia v TBD 23/06/20, 20:00, Hampden Park
Czech R v England 23/06/20 20:00, Wembley

Hampden Park photo by Justin Green via Flickr Creative Commons under licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Edgy home debut has a happy ending for Mourinho

A 4-2 victory and a place in the last 16 of the Champions League – things went well for Jose Mourinho on his home debut as Tottenham’s new manager, but they could have gone horribly wrong.

Beating Olympiakos ensured that the feel-good factor continued for Spurs after their 3-2 win at West Ham the previous Saturday, but the Mourinho era looked to have hit early problems as they went 2-0 down to the Greeks.

His predecessor at Tottenham, Mauricio Pochettino, failed to deliver any silverware during his five years in north London, whereas the Portuguese has landed 20 major honours at the five clubs he has managed. Mourinho is a serial winner, but Spurs are still finding their feet under him, particularly at the back.

They may have bid farewell to Pochettino, but the defensive problems and lack of confidence which plagued his final months at the club manifested themselves as early as the sixth minute as Olympiakos – bottom of Group B with one point – took the lead through Youssef El-Arabi.

Things got worse, with less than 20 minutes on the clock, as Ruben Semedo doubled the visitors’ lead. Mourinho took decisive action, substituting Eric Dier for Christian Eriksen in the 29th minute, and Dele Alli pulled one back for the hosts on the stroke of half-time.

After the match, Mourinho revealed that he had felt the players were ” in need of some love at that time and not the critical one” during the break. Whatever he said did the trick as his team tore into their opponents in the second half, with their new boss bringing his characteristically emotional body language into his technical area at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.


Harry Kane levelled the score just five minutes after the second half began, assisted by Lucas Moura and following Serge Aurier’s rapid throw-in. The ball boy who had swiftly retrieved the ball for Aurier received a hug from Mourinho and praise from him after the game.

Aurier added a goal of his own in the 73rd minute as Spurs went ahead for the first time, and Kane sealed the win with his 20th Champions League strike in 24 games; two fewer matches than previous record holder Alessandro del Piero took to reach that number with Juventus.

There remains much work to be done by Mourinho, and his first aim is to chase down the Premier League’s current top four as they threaten to pull away from the following pack. But with Champions League knockout football assured, he can get down to focusing on that task.

Photos by Yongjia Cui.

Etihad Stadium, Manchester

Preview: Man City v Chelsea (23/11/19)

Pep Guardiola’s side is currently fourth in there Premier League, one point behind their visitors, with both sides looking for their first win against a ‘big six’ club this season.

Man City defender Aymeric Laporte and striker Leroy Sane are still struggling with knee injuries, and goalkeeper Ederson is unlikely to return. Midfielder Bernardo Silva is serving a one-match ban because of his controversial tweet about his team-mate Benjamin Mendy.

Chelsea have three midfielders, Christian Pulisic, Ross Barkley, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, struggling with injuries. Defender Antonio Rudiger is still recovering after groin surgery.

The Blues have eight victories in their past 10 games, and Man City have seven. Guardiola’s side is more effective at scoring than their opponents – they have a league-leading 35 goals, compared to Chelsea’s 27.

Nevertheless, they went without a win in their most recent two matches: a 1-1 draw against Atalanta in Champions League, and a 3-1 loss before the international break. In contrast, Chelsea are unbeaten in November.

The hosts have won five out of six most recent meetings of these two teams, but this will be the first time Frank Lampard has faced the club where he spent a brief period at the end of his playing career.

Both sides are secure in the top four as fifth-placed Sheffield United are eight points below Man City. A home win tomorrow, coupled with Liverpool loss at Crystal Palace, will see the gap at the top reduced to six points.

If Chelsea win and the current top two, Liverpool and Leicester City, both lose, they will climb from third to second place, only five points off the top spot.

Etihad Stadium photo by Quay News via Flickr Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Le Mans ’66: Too many laps to be perfect

Ironically, a sluggish plot and overlong running time encumbers the pace of this otherwise exciting film about being first to the finish line.

With gripping racing action and reliable star names, Le Mans ’66 (also known as Ford v Ferrari in the US), has received huge praise since its release.

James Mangold’s new movie hauled in more than £41m at the box office in its first two days. Matt Damon and Christian Bale are currently two of Hollywood’s most bankable actors, and reason enough for many film fans -even non-petrolheads – to take a chance on their latest effort.

Damon plays Carroll Shelby, the legendary American motorsport racer and car designer hired by Ford in the mid-1960s to end Ferrari’s dominance at the annual Le Mans 24-hour endurance event in France.

To lead them on the track, and help him develop the Ford GT40 race car to its full potential, Shelby in turn hired Ken Miles, a stubborn but ultra-determined and hugely talented British racer, portrayed with his usual laser-focus and a Brummie accent by Bale.

Potentially, the film’s biggest drawback in terms of having wider appeal, is its subject matter. Motorsport and fast cars tend to attract a particular (mostly male) audience. However, Mangold opts to centre his film on the rollercoaster ups and downs of the friendship between Shelby and Miles.

Thus, there is something for both car lovers and those indifferent to them in Le Mans ’66, and those early box office returns suggest that message is getting through.

Capturing the thrills and drama of motor racing on the big screen is not easy and needs a big budget, but Mangold’s movie works best when it is recreating the brutal, high-adrenaline nature of Le Mans in the 1960s, an era of motorsport when driver deaths were a regular occurrence.

However, the pacing of its narrative is the major drawback of this movie.

There was a doubt raised in my mind when I saw the length of Le Mans ’66: yes, it is about endurance racing, but do film-goers really need to endure 152 minutes in their seats to get to the chequered flag?

Undoubtedly, the quality of a movie cannot be judged by its length. However, a film of this duration suggests either redundant plot lines or, at least, some which take too long to unwind. This defect risks depleting the movie’s overall excitement and losing the audiences’ attention. 

Mangold spends too much time on the description of the background details and supporting sub-plots, taking too long to get to Ford’s historic 1-2-3 victory at Le Mans in 1966.

The endless boardroom bickering and point-scoring among Ford’s top executives, for example, may increase our empathy for Shelby and Miles, but it also serves to somehow lessen the audience’s backing for Team Ford when it comes to the big race.

Multi-billion dollar US conglomerate run by loathsome corporate sharks and hustlers versus the Italian romance of Ferrari’s passion for racing? You choose…

Le Mans ’66 trailer courtesy of 20th Century Fox
ATP Finals at the O2 Arena, London

Will we finally see a new face win a men’s Grand Slam in 2020?

For a third straight time, the ATP Finals singles title has been won by a player who isn’t Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer.

Stefanos Tsitsipas defeated Dominic Thiem in this year’s finale at London’s O2 Arena, following in the footsteps of Alexander Zverev in 2018 and Grigor Dimitrov in 2017. All three were just 21 when lifting the trophy.

So the question now being asked in the men’s game is: will we finally see a new face win any of the four Grand Slam crowns in 2020? Since 2004, only six players other than Djokovic, Nadal or Federer have won Slams: Andy Murray (3), Stan Wawrinka (3), Marat Safin (1), Juan Martin Del Potro (1) and Marin Cilic (1) and Gaston Gaudio (1).

Federer is now 38, Nadal is 33 and Djokovic 32, yet their grip on the sport’s four biggest titles – the Australian, French and US Opens, plus Wimbledon -remains as firm as ever. But there are signs that next season might be the one which ushers in a new era of younger Slam winners.

Defending champion Zverev, 22, defeated Nadal 6-2, 6-4 on day two at this year’s ATP Finals, giving him wins over the all of the big three in the past 12 months. Thiem, 26, claimed victories over Federer and Djokovic in the group stage, reaching the semi-finals and final at the O2 for the first time.

This year’s elite eight-man field in London also included Daniil Medvedev (23) and Matteo Berrettini (23). Thiem was competing in his third consecutive ATP Finals. Slowly but surely, the new generation are starting to make more of an impact.

Rising star

Thus far, however, no player born after 1990 has won a Grand Slam, although three have reached finals. In 2016, Milos Raonic was beaten at Wimbledon by Murray. Thiem lost to Nadal in both the 2018 and 2019 French Open. Medvedev was beaten by Nadal in this season’s US Open, but the rising Russian star forced the Spaniard to spend four hours and 50 minutes winning his 19th Grand Slam.

In the semi-finals at Flushing Meadows, Medvedev overcame Dimitrov. Earlier this year, Tsitsipas and Berrettini reached the semi-final of Australian Open and US Open respectively, but Nadal ended their runs.

Nadal in action at the O2 Arena
Nadal in action at the O2 Arena

Among all players in their 20s, Thiem might be the closest one to his first Grand Slam trophy. The Austrian has more experience compared to his peers and a stable world ranking; he has not been out of the top 10 since 2016.

He also has a strong and long-standing relationship with his coaching team, having worked with Gunter Bresnik since he was just eight years old. Bresnik also coached six-time Grand Slam winner Boris Becker.

After winning at ATP Finals crown, Tsitsipas declared he was ready to win a Grand Slam, but thus far he has only beaten Federer from that dominant top trio. Zverev, who has had a better overall ranking than the Greek in the past two years, has yet to reach the final four of any Slam event.

But the young guns are making progress. The last time that the ATP Finals line-up had four participants under 23 was 10 years ago, when Nadal (23), Djokovic (22), Murray (22), and Del Potro (21) all featured.

Out of the current big three, it will surely be Federer who is first to decide his time is up. The Swiss legend plans to play at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, but will turn 39 during the Games, and retirement is beckoning.

Nadal and Djokovic may both yet overhaul Federer’s record of 20 Grand Slam titles, but both have had injuries that will start to slow them down. Murray has returned after hip resurfacing surgery, but it is generally felt unlikely that he will be able to make it a ‘Big Four’ again.

Tennis fans will continue to cheer the big three to the rafters, and most will mourn Federer’s eventual retirement, but this year’s ATP Finals showed that the sport’s future is bright and in the safe hands of a younger, talented group of players.

Main image of the ATP Finals at the O2 Arena by Jess C via Flickr Creative Commons licence CC BY-NC 2.0