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Rafael Nadal's shocking fourth-round exit in the US open means none of the top players of our generation – Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Nadal and of course Serena Williams – will be crowned the new US Open champion.

Nadal lost in four sets to American Frances Tiafoe, in what was his earliest exit at the US Open since 2016, and to a young American who had never beaten him before. The gravity of his defeat was no doubt felt by spectators in Arthur Ashe stadium as it sunk in that none of them would be there in the final four.

Nadal stated later at the post-match press conference how "you need to be very quick and very young. I am not in that moment anymore".

"I was not able to cause great damage. He was better than me."

A brave admission, indeed.

It was also heartbreaking as he had won 2 slams this year alone, and signalled a return to form, albeit after a long break.

Nadal stunned by Tiafoe at US Open as Swiatek makes last-eight

The women's draw

Last month, prior to the start of the US Open, Serena Williams announced her potential retirement from tennis in an interview with Vogue Magazine, following her home slam - a poetic and fitting end.

Serena of course had not won a major since the Australian Open in 2017, prior to the birth of her daughter, Alexis Olympia Ohanian Jr, who is now 5.

Serena’s first match was scheduled under the lights at Ashe, opening to a fitting tribute and a sold-out crowd of nearly 30,000. Everyone had come out to see her play, not knowing if this would be her last game. But it wasn’t the last time and as much as everyone hoped her career would come to its flawless end, things aren’t always nearly perfect. Serena crashed out in the third round, to Australian Ajla Tomljanovic, who had never before advanced at a grand slam before.

Tomljanovic too, much like Tiafoe, grew up watching these greats, until they sent their idols packing.

In Serena's emotional goodbye, she thanked her sister Venus profoundly along with her parents, a remarkable end, no doubt to her decades of dominance in women’s tennis.

Michelle Obama leads tributes to Serena after US Open defeat

Djokovic

Novac Djokovic was not allowed to enter the US due to the vaccine travel ban, and Roger Federer – widely considered the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time) of his generation – is still on extended leave recovering from his last knee surgery. Not having played competitive tennis since his quarter-final loss in Wimbledon last year, his return to tennis thus is too, tenuous, although he is slated to return for the Laver Cup to be held later this month in London.

We’ve been talking about this for years, and dreading it of course — an end to the superb golden years of tennis.

But then after the Steffi Graff (22 titles), Andre Agassi (8 titles) and Pete Sampras (14 titles) era, nobody knew a new era of tennis was looming, and then we were served this storied lot.

No doubt the current pack took the torch and carried it forward in their own special way, revolutionising the game along the way.

Nadal leads the pack of Men’s Singles players with 22 titles, Djokovic with 21 and Federer at 20. Williams leads the Women’s singles titles with a whopping 23, only falling short of Margaret Court’s record 24.

Who can forget Agassi’s crushing defeat and retirement at the US Open in 2006, losing to Boris Becker. Even then, the pain in his body was evident, and then his emotional farewell.

“The scoreboard said I lost today, but what the scoreboard doesn’t say is what I found,” Agassi had said in an on-court interview to the crowd, amidst tears, back then.

“Over the last 21 years I have found loyalty. You have pulled me through on the court and also in life. I have found inspiration, you have willed me to exceed and sometimes in my lowest moments."

Serena taking a (potentially) final bow last week, even with her infallible slam count – short of course by her own standards – proved that even the victorious are in fact, fallible.

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Though she had been vague about her impending retirement, even the tribute to her on opening night hinted at a return to tennis possibly. But after watching both her and Nadal’s final matches, of course there were moments of deft skill, huge reminders of the excellence that has lain at the core and on the surface of these star athletes, an inspiration to an entire generation of young players and their legions of fans, but their hungry young opponents, serving those very strokes right back to them, just better, was indeed painful to watch.

Serena compared to her opponent, was slow, sluggish even, struggling to pick up her serve, to close her set, and at breakpoints. Where was ruthless Serena who would fire up the sleepiest spectator with a roar?

Tiafoe, with his aggressive game and sharp returns, looked overjoyed at even small wins during his match. One wondered what was missing from Nadal that night? Skill? Depth? Hunger? Speed? A little of all?

Can’t really tell.

Whether it was an old injury, or an off-night, the disappointment in both him and his fans was very, very real. The US Open had quickly become a slam marked with lofty early exits.

US Open: Who said what on day 7

One thing is for certain, Serena hanging up her racket for the time being at least, as she plans for the next phase of her life has no doubt set the proverbial clock ticking on the final days of this generation of greats. Federer has yet to return from his extended break, and even then, his camp has alluded may well be a farewell tour, according to reports.

Nadal too, has indicated he will take a long break as he focuses on his personal life, which comes first he has stated, as he awaits the arrival of his first child.

Djokovic, well what’s there to say about him, may or may not rest until he chases down Federer’s record. Jury’s still out on his likability factor, though.

The change of the guard it seems, is speeding up. In fact, it’s already here. The US open will crown a brand new Women’s Singles champion this year. There will be a new Men’s Singles champion also, along with a potentially new number one in ATP rankings.

Jabeur, Garcia into US Open semi-finals

The game will go on.

Whether or not you have found a new next gen player to back or not, a fierce goodbye is fast approaching for this generation’s roster of great players.

For each match – win or lose – is surely one to be savoured, for it serves as a reminder of the greatness that has long lain beneath it. Will we see another Federer or Nadal or Serena again? Probably not, but we may just see tennis excellence in one form or another.

So long to the greats, for we are indeed grateful for all the years of excellence, inspiration and of course the countless memories they have so elegantly and dutifully delivered.

For the moment, so long Serena.

The article does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Business Recorder or its owners

Faiza Virani

The writer is Life & Style Editor at Business Recorder

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