Next Gen and Old Gen players with a lot to prove

Will the power players — call them ‘the six guns of August’ — fire bullets or blanks on the big points in the big matches?

“I improved a lot in the last few months to get where I can win tournaments,” says Alexander Zverev of Germany.   -  AP

The seven-tournament U.S. Open Series tests both a trio of rising men stars yet to win a major title and a trio of veteran women champions on the comeback trail. Will these intriguing power players — call them “the six guns of August” — fire bullets or blanks on the big points in the big matches?

Mary Carillo, who will receive the prestigious Gene Scott Journalism Award at the Hall of Fame Gala during the U.S. Open, offers an authoritative perspective on them. A leading analyst for Tennis Channel, Carillo interviewed Alexander Zverev, winner of four ATP titles this year, and world No. 7 Dominic Thiem recently at the Citi Open in Washington, DC.

“Both are so impressive in their professionalism,” said Carillo. “When I asked Zverev what [new coach] Juan Carlos Ferrero was focusing on, expecting to hear that he was concentrating on footwork, Spanish-style ball drills, and so forth, Zverev said it was just the opposite. ‘Juan Carlos told me I’m a 6’6" guy, and I’m running way too much. He told me to hit my shots earlier, and from better positions. I am not going to become Spanish.’”

Austria’s Dominic Thiem, always a gentleman on and off the court, routed No. 2 and defending champion Novak Djokovic to reach the French Open semis and shocked clay court king Rafael Nadal to make the Italian Open final.   -  AP

The Ferrero strategy quickly paid off. After overpowering former No. 10 Kevin Anderson 6-4, 6-4 in the Citi Open final for his fourth title of the year — only Roger Federer has more — Zverev exuded confidence. “I improved a lot in the last few months to get where I can win tournaments,” said the 20-year-old German whose ranking rose to No. 8. “I’m ‘Next Gen,’ but the rankings say it for themselves. I think I showed I can play with the big guys this year. I think I showed I’m not an ‘in the future’ kind of guy. I’m right now.”

Using a rhyme that you may often see in future headlines, Carillo said, “Thiem is a dream, too. So trusting in his longtime coach [Gunter Bresnik] and in the process. He knows that the next steps he takes will be the hardest, the most incremental, that he is still far from his best. But Thiem will do everything in his power to become a better defensive player and to play from a more forward position on the court. I want the very best for both of them.”

Thiem, always a gentleman on and off the court, routed No. 2 and defending champion Novak Djokovic to reach the French Open semis and shocked clay court king Rafael Nadal to make the Italian Open final. But the 23-year-old Austrian has never advanced past the quarterfinals at a Grand Slam or Masters 1000 event on hard courts.

Carillo painted a poignant portrait of Nick Kyrgios, the most talented but also the most underachieving Next Gen potential champion. “I’m losing faith in Kyrgios,” said Carillo. “He gave me a heartfelt and sad interview. He was totally at sea, with no sense of the shoreline. So confused and vulnerable. He admitted that when he wins it doesn’t mean much to him, and when he loses, it doesn’t mean much, either. He said he just doesn’t feel like he needs the game. A pity. The game could surely use an engaged, fit, and consistent Kyrgios.”

The 22-year-old Australian’s woes aren’t only psychological. Kyrgios has suffered a career’s worth of debilitating injuries in barely four years on the pro tour. When a shoulder injury forced him to retire at the Citi Open, while trailing unheralded Tennys Sandgren 6-3, 3-0, unsympathetic spectators booed him. It marked Kyrgios’s third straight match retirement. He withdrew from Monte Carlo with elbow trouble, and at Wimbledon a chronic hip injury ended his first-round match after two sets. The candid Kyrgios summed it up best: “Just struggling, mentally, physically.”

Three women to watch

In sharp contrast to Kyrgios, the three returning women are ravenously hungry to compete and taste victory again. The last year Maria Sharapova and Petra Kvitova won a major title was 2014. For Victoria Azarenka, the drought has lasted even longer, to 2013.

Victoria Azarenka of Belarus looks leaner than she has since her 2012-2013 prime, and a fitter Vika will have more speed and stamina to produce her aggressive, accurate groundstrokes.   -  AP

Just turned 28, Azarenka peaked in 2012-2013 when she captured Australian crowns and gained U.S. Open finals. Since then, she was periodically hampered by injuries, and last December, Vika gave birth to her first child, Leo. Unfortunately, she split with her baby’s father, Bill McKeague, and they are now fighting a legal battle for custody of the child.

“As for the three returning women, I think Azarenka has the best chance of regaining championship form [this summer],” predicted Carillo. “She’s the most natural athlete, the best mover and defender, and her time away from the game seems to have given her a healthy, hungry perspective.” Azarenka also looks leaner than she has since her 2012-2013 prime, and a fitter Vika will have more speed and stamina to produce her aggressive, accurate groundstrokes.

Two-time Wimbledon winner Kvitova’s comeback may prove problematical. The 27-year-old Czech still hasn’t regained the feeling in all her left-hand fingers after being attacked in her apartment in December 2016 by a knife-wielding intruder. Though the aggregator Oddschecker made her the betting favourite at Wimbledon, Kvitova was upset by 95th-ranked Madison Brengle in the second round.

Two-time Wimbledon winner Petra Kvitova’s comeback may prove problematical. The 27-year-old Czech still hasn’t regained the feeling in all her left-hand fingers after being attacked in her apartment in December 2016 by a knife-wielding intruder.   -  AP

“Petra has always been streaky, and I can’t imagine that changing now,” asserted Carillo. “She is more than a one-surface player, but I don’t expect her to be ready for a deep run at the U.S. Open.”

Sharapova, the most controversial of the trio because of her 15-month suspension for taking a banned drug, is still being condemned by those who feel her punishment wasn’t sufficient. Eugenie Bouchard, the 2014 Wimbledon finalist and another tour glamour girl, contended Sharapova should have received a lifetime ban. Patrick Mouratoglou, Serena Williams’s coach, criticised tournament directors for giving Sharapova wild cards, saying, “I am happy she is back from the Tour perspective. But I am not happy to see people who have welcomed her, like if she was injured or had given birth. The situation is completely different. I have nothing against her, but if you got banned, you should start from zero.”

The single-minded, five-time major champion Sharapova, now 30, has shrugged off the criticism and focused on recovering from niggling injuries that have slowed her comeback. “Maria is intent on proving to everyone that her forced layoff has done nothing to curtail her champion ways,” said Carillo. “And I believe she can do that, with enough matches behind her. Likely not [at the U.S. Open] in New York. But if she qualifies, she could win some matches and make the final major of the year interesting.”