For decades, teenage champions fascinated us with their precociousness. At a mere 17, wunderkinds Boris Becker (1985 Wimbledon), Mats Wilander (1983 French Open) and Michael Chang (1989 French Open) captured Grand Slam titles. With his Western forehand and two-handed backhand, blond heartthrob Bjorn Borg, 18, confounded the experts with his then-unconventional style by winning the 1974 French Open. Fellow Swede Stefan Edberg grabbed his first major as a boyishly handsome 19-year-old at the 1985 Australian, and all-time great Pete Sampras, also 19, took the first of his 14 majors at the 1990 US Open. As a long-haired, high-octane 19-year-old, Rafael Nadal became the last teenage major champion at the 2005 French Open.
Recently at the majors, though, the kids have floundered, while the 30-somethings have flourished. The last seven Grand Slam trophies have been hoisted by the Geriatric Gang — Roger Federer, 37, Nadal, 32, and Novak Djokovic, 31. Meanwhile, the much-hyped Next Gen just keep trying and trying to break through, but, alas, not a one has even reached a major final.
World No.1 Nadal, who won his record 11th French Open and 17th major title in June, offers two explanations why the Big 3 have astoundingly racked up 46 of the last 54 majors. “Either we have been special, or the emerging players have not been special enough. I cannot say which is correct,” says the always modest Nadal.
The first explanation is most certainly correct. “We are in a unique era where three of the greatest of all time are crowding out everyone,” points out former world No.7 Tim Mayotte. “Imagine if Borg, [John] McEnroe and [Jimmy] Connors played at their best for 15 years each, instead of the seven or eight Borg and McEnroe did. Technically and mentally, Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic are near-perfect. No one on the scene is close yet.”
It’s also fair to conclude that Nadal’s second explanation is as accurate as a Federer serve or a Djokovic passing shot. That’s because only one Next Gen rising star, No.4 Alexander Zverev, can be found in the top 14. And that impressive ranking notwithstanding, the 21-year-old German has made just one Grand Slam quarterfinal, at the 2018 French Open. In short, Zverev has yet to be a real contender at the most prestigious tournaments.
Federer weighed in with an authoritative analysis of this intriguing conundrum the day after winning his record eighth Wimbledon last year. “[The] way the points system is structured, and all the big points really only starting from the semis on — a young guy, if he wants to make a breakthrough, he can beat me, or any top player, but if he doesn’t make a run to the finals or win a tournament, he’s not really making any move in the rankings,” Federer pointed out. “As a young player, it’s not that easy to win six straight matches.”
On the huge gap in the point distribution at Grand Slam tournaments, Federer noted that he was awarded 2,000 points as Wimbledon champion, while losing quarterfinalist Andy Murray received only 360 points. “I just feel like the gap’s too big,” rightly criticised Federer. “It’s only been like this since a few years.”
Federer, who served as president of the ATP Player Council from 2008 to 2014, also recalled the importance of bonus points awarded during the 1990s before they were discontinued in 2001. Because rising stars are seldom seeded until they reach around No50, it is more difficult for them to advance in a tournament than seeded players, all other things being equal. Bonus points were given to players based on the quality of their wins over top 100 opponents (e.g., a win over the No.5 player produced far more points than a win over the No.95 player). That fair, egalitarian formula gave young comers a better chance to rise in the rankings. And that, in turn, gave them a better chance to qualify for main draws and get seeded themselves.
Another structural advantage for older, established players are byes for the top eight seeded players at the nine Masters 1000 tournaments. Quite simply, the other 56 players have one more match to play — and potentially lose — than the eight seeded players, which is a clear injustice for young players.
Challenges for young players
Federer also believes slower courts, especially Wimbledon grass, demand more consistency, which is a tough challenge for young, inexperienced players. “You’ve got to hit a lot of great shots to come through a Murray or a Djokovic; and especially five sets, it’s favourable for top guys,” asserted Federer. The diverse styles of the elite players presents yet another problem. “Andy has a lot of variety in his way. But yes, a slugfest with Andy and Novak from the baseline, or Rafa, for that matter, yeah, good luck. If you’re 50 in the world, it isn’t so simple.”
Either outrageously confident or unwisely generous, Federer then advised young opponents how to beat him and other top players: come to net more, especially on grass, and add variety to their games. “But they could choose not to play that way too. If the coaches taught them differently, maybe,” Federer said. “But I know you can easily get sucked into that mode where you don’t want to attack. But if you can’t volley, you’re not going to go to the net. I’ve played almost every player here that wouldn’t serve and volley. It’s frightening to me, to see this at this level, that when I look at the stats at whatever round it is, and I see that the guy I’m going to face has played two percent of serve and volleys through the Championships. I’m like, ‘OK, I know he’s not going to serve and volley.’ Which is great.”
The Big 3 feature different skills and styles. Federer is amazingly versatile and athletic, Nadal boasts vicious left-handed topspin and ferocious competitiveness, and Djokovic is technically superior and ultra-flexible. But all three have two great assets in common: great defensive skills and seemingly endless stamina. “Power is such a prerequisite in tennis now,” says astute Mary Carillo, a Tennis Channel analyst, “and most young players don’t have the physicality to win seven three-out-of-five-set matches.” It’s doubtful any of them will emulate The Mighty Fed who has never retired due to injury or illness in a match during his incomparable 20-year career.
Although tennis has always been called “an individual sport,” the expanding entourages of elite players make it seem more like a team sport. “In our day, people couldn’t afford to have a physical trainer, a physical therapist and a tennis coach,” Wilander, a seven-time major champion, told The Washington Post during Wimbledon. “Lots of guys just travelled on their own. We made good money, don’t get me wrong, but not enough to spend $50,000 a week on three or four different people to take care of our body all the time. So it’s tough today until you can break through and make good money and surround yourself with the team you want.” Stars with deep pockets also employ hitting partners, sports psychologists, chiropractors, long-distance advisors and dieticians.
As Carillo says, “The veteran greats have expert teams that manage their bodies, games and schedules. That contributes mightily to their success and longevity. In that respect, age works in their favour.”
The final reason veterans stave off rising stars is experience. “If you play long enough, you pick up so much more knowledge and feel for the game,” the legendary Martina Navratilova, who won the last of her 58 major titles at age 49, told The New York Times . “The young guys might have physical advantages, but they can’t always compete against the brain.”
That brain gradually helps players use smarter tactics, especially high-percentage shots, an area that No.9 Dominic Thiem can improve. Mastery of thought processes can teach players how to handle pressure well enough to win close matches and Grand Slam titles, as Andy Murray learned. Maturity can take a long time to attain, as in the cases of late-blooming Kevin Anderson and John Isner. And some immense talents, like showboating Gael Monfils — and vesuvian, 23-year-old Nick Kyrgios so far — sadly never mature and waste their careers.
Promising youngsters must also learn to cope with a host of pressure from other sources such as the traditional media, social media, tournament directors, client managers (agents), national tennis associations, the ATP Tour, their coaches and even their family. To escape the onerous pressure, Stefanos Tsitsipas vacationed alone on a deserted island after making the fourth round at Wimbledon. “I tried to understand my feelings better,” he told Sports Illustrated . “It was the best week of my life. It was the best thing that ever happened to me. I was refreshed. It was a new beginning. My body battery was recharged.”
Best bets for breakthroughs
Which up-and-comers can best handle these pressures and also overcome the various advantages of the established stars to dislodge them from the top?
“[Alexander] Zverev is the closest to being ready to win a major, especially now that he has added Ivan Lendl to his team,” says Carillo. “Jez Green is his terrific and thoughtful trainer, and the young German is deeply, nakedly ambitious.” Zverev’s explosive serve and booming groundstrokes have produced three Masters 1000 titles and victories over Federer (twice), Djokovic, Thiem, Marin Cilic and Stan Wawrinka.
Detractors point out, however, that the slender 6’6” Zverev tends to fade in long matches, needs more variety, volleys inconsistently and plays too far behind the baseline. As former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash wrote in The Times (UK): “He’s got some big guns to work with, a good serve and strong groundstrokes, but sitting way back in the court and grinding out long attritional rallies, is not the way forward for him. He needs to attack, and repeatedly look for the opportunity to volley. He needs to impose his game more upon his opponents.”
A year ago, when Tsitsipas (pronounced sit-si-pahs) was playing the Challenger circuit for small prize money and before even smaller crowds, he ranked No.161. Now the 20-year-old Greek ranks No.15. Speeding like a comet across the tennis world this year, he accelerated at the Rogers Cup, overpowering French Open finalist Thiem, Wimbledon champion Djokovic, Zverev, and Wimbledon runner-up Kevin Anderson. During a Sports Illustrated podcast, Tsitsipas tellingly said, “Ambition is more important than talent, definitely.” The handsome, articulate Tsitsipas, who trains at the Mouratoglou Academy near Paris, seems like the complete package, though a one-handed backhand could hold him back.
After 18-year-old Denis Shapovalov shocked Rafael Nadal 3-6, 6-4, 7-6 at the 2017 Montreal Masters to become the youngest quarterfinalist in history at a Masters 1000 event, Carillo enthused, “Shapovalov played bigger, bolder, better than Nadal. What a talent he is. What a fighter he is. Shapovalov is the most impressive teenager since Zverev.” The lefty Canadian shotmaker has levelled off since then, scoring no top-10 wins, and this year compiling a mediocre 25-20 record. At 6’ and 165 pounds, Shapo is smallish by today’s Brobdingnagian standards, and his flailing one-handed backhand is error-prone. At his spectacular best, though, he evokes memories of 1960s superstar Rod Laver.
Hyeon Chung, the oldest Next Genner at 22, flashed a snapshot of future greatness at the 2018 Australian Open, where he made the semifinals. After the ruggedly built Korean stunned Zverev 5-7, 7-6, 2-6, 6-3, 6-0 and Djokovic 7-6, 7-5, 7-6, ESPN analyst Patrick McEnroe said Chung displayed “absolutely spectacular court coverage, hitting shots on the run. Not only his play and movement, but his composure was phenomenal. He showed his mettle on the biggest stage.”
A star with a long name and a big game was born at the Rogers Cup in August. On the eve of his 18th birthday, Felix Auger-Aliassime upset 18th-ranked Lucas Pouille of France 6-4, 6-3 in his main draw debut at the Masters 1000 tournament. “I loved the athleticism and decision-making,” said thoroughly impressed Paul Annacone, a Tennis Channel analyst who formerly coached Sampras. “Felix looked like he’d been there a thousand times. He was incredibly sound in all aspects of the game. He has such a huge future.”
The 6’3”, 185-pound Montreal native, whose father Sam comes from Togo, shares an August 8 birthday with Roger Federer, his boyhood idol. Auger-Aliassime also possesses many of Fed’s extraordinary athletic abilities, such as his blazing speed and terrific hand-eye coordination. Athletically, Double A looks like an elite NBA point guard. In addition to all these assets, he displays uncommon maturity, poise, and humility for his age.
Auger-Aliassime will undoubtedly become the first man born in the 21st century to win a Grand Slam title, and it could happen before he turns 20.
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