Can’t really miss the ‘can’t-miss’ players

Is there such a thing as a player who "can’t miss" becoming a champion who wins at least five Grand Slam titles? And has tennis already witnessed champions whose athleticism, physique, technique and mental game shined so brightly as teenagers that they were recognised virtually unanimously and rightly as "can’t-miss" future stars? Yes, and yes.

Aggression is her middle name... Serena Williams' pugnaciousness came from growing up in violent, gang-ridden Compton, California.   -  Getty Images

Venus Williams has captured seven major titles and two Olympic gold medals in singles. A flawed forehand and serve too often let her down, though. When asked on the Charlie Rose programme if she were surprised by how much she achieved, Venus ruefully confided she had expected to achieve more.   -  Getty Images

“There’s no such thing as a ‘can’t-miss’ player,” asserted Tennis magazine editor Steve Tignor in the concluding sentence of a recent piece about Madison Keys. The talented but injury-plagued American has been touted by some experts, and by Serena Williams, as a future No. 1. Others contend that the 21-year-old Keys, now ranked No. 23, is an erratic slugger who lacks tactical acumen, defensive skills and shot versatility.

 

Is there such a thing as a player who “can’t miss” becoming a champion who wins at least five Grand Slam titles? And has tennis already witnessed champions whose athleticism, physique, technique and mental game shined so brightly as teenagers that they were recognised virtually unanimously and rightly as “can’t-miss” future stars? Yes, and yes.

Let’s start with — who else? — Serena Williams. At 16, she knocked off No. 3 Lindsay Davenport, No. 4 Monica Seles, No. 7 Mary Pierce, No. 8 Conchita Martinez and No. 10 Irina Spirlea. Her powerfully muscled body, aggressive and sound strokes, athletic abilities and boundless confidence were not just formidable but intimidating. And she was as mentally tough as earlier teen queens Maureen Connolly, Chris Evert, Monica Seles and Tracy Austin were. Serena’s pugnaciousness came from growing up in violent, gang-ridden Compton, California. “If you can keep playing tennis when somebody is shooting a gun down the street, that’s concentration,” she would later say. “I didn’t grow up playing tennis at the country club.”

That Serena would grab her first Grand Slam title at 17, at the 1999 U.S. Open, and amass 21 majors and an Olympic gold medal in singles, plus 13 majors and three gold medals in doubles with her older sister Venus, is hardly surprising. On the contrary, some experts believe she should have won more.

Rick Macci began coaching Serena and Venus when they were 10 and 11 and did so for three and a half years at his Florida tennis academy. In his 2013 book, Macci Magic, he wrote: “Unfortunately, there are still holes in their games technically that they never really got sewn up, or they could have been even better. . . . What they’ve done is great, but it could have been even greater with that God-given talent.”

Macci’s critique is right, especially concerning Venus, another “can’t-miss” player. In her sensational 1994 pro debut, 14-year-old Venus, who hadn’t played a tournament in three and a half years, led world No. 2 Arantxa Sanchez Vicario 6-3, 3-1 before bowing. Cocksure about her destiny, Venus audaciously proclaimed, “I could go beyond No. 1. . . . With the way I play and my height and aggressiveness and courage and no fear, I could change the game.”

Serena and Venus did indeed revolutionise women’s tennis. They became the first players to display both tremendous power and blazing court speed. Venus has captured seven major titles and two Olympic gold medals in singles. A flawed forehand and serve too often let her down, though. When asked on the Charlie Rose programme if she were surprised by how much she achieved, Venus ruefully confided she had expected to achieve more.

Bollettieri’s prodigies

Hall of Fame coach Nick Bollettieri has a shrewd eye for potential champions and has helped develop 10 of them. None impressed him more or at an earlier age than Monica Seles. “Her determination and total focus on each strike of the ball was remarkable,” recalled Bollettieri in his autobiography, Changing The Game. “She was pure, relentless, controlled aggression!” The pint-sized Seles wore out much older teenage standouts, such as Andre Agassi, and even elite teaching pros at his famous Florida academy. “You’re looking at two kids who one day will be No. 1 in the world,” correctly predicted Bollettieri in 1986 when he and a friend were watching prodigy Monica, 12, hit against Andre, 16. Seles, who never regained her teenage brilliance after being stabbed by a crazed Steffi Graf fan during a match changeover in 1993, still captured nine career major titles, while Agassi amassed eight.

 

Ballyhooed teens aren’t always recognised immediately as “can’t-miss” prospects, especially by their peers. After routing Graf 6-4, 6-0 in the future German superstar’s 1982 pro debut, Austin dismissively remarked, “There are hundreds of players like her in America.” Let’s cut Austin some slack here. Graf was only 13 then, and Austin, at 19, was neither unbiased nor expert.

Similarly, after thrashing fellow teenager and future all-time great Pete Sampras at the 1989 Italian Open, Agassi said, “The poor guy can’t keep a ball in the court. . . . I just don’t see a good future for him.” Many experts did, though, particularly after 18-year-old Sampras upset defending champion Mats Wilander four months later at the U.S. Open. Ironically, a year later, precocious “Pistol Pete” pulverised the favoured Agassi in the U.S. Open final. “This was a good old-fashioned street mugging,” a humbled Agassi quipped afterwards.

The men’s game has featured other “can’t-miss” kids, most notably Bjorn Borg and Rafael Nadal. Borg was at first derided by sneering purists for his two-handed backhand, though the stroke was really nothing new — Australian standout Vivian McGrath introduced it successfully in the 1930s. Considerable topspin off both sides, especially his Western forehand, was his real weapon, along with extraordinary speed, stamina, concentration, poise, competitiveness and consistency.

When, at 15 in 1972, the golden-haired Swedish prodigy coolly rallied from two sets down to upset New Zealand standout Onny Parun in his debut Davis Cup rubber, it seemed inevitable he would develop into a champion. Barely 18, Borg won the first of six French Opens in 1974. After he captured the first of five straight Wimbledon titles in 1976 by straight-setting former No. 1 Ilie Nastase, the Romanian raved, “They should send Borg to another planet. We play tennis. He plays something else.”

 

Thirty years later, Rafael Nadal took Borg’s heavy topspin to a new, almost diabolical, level. If Borg out-steadied and wore out foes, the unrelenting Nadal tortured them, especially on his beloved clay. Sooner or later, the vicious, high-bouncing topspin from his ferocious Western forehand and the grinding rallies broke down opponents physically, mentally, or technically. Former No. 1 Andy Roddick likened the experience to “Chinese water torture.”

Harbinger of future stardom

One of the first signs that Nadal, like Borg, was a “can’t-miss” future superstar came in a 2001 exhibition in Mallorca, Nadal’s home island, against 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash. Nadal was the top junior in Europe and not quite 15. Cash owned a tennis academy in Australia and trained promising 17-to-20-year-old players starting on the pro tour.

“At the start I took it easy on him because I didn’t want to look like a bully,” recalls Cash. “But his intensity and topspin shocked me. Much to the amusement of the crowd, he beat me in the first set. I realised quickly this kid was going to crush me if he could. So I brought out my serve-volley and chip-and-charge game which threw him off balance, and I won the second set comfortably.

“When we went to a final championship (10-point) tiebreak, the true Rafa came out,” remembers Cash. “I knew once my academy students were under pressure, they would crumble. But not Rafa! He produced some of his trademark forehands and passing shots to beat me. The telling sign for me was that he didn’t have a sniff of doubt or nerves. Sure, he had nothing to lose, but he was different from all the other young players I’d coached or seen.”

 

The Legends Tour showcased former champions over 35 and was building a reputation for high-quality tennis then, so losing to a boy only 14 didn’t look good to some of Cash’s fellow legends. “I got some dirty looks in the locker room afterwards,” he says. “I distinctly remember telling them, ‘Hey, this kid Nadal is really good.’”

Cash likened Nadal to another immensely talented lefty, Marcelo Rios, a former No. 1 whom Cash often practised with. “Rios had the ability to move me out of position any time he liked, starting with the serve and finishing me off with ease,” Cash says. “Rafa was in the same vein and had the same gifts. So it was an easy call to say Rafa was going to be a star.” Four years later, the fist-pumping and “Vamos!”-shouting Spaniard won the first of his record nine French Open titles.

Is the tennis world blessed with a consensus pick, “can’t-miss” future star now? Like Nadal and Serena. And like young phenoms Pele, Lebron James, Tiger Woods, Bobby Orr and Willie Mays, all who developed into legends in their sports.

A controversial candidate

One candidate might be Nick Kyrgios. “If he doesn’t get to No. 1, something went wrong,” two-time U.S. Open winner Patrick Rafter told Sports Illustrated.

But something could go wrong with the tempestuous, 20-year-old Australian. In fact, it already has. Kyrgios’s numerous on-court incidents have resulted in fines, a suspension, and widespread criticism.

“There’s not a person in the world who doubts his talent,” said Tennis Channel analyst and former No. 1 Lindsay Davenport. “When you watch him (play), you go ‘Wow!’ But can he put it together mentally?”

With the rare exception of Agassi, a controversial rebel who blossomed into a champion late in his roller-coaster career, “can’t-miss” prospects don’t come with “if” and “but” caveats.

Will the colorful Kyrgios be like Agassi? Or will he be like Gael Monfils, an entertaining shot-maker but career under-achiever?

As Tennis Channel analyst Paul Annacone predicted after Kyrgios aced Marin Cilic to win his first title at Marseille, “Get ready folks, it ain’t going to be boring.”