Generation Next finally on the way

We should be bullish about Naomi Osaka and Alexander Zverev. These super teens will beat some top-10 players this year, and if they keep improving, will reach a major final next year.

Japan's Naomi Osaka... she matches her girlhood idol Serena Williams in personality and in ambition.   -  Getty Images

Alexander Zverev...the 18-year-old German's technique, tactics and temperament, not to mention his talent, are world class.   -  Getty Images

The longevity of elite players in pro tennis today continues to surprise everyone. The average age of the men’s singles top 10 is now 30.3 years, the oldest age since the ATP computer rankings began in 1973. Among the women, Serena Williams, who has captured eight of the past 15 major titles and ranked No. 1 the past three years, is 34. And strangely, no player born in the 1990s — male or female — has won a Grand Slam title.

If the seemingly invincible Novak Djokovic cannot be dethroned this year, who can dislodge the others in the Big Five — Andy Murray, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, and Rafael Nadal? And who can replace, or at least regularly challenge, Serena?

No teenager has captured a major title since 19-year-old Svetlana Kuznetsova won the 2004 U.S. Open. Who better to become the next Teen Queen, or even the Next Serena, than a rising star whose girlhood idol was Serena? She closely resembles Serena, who already calls her “really good, talented, and very dangerous.” She matches Serena in personality and in ambition.

The tallest Japanese woman in big-time tennis history, she has a surname that’s the same as her birthplace: 5’11” Naomi Osaka. Her mother is Japanese; her father is Haitian. She grew up in the United States and trains in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

In her Grand Slam debut at the 2016 Australian Open, 18-year-old Osaka displayed her immense potential. She decisively won three qualifying matches and her main draw opening match and then overpowered 18th-seeded Elina Svitolina 6-4, 6-4. After two-time Australian Open champion Victoria Azarenka stopped her 6-1, 6-1 in the third round, the irrepressible Osaka talked about her future goals: “Oh, to be the No. 1 (player) and to win a lot of Grand Slams. And to play Fed Cup and then to play the Olympics and to be happy. To be the very best, like no one ever was.”

That’s a mighty tall order for someone ranked only No. 112 and just starting her first full pro season. But Osaka has already won over several experts, including Tennis Channel analyst Doug Adler, who called her breakthrough match against Svitolina.

“Osaka is big, strong, and athletic like a young Serena,” raves Adler. “She crushes the ball and has the confidence and talent to keep getting better. She can hit the serve huge with her fastest at 120 miles per hour. She broke down Svitolina by hitting shot after shot with controlled power. I really like the way she constructed points. And, despite being a big underdog, she played the big points boldly yet within herself and didn’t let the score or pressure affect her. (Osaka converted all four break point chances, and in the final game, smacked three winners.) She’s big at 5’11 and 152 pounds, and moves well, but she’ll need to get quicker and move better as she grows into her body. But I’m extremely impressed with her naturally gifted talent.”

Even if Osaka can match Serena’s shot-making and athleticism, can she match Serena’s fierce competitiveness — forged in the crime-ridden Compton, California ghetto where bullets occasionally flew over her head during practice sessions?

“Serena is the best woman player of all-time also because of her intensity, fight, desire to win, hate, chip on her shoulder, passion, and killer instinct,” continues Adler. “So much will also depend on how much of those intangibles Osaka has. I think the sky is the limit for her if she has the work ethic, self-discipline, and desire to be the best. Only she knows!”

Whether Osaka becomes a champion or not, she’ll undoubtedly be a fan favourite and media darling. Many of her quotes are priceless. When asked about her poker face during matches, she replied with a laugh, “Just genetically my face is like this. I’m sorry. In my brain I’m going, ‘Oh, my God, why’ about like 90 per cent of the time. But, you know, I feel like I try to smile sometimes just so I don’t throw my racquet.” On her quirky sense of humour, Osaka explains, “I feel like I’m a child of the Internet, and the Internet has raised me, and its jokes might not be appropriate at certain times. So, I keep them locked inside.” What does her humour come closest to? She says material found on “the dark side of YouTube.”

Alexander Zverev is listed last in the player biography section of the 2016 ATP World Tour Media Guide. Some cognoscenti believe Zverev will rank first this decade or soon thereafter.

His baby face and reed-thin, 6’6” frame have some maturing to do, but the 18-year-old German’s technique, tactics, and temperament, not to mention his talent, are world-class, bordering on elite already. Zverev, nicknamed Sascha, finished 2015 ranked No. 83, making him the youngest of the four teenagers in the top 100.

Zverev’s rapid ascent can be partly explained by his pedigree. His father, Alexander, a former touring pro, coaches him. His mother, Irena, is a tennis coach, and his brother, Mischa, 28, is also on the ATP Tour and reached a career-high No. 45 in 2009.

Zverev should come close to that when the rankings are released, thanks to his stellar showing at the ABN-AMRO tournament in Rotterdam. He’s beaten top 20 players before — Kevin Anderson last year in Washington, D.C. and 2014 U.S. Open champion Marin Cilic this year at the Open Sud de France — but upsetting No. 15 Gilles Simon, a wily veteran, was more impressive.

Simon gave No. 1 Novak Djokovic his toughest challenge at the 2016 Australian Open, extending him to five sets that lasted more than four hours. Beating Simon, a tireless counter-puncher with the speed of a sprinter and the consistency of a backboard, is a rite of passage for young players aspiring for greatness. Simon tests their guts as much as their game.

Displaying all the ingredients of a champion, Zverev survived the litmus test with a dramatic 7-5, 3-6, 7-6 victory. Not only did he fight off cramps but he overcame being a point away from being down two service breaks in the final set.

The broad-shouldered Zverev belted serves over 130 mph, used his huge reach at net to win points there, and blended power with steadiness from the baseline against the rock-solid Simon. “His fundamentals are so good, but he’s also capable of the spectacular,” said Tennis Channel analyst Justin Gimelstob after an outstretched Zverev hit a running backhand passing shot winner that clipped the sideline. “His backhand is impeccable, and he moves great for his size, and that’s only going to get better and better.”

Down 3-4 in the deciding set tiebreaker, Zverev pounded a service winner and an inside-out backhand winner to lead 5-4. Then the kid showed his versatility and smarts. He slowed his shots in long exchanges and eventually extracted two unforced errors from Simon. Zverev out-rallied the ultimate rallier to win the match.

All the great ones, from Pancho Gonzalez to Jimmy Connors to Roger Federer, have had a driving passion for the game and especially for competing in an individual sport. Asked why he loves playing tennis, Zverev told atpworldtour.com, “Because it’s a one-on-one sport. You don’t get that in any other sport really. The closest you get is probably boxing. You still have your coaches and your team in your corner telling you what to do and stuff. I think tennis all depends on yourself. And that’s something fantastic about tennis.”

We should be bullish about Zverev and Osaka. These super teens will beat some top-10 players this year, and if they keep improving, will reach a major final next year. Generation Next is finally on the way.