The Australian Open is just 5 days away from starting and one can’t help but feel it’s the curtain raiser to the final act of what many believe to be tennis’ golden generation. Roger Federer, the pre-tournament favourite, will be 36 turning 37 later in August this year. Andy Murray (now 30!) will miss the tournament after undergoing hip surgery. Novak Djokovic (also 30) will return to action after missing half of the season last year through injury. Rafael Nadal meanwhile is no spring chicken either at 31 and he has a history of injuries which means nothing is guaranteed in terms of form.
Much like the way I was attracted to watch/play golf because of Tiger Woods, I watch tennis to see my favourite player (Federer) play. But now that he is quite close to retiring, and the rest of his peers are aging, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll continue watching tennis majors with the same earnestness.
For most people born in the 90’s much like myself, we’ve constantly been spoiled with consistently great players in tennis. . I remember watching Pete Sampras battle with Andre Agassi in many classic matches and even having the honour of watching both of them in Harare as part of the American Davis Cup team. On the local front, I even remember being excited about watching a Zimbabwean, Byron Black, reaching the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. The level of competition was fierce and it was exciting to the best players go head to head.
It says something about the state of a sport when it’s now mostly thirty somethings winning all the titles. Tennis has yet to have a young player raise his hand up to be the flag bearer of the next generation. Since 2003, when Roger Federer won his first all four majors in tennis (Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open) have been won by 13 players in the highest level of competitive men’s tennis.
Of those 13 players in the same time span, Federer has won 19 titles, meaning he has won just over 33% (just over one third) of the available tennis majors, which is something that is unprecedented in the same time frame (unless we look at the women’s game, where Serena Williams has been destroying all who stand before her.) If you consider the fact that’s over 56 tournaments played, you slowly realize just how good the players at the top of the game really are. That’s not to say that this is a phenomena that’s only common in tennis, it happens in other sports too, and much like other sports, when the dominant team/player doesn’t perform well, there won’t be the same level of attention.
In that same vein of thought, I began to look at the next generation of tennis players to see if any of them can generate the same level of buzz that the former greats before them did. At this moment in time, there is no clear cut dominant player in tennis. Federer and Nadal both won two grand slam titles largely due to injuries to other top players such as Novak Djokovic. Speaking of Djokovic, barring any further injuries and a return to form, he would probably be the best tennis player on the planet.
So the question now which young player can finally break through and make his impact felt? Here are five players (in no particular order) who could possibly challenge to become the next global star that tennis needs:
5) David Goffin
Current Rank: 7
Goffin’s career has mostly been streamlined as he gradually built himself up by winning many Challenger events. It was a ploy by Goffin and his coach to build confidence and earn precious rankings points. And it worked. The more he won on the small stages, the better he played at bigger tournaments.
In recent times, he reached the quarter-final stage of the French Open and Wimbledon to further cement his status as one of the elite tennis players.
4) Alexander Zverev
Current Rank: 4
Zverev has enjoyed a meteoric rise in his relatively young career. In 2016 he started the year as the world’s 83rd-ranked player and ended it at No 24, winning his first ATP tournament in St. Petersburg along the way.
He has since risen even further to now hold the number 4 spot. He has had several loses in major tournaments, with only a fourth round appearance at Wimbledon as his highest finish. Expect him to break that pattern this year as he looks primed to reach the later rounds.
3) Dominic Thiem
Current Rank: 5
Thiem is a grafter, and despite his young age, he has seen his far share of battles on the tennis courts. He boasts a fearsome one-handed backhand, he can rip crosscourt or up the line for winners. Thiem has a versatile game and is a quick mover, meaning he can adapt that skill set to any surface and opponent.
His best ever finish in a grand slam tournament was a quarter-final appearance at the French Open in 2017, where he lost to eventual champion Rafael Nadal. Expect great things from him.
2) Grigor Dimitrov
Current Rank: 3
The supremely talented Bulgarian, who has carried the nickname ‘Baby Fed’ throughout his career because of his similar style to the great Roger Federer, appeared to be edging his way to the upper echelons of the game two years ago.
His impressive run at Wimbledon in 2014, where he outclassed Andy Murray in the last eight to reach the semi-finals, saw him reach a career-high ranking of No 8 in the world.
1) Nick Kygrios
Current Rank: 17
Kygrios is the wild card in this section. He has the skills and attributes to be a an all time great but his explosive temper continues to be his achilles heel. There have been multiple instances where he lost his cool during a matching leading to his eventual loss.
The reality is that Kyrgios will not grow up all at once and be the perfect gentleman on court. He’s not going to be consistent like Murray, and he may have continued lapses in his self-directed training. That said, watch him flash some greatness. Then time will tell if he can turn into a long-term superstar and produce a brilliant career.
These five players have their work cut out for them. Breaking through and beating the likes of Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Federer is no easy task, but for their sake (and the sake of tennis as a whole) someone needs to step up to continue the legacy set out by his predecessors. With the Australian Open just days away from starting, they will be under the microscope and only time will tell if they will buckle under the pressure or become the flag bearers of the next generation.
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