The ‘Next Gen’ Saga

Yesterday I wrote a satirical piece on the failure of a group of tennis players dubbed The Next Gen, to push generation thirty-something – including the big four – off Tennis’s summit.  Today, I’d like to take a more serious and objective look at these group of players.  Since 2008 only three players outside of tennis’s fabled big four have managed to capture a Grand Slam title.

Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic and Stanilas Wawrinka, hold special places in tennis history.  They are the defiant ones.  The embodiment of tennis’s rebellion at it’s peak.  We’ll call them the rebellious three.  Together they lay claim to all of five grand slam titles.  Yet this peak has been too few and too far in-between when compared to the big four.  They now have forty-nine grand slam titles between them.  Here’s the kicker… not one of them has retired yet and I doubt any one of them is considering it.

With that kind of dominance, it is hard to think of those we call The Next Gen, in terms of sustained success.  It is a mental feat imagining any of them holding the U.S Open trophy this year and for good reason.  The big four have been so good, so dominant that as long as one or two of them is in fine form, the rest of the tour’s chances diminish dramatically, unless of course you are Stanilas Wawrinka.  Well here’s another interesting development.  Stan, along with Novak Djokovic, is out for the rest of the season.  Andy Murray, who just pulled out of Cincinnati, is barely hanging on by the skin of his teeth.  All of a sudden there might be a small sliver of hope.  There might be a micro-beam of light so infinitesimally minute as to be imperceptible, but it is there.  I say this because the two greater members of the that golden club – Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal – are in impeccable form going into the U.S Open series.  Yet, there’s a chance, no matter how small.  The question is can they step up?

To find out who they is in this case, we need to re-evaluate the very definition of Next Gen.  There was a time when a particular prototype defined an up and coming player – a lean, gifted teenager with wide eyes, huge potential and big dreams.  We all know that image.  It usually ended in a beginning.  That beginning was usually marked by a first Grand Slam title and after that, a period of domination that took the player from up and comer to star, champion and maybe… legend.  That omega – alpha borderline that marked the transition from promise to actualization, usually started early and the trend continued until 2005.  Then, a new paradigm was born and with it, a new type of Next Gen.  The twenty-something next gen.  One of the rebellious three, became it’s pioneer Grand Slam Champion.  Juan Martin Del Potro won the U.S open at 20 years of age in 2009, and since then there hasn’t been a younger Grand Slam Champion.  Today, next gen refers to players who fall within the age bracket of 20 years till about 26 years of age.  Andy Murray was 26 when he captured his first Grand Slam at Wimbledon, four years ago.

Now that we’ve got a range, let’s plug in a few names we’ve been talking about for a few years.

  • Dominic Thiem (23)
  • Alexander Zverev (20)
  • Grigor Dimitrov (26)
  • Milos Raonic (26)
  • Jack Sock (24)
  • Lucas Pouille (23)
  • Nick Kyrgios (22)
  • Ryan Harrison (25)
  • Borna Coric (20)
  • Bernard Tomic (24)

While there are a few others I omitted, I did so for good reason.  These are the guys we have at some point or the other touted to break the choke hold the thirty somethings have on the game.  Unless you think Diego Schwartzman will hoist a grand slam title one day.  Ironically, the Argentine beat Dominic Thiem in Montreal this week.  However if we take consistency into account, you’ll see why I left him and a few others out.  You’ll also notice a few players have left this extremely long green patch of development.  At age 27, Kei Nishikori is now a seasoned veteran on tour.  He can still win a Grand Slam but at this stage, he’d be considered a late bloomer.  It is interesting to note that Roger Federer was considered a late bloomer when he won Wimbledon at age 21.  How times have changed.

Based on recent form and history, two names stand out from the rest of the Next Gen group.  Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev.  They’ve combined for five titles this year and have been by far the most consistent of the group.  It is no wonder that they seat at numbers 3 and 4 in the ATP race, this season.  Dimitrov and Raonic, both at 26 years of age, are the elder statesmen in this group and both have under a year to make that big leap or risk fielding questions from the press worded thus… “Will you ever…”.  Both these guys have been marred by inconsistency and in Raonic’s case, injuries.  Everyone else in-between either suffers from an incomplete game (Jack Sock), a weak mentality (Nick Kyrgios, Lucas Pouille and Bernard Tomic) or a solid game with no real weapon (Borna Coric and Ryan Harrison).

Apart from Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev, the other upside to this rather bleak outlook on generation next is time.  The definition of a champion past his prime has also shifted.  Federer, Nadal, Lopez, the Williamses on the women’s side and a few other brilliant thirty-somethings have shown that with improved physiotherapy, technology, nutrition and schedule management, a player can extend his effective playing days well beyond the previous twilight zone of 30.  They will be called late bloomers by then, but Generation Next may yet still have their moment at tennis’s summit.

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Categories: ATP, Sports, Tennis, WTA

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