Tennis 2015: Boys still finding it tough to beat the men

As we end the 2015 tennis season, it’s the usual suspects – Djokovic, Federer, Wawrinka and Nadal contesting the semis of the ATP World Tour finals in London.

After all the new names that hit the headlines in 2014, it almost feels like we have taken two steps back in 2015. Indeed, 2014 was a year of breakthroughs – not just the first-time Grand Slam winners, Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic, but the so-called ‘young guns’ of tennis, players in the range of 17-23 years.

At the top end of that age bracket, two 23-year-olds – Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov – had a stellar year in 2014. Both had been making steady progress over the past 2-3 years and last year, both reached the Wimbledon semi-finals; Raonic went on to qualify for the World Tour finals, while Dimitrov ended the year with 3 titles on 3 different surfaces. It seemed a certainty that by 2015, one or both would win their first major. Raonic started 2015 strongly, beating Nadal at Indian Wells and rising to #4. But a foot injury put him out of the clay court season and he just hasn’t been the same since he returned, ending the year down at #14. Dimitrov has fared even worse; he split with his coach (and also with his girlfriend Maria Sharapova) and seems to have been generally distracted. He ends the year at #28 and without a single title.

Kei Nishikori reached the US Opens finals last year at age 24, qualified for the World Tour Finals at which he took Djokovic to 3 sets in the semis. He ended the year at #5. This year, he has been pretty consistent, but hasn’t really troubled the top players (except a win over Nadal) and crucially has failed to make a mark at the Grand Slams. He had an early exit at the US Open, lost a bit of momentum towards the year-end and will settle for #8.

Last year, at Wimbledon, 19-year-old Aussie hot shot Nick Kyrgios announced his arrival on the world stage knocking out Nadal in the 4th round. Not since Boris Becker in the 1980’s has there been a player with so much ‘stage presence’. He ended 2014 at #52 and on paper, 2015 has been an improvement as he has moved up to #30, including wins over Federer, Wawrinka and Raonic. But he will probably be remembered more for his poor on-court behaviour leading to controversy, official warnings and fines. Hopefully all this is a part of growing up and will be put behind him in 2016.

Croatian Borna Coric started 2014 with wins over Top 20 players like Jerzy Janowicz and Ernests Gulbis. Later in the year, he defeated Nadal in the quarterfinals of the Swiss Indoors and became the youngest player in the Top 100. Coric hit a career-high 33 in mid-2015 although he later dropped back to a still respectable #45. The year included a win over Andy Murray in Dubai, but mainly his rankings improvement has come through consistent play, rather than through any spectacular big tournament success. I think he is more of a ‘grinder’ in the Nadal style and I assume he will continue his steady climb in 2016, but remains to be seen if he has the something special to challenge the top players consistently.

Nick Kyrgios (left) and Borna Coric (right)

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Another teenager, Alexander Zverev won the Australian Open juniors in 2014 and then hit the senior circuit at age 17 going on to beat a Top 20 player (Mikhail Youzhny) soon after. He has finally broken the Top 100 this year and climbed to #83. No big wins, but I guess we will be reading about Coric and Zverev contesting tournament finals ten years from now.

Austria’s Dominic Thiem is technically a young gun, as he has reached a ranking of 20 at the age of 22, but he has done so by accumulating points through consistent play rather than by beating any of the top players (although he did have a win over Wawrinka in 2014). However, he has won his maiden ATP title this year followed by two more – all at smaller tournaments. It’s a bit early to say whether he will build on this to rise to the top, or will end up as an ‘almost there’ player like David Ferrer and Tomas Berdych. But the fact that he is one of the few players with a one-handed backhand means that he is worth keeping an eye on. When Federer, Wawrinka and Gasquet retire, it will only be Dimitrov and Thiem keeping the one-handed backhand alive.

So for 2015, nothing really to set the heart on fire. Dimitrov, Raonic, Nishikori and Kyrgios all still waiting to challenge the top players consistently, while younger players like Coric and Zverev continue to play the Challenger tournaments to accumulate points and qualify for the bigger ATP tournaments.

With Nadal resurgent towards the end of 2015, Djokovic stronger than ever and Federer looking determined to keep himself fit for the Rio Olympics and Murray or Wawrinka always capable of winning another Grand Slam, it would be surprising if any of the young ones makes a significant dent in the Top 5 next year. This is not necessarily because these young guys are no good. Much has been said about how tennis has now become an older man’s game; the top players are all in their late 20s and early 30s, powered by improved racket technology and scientific training programs. It is doubtful we will see another teenage Grand Slam champion in the near future until some new disruptive technology comes along which would shift the advantage back to younger players.

Meanwhile, it’s always fun following the career arcs of new talent and there’s a whole bunch on the horizon. Thanasi Kokkinakis (age 19, rank 80) is a close friend and playing partner of Nick Kyrgios. Swedish fans look to Elias Ymer (age 19, rank 136) and his brothers to bring back 1980s style tennis glory to their nation. Just as Nishikori has put Japan on the tennis map, Hyeon Chung (age 19, rank 52) is set to do for Korea; he has been named by ATP as Most Improved Player of the Year for 2015. The US which used to dominate the game from the 70s to the 90s now has three teenagers – Frances Tiafoe (age 17, rank 182), Taylor Fritz (age 18, rank 207) and Stefan Kozlov (age 17, rank 356) – of whom great things are expected in the next few years. And maybe we can get some good old-fashioned Russian-American rivalry going in the Davis Cup if Andrey Rublev (age 18, rank 175) joins the earlier-mentioned Alexander Zverev in Top 20 in the next few years.

Clockwise from top left: Taylor Fritz, Elias Ymer, Hyeon Chung and Frances Tiafoe

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