ATP Next Gen Finals a testing ground for new rules, and a breeding ground for future stars

Invention, for the ATP, was a necessary proposition. Never before had so many youngsters, with the promise of a big future, driven through the top 100 and challenged the regulars on the tour. For its own part, the governing body of men’s tennis had to do something to provide a pathway for the ‘Next Generation’ of stars. Hence, came up the Next Gen ATP Finals.

At the Fiera Milano Stadium in Milan last year, the ATP hosted its biggest addition to the calendar year. And in that first year itself, the results that followed provided proof in the success the tournament had in the grooming of the U-21 stars.

Stefanos Tsitsipas reacts during a match against Daniil Medvedev. AP photo

Stefanos Tsitsipas reacts during a match against Daniil Medvedev. AP photo

The first ever champion, Hyeon Chung, went on to stun the great Novak Djokovic in a run at the Australian Open that ended in the semi-finals, and as the year progressed, he became the first South Korean to break into the top 20 when he occupied the 19th spot in April.

At the same time, the losing finalist Andrey Rublev of Russia created a stir at the start of the 2018 season in Doha. He beat the likes of veteran Fernando Verdasco and went all the way to the final, where he lost to Gael Monfils. By February, he had gotten the better of David Ferrer in a five-set first round match at the Australian Open, and had ousted then World No 16 Lucas Pouille at Rotterdam. In the ranking charts, the 21-year-old had risen as high as 31.

The millennials are descending upon Milan again, for the second edition that starts on Tuesday, 6 November.

The Next Gen Finals has been a good testing ground not just for the upcoming players, but also for changes in rules the ATP has been experimenting with. Though the format in general mirrors the one used at the senior level, with eight players slotted in two groups for a round robin stage followed by semi-finals and finals, the Next Gen tournament holds five-set matches with the first to four games winning a set. A tie-break is played at 3-3, along with a no lets, no ad scoring rule.

This year though, the ATP will be testing a few more changes.

“Innovations such as Electronic Line Calling through Hawk-Eye Live, a 25-second Shot Clock, In-Match player coaching via head-sets will also be back for the second edition,” the ATP announced through a press release. “The player warm-up will be reduced by a further minute (from five minutes to four minutes) from the second player walk-on, while players will be instructed to use a towel rack at the back of the court to remove the onus on ball kids to handle towels. Free crowd movement in the stadium and a limit of 1 medical time out per match will also remain.”

It’s an opportune event for the ATP to test changes that may potentially be conducive to the tour.

But the ATP is also preparing youngsters for bigger battles ahead. There’s no pressure like peer pressure. Though the U-21s are already challenging the established world order, the Next Gen Finals works on the premise that they will even more driven to be the best in their age category. There’s also a prospect of new rivalries emerging.

The biggest name that could compete at this event, World No 5 Alexander Zverev has naturally opted to play in the senior ATP Finals. Another big miss for the tournament is Canadian star Denis Shapovalov. Meanwhile, defending champion Chung is ineligible to compete since he is now overage (players need to be born in 1997 or later to compete this year).

This leaves World No 16 Stefanos Tsitsipas as the top seed. The talented Greek has had an impressive breakthrough run this year, with his performance at Barcelona Open putting him in the limelight for the first time. He beat the likes of Diego Schwartzmann, Albert Ramos-Vinolas, Dominic Thiem, and Pablo Carreno Busta before losing to Rafael Nadal in the final. He met and lost to the Spaniard again in the final at the Montreal Masters, this time beating Damir Dzumhur, Thiem, Djokovic, Zverev and Kevin Anderson to reach the summit clash.

Finally at the Stockholm Indoors in October, he won his first ATP title.

The second seed for the Next Gen Finals is Australia’s Alex de Minaur. The 19-year-old World No 33 has been training under the tutelage of Australian Davis Cup captain and two-time Grand Slam champion Lleyton Hewitt. The teenager had reached the final of the Citi Open this year, and had won a lot of praise in his gritty five-set loss to Marin Cilic in the third round of the US Open.

Two Americans occupy the third and fourth seeds: Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz respectively. Both have been pipped to become the first man from their country since Andy Roddick to win a Grand Slam. Tiafoe though, at 20, became the youngest since Roddick to win an ATP title by winning the event at Delray Beach (Roddick was 19 when he won at Houston).

Then there is Rublev as the fifth seed, who has dropped down to 76 in the world rankings. Following him though is 21-year-old Spaniard Jaume Munar, who already has a bit of a rivalry with the Russian youngster. Back at the 2014 Junior French Open final, Rublev got the better of Munar.

Since then though, Munar has steadily pushed up the rankings, and got his biggest scalp when he beat Ferrer in the first round at Roland Garros this year. Incidentally, Munar’s breakthrough has come in the same year the veteran Spaniard Ferrer is retiring from the game.

The seventh and last direct entry for the competition this year is World No 79 Hubert Hurkacz of Poland. The towering 6-foot-5 players it he tallest in the Next Gen Finals lineup this year, and at 21, is already the best player in his country.

An Italian wild card, Liam Caruana, took up the last spot for the finals. Caruana, who has played only one tour level match so far, won three rounds at the Italian 21-and-under wild card event to gain entry into the prestigious event.

For the second year, the Finals will continue being a testing ground for future innovations that could be introduced to the game. But more than just a look into the future rules, the tournament is a glimpse of what may just be the scene at the top of the tennis world in the coming years.

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Updated Date: Nov 06, 2018 15:57:37 IST

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