They say sport is all about the optics. And right now, the optics being produced by the NextGen players in tennis are traversing the whole spectrum of earthly attributes – from the blazingly brilliant to the criminally cringeworthy.
Andrey Rublev has been at the ‘good’ extreme lately. The most enduring 2020 image of the Russian so far is the forehand return he hit during his Adelaide semifinal against Felix Auger-Aliassime, which zapped through the court for a clean, game-changing winner.
The most enduring image of Alexander Zverev? Him sitting despondently on the sidelines at a changeover during his ATP Cup match against Alex di Minaur, looking as though he wanted the earth to open up and swallow him whole. Or was it the moment when he yelled at Alexander Zverev Sr. after his millionth double fault, reducing his father to tears? It’s tough to say, because there have been so many eye-popping disasters around Zverev already – even though we’re just two weeks into the season.
It’s not just Zverev though. Most of the players who were seemingly at the head of the NextGen class when 2019 began, have dramatically hurtled downward in the 12 months since.
Karen Khachanov won four matches at the ATP Cup, but they were all against relatively sub-par competition; the moment he ran into a player at the top of his game (Dusan Lajovic), he lost in straight sets. Khachanov then proceeded to participate in the Auckland Open, where he lost his first match to John Millman – thus continuing his pattern from 2019, where he struggled to put together a respectable amount of wins in a row.
Borna Coric went 1-2 at the ATP Cup, winning a grand total of eight games in his last two matches, and hasn’t played since. The Croat’s surge in the second half of 2018, where he beat Roger Federer and reached a Masters final, seems barely believable now.
Frances Tiafoe, a quarterfinalist at the Australian Open last year, went on to lose more than half of his matches in the rest of 2019. This year he has played just one match – a three-set loss to Marton Fucsovics in Doha – and isn’t even being counted among the NextGen class anymore.
And Zverev, well…after losing all three of his matches at the ATP Cup, he celebrated reaching 1 million followers on Instagram. It’s good to know he has at least something to smile about right now.
The only NextGen players to have fulfilled the expectations surrounding them at the start of 2019 are Stefanos Tsitsipas and to some extent Denis Shapovalov. In the meantime, two other players who were considered back-benchers last year – Daniil Medvedev and Matteo Berrettini – have galloped ahead and put everyone bar Tsitsipas in the rearview mirror.
Will we see that trend – of unheralded youngsters upstaging their more fancied peers – continue in 2020? So far the indications are pretty strong that we will.
Rublev was nowhere in the picture at the start of last year, and his 2017 US Open quarterfinal run had started seeming like a fluke. But after a decent second half of 2019 – where he reached another US Open quarterfinal, bagged a title, and registered a win over Federer – he has come racing out of the blocks in 2020.
His win over Auger-Aliassime in Adelaide was a thrilling exhibition of relentless power in the face of some extraordinary play from an inspired opponent, which he followed up with an assured win over Lloyd Harris in the final. And all this was after he had already sent a warning to the rest of the tour by winning the year’s first tournament in Doha.
Before 2020, Rublev had won just two titles over the course of his entire career. Now, he has won two in two weeks.
He is not the only NextGen player to have made unexpected noise at the start of this year though. A couple of French left-handers – Ugo Humbert and Corentin Moutet – have also started the 2020 season in impressive fashion.
The 21-year-old Humbert won his first tour title in Auckland yesterday, while the 20-year-old Moutet reached his first final in Doha last week. The two have wildly contrasting styles despite both being southpaws – Humbert is the flat-hitting aggressor, Moutet the cussed counterpuncher – and they seem well on their way to joining the legion of tragicomic French virtuosos that have always been such a prominent feature of the tour.
Then there is the 22-year-old Hubert Hurkacz, who went unbeaten at the ATP Cup despite facing three quality players – Dominic Thiem, Borna Coric and Diego Schwartzman. He then won three more matches in Auckland, showing everyone that his newfound aggression is now helping him make full use of his imposing build.
The balance of power in the NextGen might be shifting before our very eyes, with the Rublevs and Humberts snatching the accolades from right under the noses of the Zverevs and Khachanovs. If they didn’t know it already, Zverev & Co need to realise the importance of stopping the rot before it is too late. And they’ll have a chance to save some face at the upcoming Australian Open.
Medvedev and Tsitsipas have gone so far ahead of the pack that they are being counted among the contenders in Melbourne rather than the young upstarts. But for the rest, the year’s first Grand Slam could well be something of a watershed moment. Will the former NextGen ‘sure things’ be able to draw a line in the sand and keep the unheralded newcomers at bay, or will the turnaround in the pecking order become permanent?
It couldn’t have been more symbolic that Zverev and Rublev, the two men perceived as the leaders of their respective groups, are projected to cross swords in the fourth round at Melbourne. If both of them do get to that stage, the result of the match could have far-reaching implications – for the rest of 2020, and maybe even beyond.
For his part Zverev would be hoping that he can, at the very least, give a better response to Rublev’s fiery forehands than just turning around and berating his father. Tennis is all about the image, and right now the German’s image desperately needs a patch-up job.
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Updated Date: Jan 19, 2020 15:41:05 IST