French Open 2019: Make-or-break time for Next Gen stars Alexander Zverev, Karen Khachanov; Stefanos Tsitsipas primed for success

A video clip from Alexander Zverev’s third round match in Geneva this week has been doing the rounds of social media, and for good reason. Zverev took a tumble during his match against Hugo Dellien, and as he lay sprawled on the court he put his arms around the feet of one of the ballkids – making for a disarmingly comical sight. It almost looked like he was playing a part in a Greek tragedy, pleading with the gods for some respite, and none of us could stop laughing.

Tennis TV shared the clip using the caption, “We all need someone to hug sometimes.” But Zverev needs a lot more than that right now; the clip, as funny as it was, looked unintentionally symbolic of his painful struggles on the court this year.

The German has stumbled from one dispiriting loss to another in 2019, and doesn’t even remotely look like a contender for the upcoming French Open. The fact that he is even playing the lowly Geneva event in the week before Roland Garros, at a time when every other top player is resting in order to be fresh for the Slam, shows how far his stock has fallen.

Zverev is not the only Next Gen star who’s facing a crisis of confidence right now. Karen Khachanov has lost more matches than he’s won this year, with two separate torrid losing streaks: a 3-match one in February, and a 4-match one in April. Borna Coric has fared slightly better, but even he has reached just one tour semifinal in 2019.

 French Open 2019: Make-or-break time for Next Gen stars Alexander Zverev, Karen Khachanov; Stefanos Tsitsipas primed for success

Germany's Alexander Zverev clings on to a ball boy's legs after falling during his quarter final match against Hugo Dellien. AFP

Zverev, Khachanov and Coric were supposed to be the leaders of the Next Gen, especially given what happened in the second half of 2018. Coric reached his first Masters final in Shanghai, Khachanov won his first Masters title in Paris, and Zverev won his first ATP Finals in London, all in the space of three months at the end of last year.

The world seemed to be theirs for the taking. Many thought it was a matter of time before they became consistent challengers to the Big 3.

So what happened in 2019? It’s hard to say for sure, but the problems of Khachanov and Coric seem to stem at least in part from their inability to close. Just last week Coric lost an eminently winnable match against Roger Federer by making a complete mess of a forehand on match point. That was just two weeks after his tough loss to Fabio Fognini in Monte Carlo, where the Croat was a set and a break up.

Khachanov’s losses have been more one-sided, but the way he let go of an advantageous position against Rafael Nadal in Indian Wells and against Fernando Verdasco in Madrid, speaks of a deeper mental roadblock.

For Zverev, the issues have been both physical and mental. He has seemingly abandoned his forceful playing style from the ATP Finals and decided to become a defensive grinder, making us wonder why he hired Ivan Lendl as a coach in the first place. And over the past month he has also indicated that he’s finding it hard to deal with the off-court formalities and demands of being a tennis superstar, making us question his sense of priorities.

None of these three players has ever reached a Slam semifinal, and in fact only one of them (Zverev) has even gone as far as the quarterfinal. Yes, all of them are still 23 or under, so they do have time on their side. But they don’t have a lot of time left to prove that they can be Slam contenders on their own merit, rather than merely because of the ageing of the Big 3.

In that context, this year’s French Open is perhaps the most important Slam of their young careers so far. They have had enough opportunities to learn how to deal with the unique pressures of the best-of-five format. If they can’t make a stand now, and that too on the surface of their choice (all three are very comfortable on clay), then when will they?

The one source of comfort for these three is that they don’t have to look too far for inspiration. While they have been grappling with their disappointing losses and demoralizing chokes, Stefanos Tsitsipas has been showing the world just how a champion is made.

 Stefanos Tsitsipas has been showing the world just how a champion is made. AFP

Stefanos Tsitsipas has been showing the world just how a champion is made. AFP

Not only has Tsitsipas (who is a year younger at 21) stolen a march over Zverev and Coric by becoming the first Slam semifinalist of the lot, he has also backed up his breakthrough run with something that seems alien to every other youngster right now: consistency. The Greek has two titles already this year, along with a win over Rafael Nadal on clay. And he hasn’t had a ‘bad’ loss since going out early at Indian Wells in March.

Tsitsipas has made obvious improvements to his game since last year. His forehand is more penetrating, his second serve a little heavier, and his backhand more consistent – all of which is showing in his results. Perhaps most strikingly though, he has shown a fabulous attitude when things aren’t going his way, even when pitted against the world’s best.

By contrast, Zverev and Khachanov have been content to rely on the same weapons that gave them their first couple of titles, and don’t seem to know how to respond when an opponent comes up with a counter. They have also shown a startling lack of stomach for a fight; while Tsitsipas has been saving break points with line-painting forehands and big second serves, Zverev has been losing them through double faults and netted drop shots.

Going into Roland Garros, Tsitsipas seems like a legitimate contender – perhaps the most likely winner if somehow Nadal, Djokovic and Thiem all fall early. Zverev, on the other hand, would be deemed to have had a good tournament if he reached the quarterfinal, while Khachanov and Coric would do well to win more than a couple of matches each.

There are other talented young players in the fray too, but none of them seems ready for Slam-winning success yet. Felix Auger-Aliassime has sparkled on occasion this year but is likely to face Juan Martin del Potro in the third round, which might be a hurdle too steep at this stage of his career. And Denis Shapovalov and Frances Tiafoe, while having made definitive progress in 2019, don’t possess very claycourt-friendly games.

Among the rest that are in or around the top 50, Hubert Hurkacz faces Djokovic in the first round and Jaume Munar could face the same formidable opponent in the third. Christian Garin has put up some impressive results in small tournaments lately, but it is doubtful whether he has the necessary temperament and experience to go deep in a section of the draw that has Stan Wawrinka and Marin Cilic.

We’ve all been waiting for the Next Gen stars to step up and challenge the Big 3, but so far this year Tsitsipas is the only one who has shown he is up to the task. The others – especially Zverev, Khachanov and Coric – have a lot to prove at this French Open. They’d do well to follow Tsitsipas’ lead, and focus on getting their head together before aiming for the stars.

All three of these players are very likeable and easygoing, which is what made them so popular in the first place. More importantly, they also have good enough games to become consistent champions; they just need to find the right balance in their play and attitude.

Their fans would hope that they do just that at Roland Garros, and produce highlight reels of spectacular shot-making rather than funny but ultimately pointless clips of hugging ballkids.

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Updated Date: May 25, 2019 16:55:20 IST