By TRENTON JOCZ — @TrentonJocz
Special To Tennis With An Accent
The deepest class of ATP talent ever, led by Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and Andy Murray, left a long shadow for the generations that have followed.
The reality that the class after them, derisively dubbed “Generation Useless” and critically tagged as “The Lost Boys,” was devoid of both depth and top-end talent, was not terribly surprising given the comically loaded cluster of players preceding it.
The late 1990s kids who followed, though? They’re a different story. A decade removed from GenRafa, this group grew up watching the Big Four eviscerating the competition, which sure beat the existence of the Lost Boys. The late 1990s group didn’t actually take those thumpings in its formative years.
Despite the advantages presented by the greats aging and going through lengthy injuries that sapped the quartet of their synchronized dominance, the class of players entering their early-to-mid 20s today was not significantly ahead of its big brothers from the early 1990s.
Daniil Medvedev, a once unlikely candidate, is trying to change all that, surging ahead of his peers with a dominant summer season. Supplanting Dominic Thiem, now 26, as the youngest active male player with a Grand Slam final to his name, the 23-year-old Medvedev is the first man of his age group to break through to the sport’s biggest stage, which will both allay some concerns about their collective potential and start the clock for others to replicate his success.
However, when people clamor for said players to make their mark, what gets lost is that fans and analysts don’t consider what environment would be necessary and conducive for each to reach the summit.
After all, not every prospect is Felix Auger-Aliassime or Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Although Auger-Aliassime’s stratospheric rise leveled off following a blazing start to 2019, he solidified his status as the best prospect since Rafael Nadal, regularly eliciting tweets that featured the phrase “youngest player since 2004” or “first man since 2005.”
Felix Auger-Aliassime is playing on his 19th birthday today.
If you want an idea of why FAA is so clearly the best ATP prospect in over a decade, here are the under-19 results of the most hyped players who aren't yet 30 (point stats from ATP level): pic.twitter.com/PkUncWxOnV
— Trenton Jocz (@TrentonJocz) August 8, 2019
Even though the Tsitsipas hype train also got off track in the wake of two losses that left a mental mark (Wawrinka at Roland Garros, followed by another loss to Auger-Aliassime in Queens), the Greek gave a strong indication of his all-surface potential during the heart of the 2018 season. Well before his mainstream breakout in Australia, Tsitsipas reached the Barcelona final, tested Thiem in Paris, made Manic Monday at the All England Club, and outbattled a plethora of top players to claim a spot in the Rogers Cup final, all in a span of less than four months.
For this exercise, we are looking at players who aren’t Tier A-level prospects in regard to winning Slams, those whose levels of potential project to be fulfilled by “merely” joining the club of major champions, rather than attempting to take the torch from the trio of living legends who have distorted expectations and expanded imaginations for the past decade and a half.
Alexander Zverev: Australian Open
Key numbers: In the last two editions of Roland Garros, Zverev has averaged 263 points played over 3 hours through the first four rounds. For comparison, Thiem’s routes to the quarterfinals (with notably tough draws) have averaged 212 points played over matches averaging 2 hours, 21 minutes.
Some might be surprised to see Sascha Zverev on this list, given the initial disclaimer that upper-echelon prospects such as Auger-Aliassime and Tsitsipas are not the focus. The German has made a bit of history himself and is roughly on the same prospect tier as Tsitsipas. The problem is that his game isn’t really suited for majors, even assuming he overcomes whatever mental hurdles exist for him at that level.
In many ways, Zverev is really the inspiration for this article. Considered a future Grand Slam champion for years, few have truly examined if his rise to the top should be considered inevitable, which I would argue it should not.
The biggest obstacle in Sascha Zverev’s path to winning a Grand Slam? That he’s a great clay-court player whose game doesn’t pair well with Roland Garros.
This is largely due to his forehand, which has always been his weakness, a particularly inconvenient one to have in Slams.
Only Murray and Marin Cilic have won majors in this era with shaky forehands, and Murray had a ridiculously complete overall game to compensate for the lack of a dynamic, bullying forehand. Even then, that forehand/second serve combo is the majority of why Murray became dwarfed in the Slam count by Djokovic. It’s small margins at the top of the mountain.
This vulnerability is especially magnified in Paris, where reliable haymakers are needed not just to win the heavyweight bouts in the second week, but also to conserve energy in the first week and have the legs for the business end of the tournament, a lesson Zverev has been taught the hard way.
Note where most of the recent French Open contenders are in this chart, via data guru extraordinaire @vestige_du_jour:
Not so coincidentally, both finalists, Nadal and Thiem, are in the “spinniest” corner of the graph, while Zverev resides in the middle with a recovering Djokovic and a host of second-tier contenders.
Throw in Zverev’s trouble with high-bouncing hard courts and weaknesses that become glaring on grass (second serve and touch for “cat and mouse” points among them), and it’s a good thing that on a closer look, Zverev’s record in Melbourne isn’t quite as dreary as the 7-4 record appears.
While getting routed at the hands of Milos Raonic was an early indicator for his 2019 season, even the most skeptical Zverev doubter would admit that making future projections off his prior seasons is much more sensible.
In 2017, despite the result going down as a third-round loss, he could have gone further had he not run into Nadal, whom he led going into the fourth set as a result of being the bolder player in a third-set tiebreak. The latter sets were comprehensively in Nadal’s favor, but this was before Jez Green (insert contractually obligated mention of Andy Murray here) had fully ramped up the long-term fitness plan for the lanky then-teenager.
The following year, although Zverev once again wilted one set from victory in the third round, the glass-half-full reflection of that match against Hyeon Chung would note that he was the only man to take a single set during Chung’s run to the semifinals, which included an unseeded Daniil Medvedev and a clearly limited but still ambulatory Djokovic.
Also in his favor is that the night matches that populate the second week of the tournament are arguably his ideal hard court conditions given the similarities to Miami and the ATP Finals.
Now he just has to start actually getting to those late-round primetime encounters.
Alex de Minaur: Wimbledon
Key numbers: Against top-50 opponents in the year preceding the U.S. Open, Alex de Minaur ranked the worst in the top 50 in points per service game played, and against top 20 opposition (small sample size caveat), he ranked worst by a wide measure in hold percentage and points lost per game.
The Demon may have swept through Atlanta this year without facing a break point, but the overall data as well as the eye test say that the young Aussie will be up against it on serve if he is to challenge for higher-level trophies.
It’s a misfortune seen on display in recent years with Diego Schwartzman, a great competitor who is a pain to face, yet rarely causes a full upset.
The good news for de Minaur is he has indeed shown a knack for grass. In 2016, he reached the junior Wimbledon final (beating Auger-Aliassime before falling to Denis Shapovalov). In 2018, he notched wins over Taylor Fritz, Matt Ebden and Dan Evans during a 9-1 two week run in prominent grass Challengers before reaching the third round of Wimbledon.
An instructive process is comparing that third-round loss to Nadal to the identical 6-1, 6-2, 6-4 thumping that Rafa dealt him months later in Australia. Despite the Aussie being ranked 50 spots higher (and playing at his home event), the AO defeat was no more suspenseful than the first. The differences? Nearly 30 more points were played due to some marathon service games on both sides, and de Minaur saw his ace total drop from eight to just three.
De Minaur fortunately doesn’t appear to have the same struggles his mentor Lleyton Hewitt had at their home Slam (the former No. 1 had seven QF-or-better showings at the U.S. Open, compared to just one in Australia), though he does have to contend on a tour that has evolved into much more physical play. As a result, juxtaposing the court conditions of Rod Laver Arena at night with daytime heat in England is a relevant swing factor in his projection.
As Kei Nishikori can attest, winning a major will be very difficult for someone of de Minaur’s stature. He’ll need a lot of the little things to go his way, such as some of his peers getting upset in the draw, which thus far has been the case for his generation. That, combined with a crafty, redirecting style that has served players such as Angie Kerber, Aga Radwanska and Adrian Mannarino well, leads to the following claim: Wimbledon likely gives Alex de Minaur his best shot at becoming a Grand Slam champion.
Denis Shapovalov: U.S. Open
Key numbers: Since the start of 2018, Shapovalov is 28-13 on American/Canadian hard courts, and 15-16 when outside the U.S. and Canada.
Denis Shapovalov is an instructive case on why the narrative of “stats versus the eye test” is a strawman. It doesn’t have to be an either/or proposition; they are stronger when paired together.
At the start of the year, I dabbled with a project to chart, in great detail, the return games of prominent players, supplementing the stars (Federer, Nadal, Djokovic) with some of the most interesting up-and-comers (Tsitsipas, de Minaur, Shapovalov) and a few others.
It ended up being far too time consuming to maintain, but there were some interesting takeaways in that small sample that matched the conventional wisdom:
-Nadal returned about as consistently as Djokovic in the matches I charted, he just didn’t hit as many otherworldly excellent returns.
-Federer hits a number of strong returns, they just come with a higher percentage of routine and poor misses.
-de Minaur gets a lot of really good serves back (which doesn’t fully translate to return stats, because a player doesn’t get credit for that when he still loses the point).
The most surprising data point, however, was that Shapovalov wasn’t as hopeless on return as the raw data suggested, hitting a number of potent replies off the serves. He just didn’t have the right risk-reward calibration, getting a significantly lower number of makeable returns back into play.
Since bringing Mikhail Youzhny onto his team, the young Canadian appears to have quickly adapted more margin in his game, and that has translated to the numbers, posting two of his top three career performances in return points won in Winston-Salem, and another top-five mark at the U.S. Open.
All of which brings us back to his Slam prospects. As seen with Thiem, adding more margin doesn’t negate the weakness of Shapovalov’s lengthy shot production. Thus, despite being the aforementioned Wimbledon junior champion and having the reputation of a dangerous “slasher,” the lefty’s 3-9 career record on grass (1-3 at SW19) is not encouraging for carrying over that junior success.
As for clay, while Shapovalov is on an upward trend for patience and safety, he hasn’t yet shown great aptitude for shot production.
That leaves the two hardcourt Slams, where his penchant for heavy topspin (notice his placement on the chart above) and, most importantly, his gap in career results close to home make it a clear pick of the U.S. Open, where he has more victories than other majors combined (seven to five) and has yet to lose before the third round.
Andrey Rublev: Roland Garros
Key numbers: 65 and 40, the ATP ranks of top-10 players Medvedev and Karen Khachanov when they were the same age Andrey Rublev is right now.
Perhaps because Rublev was so young, 19, when he reached the quarterfinals at the 2017 U.S. Open, the expectations for the spindly blonde with the bazooka forehand have not fully aligned with his actual age.
Expectations for teenagers are justifiably not as lofty as they once were, but this is the kind of thing Rublev was doing early on, and somewhat under the radar:
Andrey Rublev is the first teen to win a match in five different ATP events in one year since some kid named Rafael Nadal in 2004.
— Josh Meiseles (@JMeis_) May 17, 2015
Now back in the picture on the heels of upsetting Federer in Cincinnati and again reaching the second week in Flushing Meadows, Rublev was out of sight, out of mind, for an extended period of time due to a back injury that has become more well-known alongside the actual results.
However, right before propelling himself back into the spotlight, Rublev was the subject of notable ESPN commentary during the Federer match. The network compared Rublev’s game to his compatriots. Though correctly identifying that his movement is the weakest, the caveat was not added by ESPN that Rublev is by far the youngest, and that it took Medvedev or Khachanov years longer to make the same dents on tour that Rublev made as a teenager.
Although Roland Garros is seen as the major for defensive players and Wimbledon as the major for stereotypical attacking players, sometimes those dynamics are flipped. For Rublev, among the counterintuitive examples to emulate here are attacking players such as Stan Wawrinka, Madison Keys and Karolina Pliskova, who instead of having their offense blunted on the dirt, instead are more successful at the French Open because they have more time to load up for their shots and can hit through any court, no matter how sloggy.
Given how he belongs to that same archetype, as well as the reality that the court speed in Flushing Meadows is in flux from year to year, Rublev’s path to glory would seem to be in following their footsteps in France.
NOTE: The author wishes to note that Tennis Abstract provided material for the bulk of the statistics mentioned in this article.