On a Sunday night taping — then released Monday morning — I appeared on the fabulously fun Mini Break Podcast with host Alex Gruskin of Cracked Racquets. Alex and I discussed Alexander Zverev and the rest of the ATP NextGen cohort.
First things first: This generation is poised to do a lot better than the cohort Andrew Burton refers to as Generation Grigor. The NextGen has some overlap between players born from 1994 through 1998 (Generation Nick, in Andrew’s framework) and players born from 1999 through 2003 (Generation Felix). In the fullness of time, these NextGen notables should lift the biggest trophies in tennis, something the Generation Grigor group has missed out on. (Not ONE Generation Grigor player has won a major. Marin Cilic and Juan Martin del Potro, born in 1988, belong to Generation Rafa, one year past the boundary of Generation Grigor.)
In time, the NextGen will do really well.
That point is settled.
However: not yet. This group of young tennis players is not yet ready for prime time. Monday showed as much, with Alexander Zverev and Stefanos Tsitsipas being excused from the All England Club.
Let’s establish something very simple here: If we were to imagine a context in which the NextGen — or any group of tennis players (especially younger ones) — was on the verge of making a legitimate breakthrough at the majors, what would that context look like?
What I mentioned on the Mini Break Podcast — and will reaffirm here — is not particularly complicated.
What was so encouraging about Alexander Zverev at Roland Garros is that he played Novak Djokovic in the quarterfinals. He lost in straight sets, but FINALLY, he played a Big 3 opponent in a major quarterfinal. He had not done that before in his career.
Young or old, tennis players need to have the experience of carrying their bodies and minds through a week and a half of 5-set tennis before learning how to handle it. Novak Djokovic knew how to handle his extremely long Wimbledon semifinal last year against Rafael Nadal. Kevin Anderson did not know how to handle his even longer semifinal against John Isner. Yes, Anderson played a longer match, but Djokovic had to play for roughly two hours on Saturday, so he had a shorter turnaround. Anderson also played the first semifinal, Djokovic the second one. It is true that Anderson’s match was uninterrupted, while Djokovic’s match was stretched over two days. Yet, if you watched the final, it was plain that Djokovic knew how to manage his body at the end stage of a major. Anderson — not through any fault of his — did not.
This was not a failure of professionalism by Kando. It was merely a reality that Djokovic had been through this kind of grind in the past. Kando had not. (Anderson’s 2017 U.S. Open run wasn’t overly taxing. He sailed through most rounds and had a very favorable draw.)
So it also is for nearly any other player. With very few exceptions — chiefly the quick studies, Nadal in today’s age and John McEnroe and Bjorn Borg from the past, also Boris Becker in the 1980s — players need to go through multiple experiences of losing to elite opponents in big moments before they learn how to get it right.
On the Mini Break Podcast, I cited the example of Juan Martin del Potro in 2009.
He beat Roger Federer in the 2009 U.S. Open final… after losing to Federer at the Australian Open in a blowout, and then at Roland Garros in a five-setter. Would Delpo have beaten Federer if he hadn’t faced the Swiss in Melbourne and Paris first?
Maybe… but I doubt it.
Collecting experiences — experiences of losing and learning — enabled Delpo to build more of a knowledge base and then win.
So, as we shift back to the NextGen, what will an ascendancy look like? It won’t start with major titles. It will start with a steady stream of quarterfinals and semifinals at the majors. Those will be losses to the Big 3 at first, but the importance is getting a regular stream of big-stage experiences at the majors. After absorbing some lessons, the NextGen will be ready to take the next step.
Right now, the NextGen is far away from that standard.
When this generation of players is ready to gain power in men’s tennis, believe me: You will know.
Right now, it is clear that a power transfer is nowhere in sight — not in the next 12 months, at least.
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