By Anand Mamidipudi — @0thlaw on Twitter
In 2009, a young American blonde, not even old enough to vote at 17, took the tennis world by storm by upsetting Maria Sharapova on her way to the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. Melanie Oudin was an overnight sensation who was hailed as the next big thing in tennis. Then, just like that, she was stuck at base camp and buried in an avalanche.
Oudin’s story is not unique. There are many other examples of “next best things” who failed to deliver on the early promise and hype. Remember Nicole Vaidisova, Jelena Dokic, Donald Young, Joachim Johansson, Eugenie Bouchard, and Jan-Michael Gambill? Each one of them flattered to deceive after displaying flashes of talent that pegged them as future world-beaters.
Today we look at Amanda Anisimova, Aryna Sabalenka, Denis Shapovalov, and Alex de Minaur, and dream up magnificent futures for them, filled with coronations and GOAT conversations. We compare them to past and present legends, given them fancy nicknames (like “Demon”), and like most foolhardy investors in penny stocks, we will eventually find out that we were mostly wrong, even if a select few will truly scale the Mount Everest of the sport.
The question then is, how do we know who really is the next big thing? What are the objective criteria that will allow us to confidently proclaim that a certain player will be a future champion? I propose attributes, at least four of which a young player must possess to deserve the “Next Big Thing” moniker:
- Must win a junior Grand Slam or two.
- Defeat a top-five player in a Grand Slam event or a Masters/Premier Mandatory/5 tournament. In men’s tennis today, this would mean a win against the Big 4.
- Show great consistency of results early in a career, winning tough matches where they may not be at their best.
- Must almost always win matches against players they are supposed to beat.
- Have at least one power shot on which they can hang their hats.
- Demonstrate exceptional ball sense and feel (this is so underrated, but it is what separates the Djokovices from the Cilices).
- Show that they are comfortable on more than one surface.
Now take a look at the list above and see if your pick for the “Next Big Thing” satisfies at least four of the mentioned criteria. Some players who make the cut include Elina Svitolina, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Anisimova, Borna Coric, and Shapovalov. Potential flashes in the pan, who don’t meet four of the above criteria, include Nick Kyrgios, CiCi Bellis, Karen Khachanov, Caroline Garcia, Taylor Fritz, Sabalenka, Hyeon Chung, and Daria Kasatkina. I know you’re looking at the names in the latter bucket and thinking that I’m writing a premature epitaph on some otherworldly talents. The criteria may also fail to work at times (see Grigor Dimitrov, who meets five of the criteria, and so we still hope!).
That is the entire point of the exercise — moving away from the subjective experience, which can be unreliable, to a more objective view of the true indicators of success. If you don’t believe me, try applying my framework to some of your favorite young players and see what it tells you!