Somewhere in a parallel world, this year’s Wimbledon final will feature the lefty wizard Donald Young and the uber-talented Grigor Dimitrov. They would have both come through tough semifinals against young Noah Rubin and canny, old onetime champion Todd Reid. Our men’s finalists are no surprise to many, but the other two semifinalists definitely kicked up a storm in this tournament by beating two perennial favorites – Filip Peliwo and Luke Saville.
I would forgive you if you thought that some of these names were Marvel characters and not Wimbledon junior champs.
A cursory glance at the list of junior Wimbledon winners reveals that among the champions of the past 20 years, only one player has progressed to a Grand Slam final on the regular tour — Roger Federer. His facsimile, Dimitrov, is the only other player among this group to even reach a solitary Wimbledon semifinal. Slim pickings. Clearly there is not much to foretell by looking at junior results. On the contrary, there is reasonable statistical evidence that winning the juniors will get you nowhere on the senior tour!
Some of this strange lack of predictability in the past two decades has to do with the gluttony of the Big Four (preceded by Pete Sampras) – they have created a cartel that dominates the Grand Slams, leaving table scraps for the remaining field. Federer alone has featured in 11 of the last 14 Wimbledon finals, leaving little room for any young upstart to make a mark. However, this does not solve the inexplicable lack of success of the last 20 — TWENTY! — junior champions.
Consider the case of the 2013 boys’ winner, Gianluigi Quinzi. During that year, Quinzi was ranked No. 1 in the juniors and beat Hyeon Chung in the finals. Armed with a wicked lefty serve and exquisite volleying skills, he had already made a mark in the previous year as a precocious 16-year-old, losing to the eventual champion, Luke Saville. Winning Wimbledon only served to confirm his undeniable promise.
Then Quinzi’s fledgling career went into a tailspin. Many players who show early promise at the junior level fail to kick on to greater feats, exhibiting common symptoms such as recurring injuries, stunted physical growth, and an inability to handle the weight of expectations. Quinzi, whose ranking peaked at 226, simply could not scale the razor-thin margins that separate the boys from the men.
There must also be a psychological angle to winning consistently at one level and not finding the same degree of success at the next level. How many of us have sailed through many levels of a video game and suddenly experienced a steep change that defeats our resolve and confidence? The plateau we hit becomes a self-defeating prophecy. Quinzi is only 22 and may yet experience a career resurgence, but history is not on his side.
Perhaps the most stunning fact about Wimbledon junior champions is that before Federer, the last boys’ winner to get past the quarterfinals of the men’s tournament was Stefan Edberg (winner of the boys’ singles in 1983 and subsequently the junior Grand Slam)! In other words, win junior Wimbledon and you are doomed to fail at the senior level (unless you are marked for all-time greatness beyond measurement). If you run down the list of the past 20-odd years, you will find many also-rans such as Wesley Whitehouse, Roman Valent, and Florin Mergea, to name a few.
So where does this leave our most recent winners – Reilly Opelka, Denis Shapovalov and Alejandro Fokina? Opelka has tremendous upside at Wimbledon, as his game grows into his imposing 6-foot-11 frame. In order to avoid the John Isner trap of playing Iliadian five-set epics that essentially become crapshoots, Opelka will need to hone his return game and find a way to be unbreakable on serve. Already Opelka shows quicker footwork and stronger court sense than young Isner. Given his physical attributes, Opelka has time on his side but is unlikely to become a Slam threat.
Last year’s winner, Fokina, won the title without dropping a set. In doing so, he displayed easy power off both flanks, sensational touch at the net, and oodles of personality. He’s a keeper. Shapovalov is the transcendent talent who is expected to hold the torch for the Next Gen, along with Sascha Zverev, Borna Coric, and Felix Auger-Alliasime. His flashy game possesses the heady mix of attributes and the necessary je na sais quoi that propelled Roger and Rafa to the pinnacle of this sport. Shapovalov’s game has many holes, but at 19, he knows greatness is within reach. Fokina and Opelka lost in the qualifiers this year and Shapovalov had lost two straight on grass, which portends a tough climb ahead.
Every now and then, the parallel world meets our real world, as it happened with Edberg and Federer. In that world, boys at Wimbledon seamlessly transition into world-conquering men, scale new peaks, change the fabric of the sport, and redefine greatness. Shapovalov and Fokina only need to find that wormhole which bridges the gap between the two worlds. To badly misquote Carl Sagan, “Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to happen at Wimbledon.”