It's pretty obvious that tennis is starting to go through a transition. Don't get me wrong; the established stars still have a few years of dominance to go and at the moment there's no need to think any of the new jacks are able to shove them out of the way.
I've said several times that this era of the superstar player, the man or woman who moves beyond the narrow world of professional tennis is just about done. I feel that after 2016 we're going to see more subdued stars; men and women who are competent but not spectacular: who don't capture the imaginations of fans the way the giants of the last ten years or so have. It's not that they don't have personality it's that they don't have that "thing"that gets fans to flood practice courts, generate millions of followers on social media and scrums at their public appearances. There are some, mostly from countries without representation in the top ten or countries that are barely hanging on to ranked players in the top twenty are saying the new players should look to the likes of John McEnroe and liven up the court with gesticulations, cursing and other antics that to me are best left in the past. If you're asking for a WWE type player isn't that admitting that the tennis to come will be boring and won't be able to attract fans on its own?
If a player like that makes it to the top five in the world more power to him or her. Frankly I don't see it happening.
So what's a long standing tennis fan to do? Lament the passing of a Golden Age and withdraw into his or her cave? This fan actually did that for awhile in the late 80's into the 90's. It was when I took my daughter to her first US Open when she was about seven or eight that I got back into the sport.
Since I'm not going to hibernate I thought about picking two players, a male and a female, to track for the next couple of years to see how they tiptoe through the minefield of professional tennis. Who should that player be? What criteria should they have to meet?
My first criteria was age. I didn't want someone already in their twenties or who had already been picked as the next best thing. Temperamental brats were not considered.
But how young should I start to look? Francis Tiafoe of the United States is a promising junior with an outsize personality and a still maturing game. I'm starting to read more about Michael Mmoh, also of the United States but I've never seen him play and he confines himself to Junior's for now. There's Gianni Mina of France who played a nice game at Roland Garros a few years ago and hasn't been seen or heard of much since then. Borna Ćorić is also a player to watch. He stepped in it big time declaring himself the best of the up and comers just before the AO and hasn't shown much since that incident. He's reading and believing his own hype and that is dangerous.
Am I pointedly ignoring Australian men? Yes. Until they start disciplining their players and downplay the badass as champion meme they seem infatuated with at the moment there's no need to talk about them. A player who curses ballkids and fans alike is not the kind of player I can support.
And what about the young women? Much is being made of Belinda Bencic who has shown that she has a healthy sense of herself and what she should be doing. The skillset she needs is a work in progress.
Zarina Diyas and Ana Konjuh are also mentioned as stars of the future. We'll see. There's also Katie Swan of Great Britain who generated quite a bit of excitement in Melbourne. At 15 she's out of the base age I wanted. As every parent knows children change a lot between 15 and 19 and then from 19 to 21. It's a process that sees goals and personalities change. What a kid wants at 15 may not be what they want at 21.
I also decided that I wanted to focus on young players who were appearing regularly on the Main Tour and who had accomplished something worth paying attention to. Has a player made an unexpected showing in a major or on the Main Tour? Are they working their way up to the main tour(s) and showing respect not only for themselves but for the sport? Are they making measurable improvement in point construction and style of play? By this I mean not focusing on the majors but willing to play the smaller International's and 250's against established players who may not be superstars of the game but play well enough for a young player to hone his or her skills and game so that when they get to a major they're not still playing Junior level tennis. This is a major issue for young players. Some Federations want their players to focus on the majors to the exclusion of everything else. It'll be interesting to see if any real stars come from those raised under those systems.
So enough of the chit chat. Who am I going to be looking at?
The young male I decided on was Alexander Zverev of Germany. Here's his CV via Wiki.
Born 20 April 1997 (age 17)
Height 1.98 m (6 ft 6 in)
Turned pro 2014
Plays Right-handed (two-handed backhand)
Career record 4–6
Career titles 0
Highest ranking No. 135 (20 October 2014)
Current ranking No. 137 (10 November 2014)
I was looking at Ćorić but he's fallen into the limelight due to lack of a good PR team. His tennis has been, well not good recently either. So I decided on Zverev. In 2014 he won the Junior AO title and at the Sparkassen Open in Braunschweig defeated three top 100 players: Tobias Kamke in the first round, top seed Andrey Golubev in the semifinal, and Paul Henri Mathieu in the final. At the main tour level he's defeated Robin Haase, Mikhail Youzhny and Santiago Giraldo. I saw him play at Stuttgart and again the following week where he got into the MD via a Wild Card. Just today (February 9) he lost in the first round to Roberto Bautista Agut 4 & 1 at Rotterdam. The German's seem to be rushing him and he's being given WC's into the MD's of prominent tournaments, something that may not be a good thing for him at this time. I've seen him play. When he's relaxed and there are no expectations he's got a very nice, fairly mature game. But he's still 17 and when pressured he plays like a 17 year old. Giving him these wild cards may serve to destroy his confidence instead of building it.
I'll be checking in on him from time to time during 2015 to see how he's doing.
photo via Mal Fairclough AFP Getty
Why Madison Keys? As you know I've been a fan of hers for a couple of years now. Of all the young Americans I've always felt that she has the most potential because she has the talent and drive, and was obviously beyond what the folks at USTA Player Development could do for her. By chosing to be coached by Jon and Lindsay Davenport Leach she's made a choice that will work for her. They are from the same class, are compatible astologically, and seem to have bonded very well. Lindsay is not a USTA sycophant and will be the person Keys needs to transition from a juvenile approach to the game - all shots and no strategy - to a game that will make her a competitor on the world stage that is professional tennis. She has a title to defend in the spring and it's going to be interesting to see how she approaches that. I did try to look up her schedule up to Roland Garros but as yet she doesn't have a Facebook page and I wasn't able to find anything. I'm sure she'll play at both Indian Wells and Miami. I wonder if she'll go to Europe for that clay court swing?
Here's a bit of her CV, also via Wiki.
Born February 17, 1995 (age 19)
Rock Island, Illinois
Height 1.78 m (5 ft 10 in)
Turned pro April 17, 2009
Plays Right handed (two-handed backhand)
Coach(es) Lindsay Davenport
Career record 128-80
Career titles 1 WTA, 3 ITF
Highest ranking No. 20 (February 2, 2015)
Current ranking No. 20 (February 2, 2015)
It's going to be an interesting year for both of these young players especially if they're allowed to progress slowly and steadily without a lot of hype and pressure. I'll give a progress report when appropriate, hopefully after the US Hardcourt Swing.