Saturday, February 27, 2016

Is There a New "Big Four" Brewing on the ATP Tour?

Within the last few years there has been an influx of young talent on the ATP Tour, but no one seemed truly ready to challenge the game's best.  The likes of Kyrgios, Kokkinakis, Zverev, Coric, Thiem, Tomic and others all posted some good results, but many tennis fans wanted more than they were giving.  It finally appears that fans who have been hoping to see some fresh faces at the top may be getting their wish before long.  Since the Australian Open several young players have made serious strides, and they appear closer to reaching the games elite.

20 year old Nick Kyrgios has made waves based on winning a 250 level title in Marseille (which included several quality wins), and following it up with a run to the Dubai semifinals before retiring against Wawrinka.  22 year old Dominic Thiem has been on a tear of late as well.  He won a 250 on clay while beating Nadal along the way, reached a semis the next week which included a win over Ferrer, and is currently in the finals of the 500 level tournament in Acapulco.  Thiem is clearly headed toward the top 10, and will enter the top 5 in the points race for the year after this week.

18 year old Alexander Zverev has been in good form as well, and has cracked the top 60 in the world.  Another 18 year old, American Taylor Fritz, has been rolling in 2016.  He fell to Sam Querrey in the quarters of Acapulco after coming through qualifying, and earlier made the finals of the 250 level tournament in Memphis.  Fritz's goal for the year was reportedly to crack the top 100, but has already done so just a couple months into the year.  His should now have his sights set on a spot in the top 40 by the end of 2016.

While there's a handful of other talented young players, Kyrgios, Thiem, Zverev and Fritz all seem to have grand slam champion level talent.  Someone will have to win slams after the "Big Four" move on in a few years, and these guys seem to be as likely of bets as anyone.  Kyrgios, Zverev and Fritz all have natural "point ending" power that lends itself to grand slam titles, and Thiem should be a dark horse threat at the French Open as early as this year. The slightly older Kyrgios and Thiem already seem to be on their way to passing the "second tier" top ten guys, i.e. Ferrer, Berdych, Gasquet, Nishikori, etc, and at this rate Zverev and Fritz may just be a couple of years behind.

Lots of things can change over the next few years, but if the last month is any indication this group of young stars isn't going to waste much time in making their moves.  It may be a bit early to start calling them the next Big Four, but their future and the future of the ATP Tour appears to be extremely bright.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Thoughts on the Return of Juan Martin Del Potro

Juan Martin Del Potro made his long awaited return to the ATP Tour this week in Delray Beach, where he ultimately fell to Sam Querrey in the semifinals.  The big question was not how he would do, but rather how would he look after having missed so much time due to surgeries on his left wrist.  The initial reaction is that he looked pretty good all things considered, but there are still plenty of questions about his future after seeing him struggle to hit two-handed backhands.

It's hard to say at this point whether Del Potro was simply holding back on the two-hander because he's not mentally ready to let it go full speed, or if it's still bothering him in some capacity.  He sliced a good percentage of backhands, and when he used the two-hander he seemed afraid to truly accelerate through the stroke.  He also ran around as many backhands as possible, though with his forehand it's hard to blame him for that strategy.

If Del Potro continues to improve and gain confidence in his backhand he looks good enough to make a return to the top ten.  But while he can hide his current backhand against lower ranked players, the best of the best will expose that side.  Simply put, unless his backhand improves significantly it's hard to see him challenging the very best in the world for grand slam titles.  There's no reason to believe it won't keep getting better (unless for some reason he can't bend his wrist like he used to or has pain when he snaps through the shot), but at this point it's clearly not where it needs to be.

Del Potro's return to the tour comes at a great time, as men's tennis needs some "new" names who can potentially challenge Djokovic, Murray and Federer.  He's a fan favorite, plays an exciting game (at least when he's unloading on forehands), and has the talent to beat anyone when he's on.  Let's just hope his backhand returns to form, so that we can get the full Del Potro experience we've been missing for the last few years.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Reflections from Rotterdam, Memphis and Buenos Aires

It was an action packed week of tennis on the ATP Tour, with Martin Klizan, Kei Nishikori and Dominic Thiem all winning titles.  Here are some thoughts following the week that was.

Fritz is progressing faster than expected:  18 year old American Taylor Fritz has been a highly regarded prospect for some time now, but few expected him to adjust to life on the ATP Tour so quickly.  Fritz had already won a Challenger title (to go with his two from the end of last year) and qualified for the Australian Open in 2016, but this week's run to the finals in Memphis lifted Fritz to a whole new level.  He became the youngest American ATP finalist in decades, and is nearing a spot in the top 100.  Like Zverev, Kokkinakis and Coric, Fritz simply isn't wasting any time in his climb up the rankings.  At this rate, Fritz could be headed toward a spot in the top 50 by the end of 2016.  He's still got some things in his game to improve, notably movement and fitness, but Fritz is already the best prospect American men's tennis has had in over a decade. 

Thiem looks ready to make a run toward the top 10:  Thiem won multiple 250 level tournaments on clay last year, so it shouldn't be surprising that he captured another one early on in 2016.  But given that he had to beat Nadal to win his title in Buenos Aires, this one feels a little more meaningful.  Everyone understands Nadal isn't what he used to be, but beating him on clay still counts for something.  Getting that win over Nadal should do wonders for Thiem's confidence, and he may finally believe he can beat guys in the top ten at bigger tournaments.  The key for Thiem heading into 2016 was whether he could translate his success at 250s to 500s, Masters and Grand Slams.  Even though this was just a 250 and doesn't technically answer that question, it's another positive sign in Thiem's development.  At 22 years old Thiem is clearly one of the ATP Tour's brightest young stars, and a spot in the top ten doesn't seem very far away.

Fortunes can change quickly on the ATP Tour:  From the end of 2015 to the beginning of 2016  Martin Klizan lost 6 straight matches.  He began to turn things around at the beginning of February by making the semifinals of a 250 in Bulgaria, and then captured the biggest title of his career this week by winning the 500 level event in Rotterdam.  On his way to the title he fought off 5 match points against Roberto Bautista-Agut in the quarters, and then three against Nicolas Mahut in the semis.  The win should send Klizan from outside the top 40 to around 25 in the world.  Klizan is a talented lefty with a big forehand, and seems to have the ability to rise higher.  He hasn't fully put it all together at this point in his career, but at 26 still has plenty of time.  It will be interesting to see whether Klizan can build on his Rotterdam title, or if this was simply one of those weeks where everything happened to fall his way. 

Zverev looks like a future top 10 player- at worst:  18 year old Alexander Zverev got knocked out of Rotterdam by Gael Monfils in the quarters, but not before he took out third seeded Gilles Simon 7-6 in the third the round before that.  The week before he made the semis of a 250 level event, and the young German seems ready to rocket up the rankings in 2016.  He has a booming serve at 6'6'', and simply crushes the ball off both wings.  While some guys his height see their movement suffer, Zverev flies around the court and plays extremely effective defense as well.  He does need to get in better shape and improve his consistency, but Zverev seems well on his way to becoming a great player on the ATP Tour.  Whether that means winning grand slams or "merely" settling into a spot in the top 10 remains to be seen, but Zverev is looking more and more like a can't miss future star.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

What to Expect at the Memphis Open

In the last several years many lower level ATP tournaments have left the United States, but the Memphis Open is holding strong.  This year's field is solid if not spectacular, and should definitely capture the interest of fans of American men's tennis.  Though Kei Nishikori is the top seed and three-time defending champion, about a third of the field is made up of American players. 

It's hard to see anyone seriously challenging Nishikori in the top half.  He'll open with the winner of Frances Tiafoe and Ryan Harrison, which based on recent form looks like it will be Tiafoe.  While Tiafoe has a very bright future, if he does advance to play Nishikori it likely won't be much more than a good learning experience.  Nishikori could then play 5th seeded American Denis Kudla in the quarters, before running into 4th seeded Sam Querrey or 6th seeded Sam Groth in the semis.  If Nishikori even drops a set on the way to the finals it will be a bit of a surprise.

The bottom half should be the more entertaining of the two halves.  Donald Young has gotten off to a slow start to begin the year, but the 3rd seed should be able to build some momentum by reaching the semis.  This is a key year in Young's career, as at age 26 he should be entering his prime.  If he can't capitalize on draws like this, it's hard to see him being much more than a borderline top 50 player the rest of the year.

The bottom section of the bottom half is packed with Americans, including Austin Krajicek, Steven Johnson and teenage prospects Taylor Fritz and Tommy Paul.  Paul should have a shot to take out 34 year old Benjamin Becker in his opening match, and would have a decent chance against Australian John Millman or Krajicek in the second round.  Fritz opens against a qualifier, and then would face Johnson in round two.  Fritz may be on his way to becoming America's top player, but at this point in their careers Johnson's experience should allow him to prevail.  Johnson has struggled to begin 2016, but it's still hard to see him not advancing out of this section.  In the semis, look for Johnson to get past Young in a tight three set match.  He owns a 2-1 career record against Young, and playing indoors should help Johnson dominate with his big serve and forehand.

In the finals Nishikori should be able to get past Johnson in straight sets.  He owns a 3-0 career record against the American, and is a much more complete player.  Johnson will have to serve great and try to keep points short, but it's hard to see him pulling off the upset.  Nishikori should be able to expose Johnson's weak backhand, and take advantage of the open court when Johnson tries to cheat over to protect it.  Nishikori's focus for the year should be on improving his results in grand slams and Masters tournaments, but winning another 250 should get him in the right state of mind as he prepares to challenge for bigger titles.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

More Aussie Open Lessons

Milos Raonic is officially back:  Raonic made his move into the top ten a couple of years ago, and appeared to be ready to rise even higher.  A foot injury in early 2015 ruined his momentum, and he never really got back on track the rest of the year.  He fell outside the top 10, and it looked like his career was suddenly heading in the wrong direction.  Now it appears his decline in 2015 was just a minor blip, and that he's serious about making a run toward the top 5.  Raonic was impressive on his way to the Australian Open semis, and who knows what would have happened if he didn't hurt his leg during his 5 set loss to Murray.  Raonic may not be the smoothest player around and has limited movement, but he's got serious weapons and seems committed to improving his all-around game.  If he can stay healthy, don't be surprised if Raonic finishes 2016 around 5 in the world.

Ferrer isn't ready to go down quietly:  Every year it seems like Ferrer is going to take a step back.  His game is largely based on his incredible endurance, speed and footwork, and that gets harder and harder to sustain as a player gets into his thirties.  Ferrer was struggling heading into Australia, with losses in tune ups to Sock and Marchenko.  However, he was impressive in taking down Americans Steve Johnson and John Isner, before putting up a good fight against Murray in the quarters.  Ferrer's ranking will probably fall off a bit in 2016, but it looks like he's going to continue to give it everything he's got in the coming year.

There's not much separating the winners from the losers: Angelique Kerber had the tournament of her life.  She beat pre-tournament favorites Victoria Azarenka and Serena Williams, won her first grand slam title and rose to number 2 in the world.  Not a bad couple of weeks for the German.  But it could have been a completely different story for Kerber if a net cord or shank went against her when she was down match point to Misaki Doi of Japan in her first round match.  While the announcers did give this some attention during the finals, it really is remarkable.  She was one point away from being a first round loser, having to face continued questions about her record in majors, etc, and then she goes out and wins the whole tournament.  Regardless of where Kerber goes from here, she'll always have the label tennis pros want more than anything next to their name: grand slam champion.

American men weren't ready to take the next step:  American men were confident heading into Australia, but left without much to show for it.  Isner and Johnson were mowed down by Ferrer, and neither put up much of a fight.  Meanwhile, Sock lost to Lukas Rosol in the second round.  Sock was sick heading into the tournament, but has to make some changes if he truly wants to become a top singles player who can challenge for grand slam titles.  In hindsight, maybe Sock shouldn't have played a tournament the week before the Australian Open.  (He probably should have played Brisbane and gotten some real matches under his belt two weeks in advance as opposed to the Hopman Cup exhibition).  His decision to continue to play doubles in grand slams also has to be questioned, as for the second straight grand slam he lost a match in which fatigue and/or illness was an issue.  His future is still extremely bright, but he may have to make some hard decisions going forward if he wants to improve his results in the biggest events.

Some Aussie Open Lessons

Djokovic's separation from the field is only growing:  Heading into the Australian Open it was clear that Djokovic was the heavy favorite.  He won 3 of the 4 grand slams in 2015, captured every big tournament at the end of the year, and routed Nadal in a tune up event to start off 2016.  Looking back on the event, it's possible we underestimated just how far ahead of the field Djokovic is right now.  Federer and Murray were simply outclassed by the world number one, and it's hard to imagine either beating him in a grand slam any time soon.  Nadal no longer seems like a threat to Djokovic either, and it's unlikely Wawrinka will continue to be much of a threat as he gets older.  While there are talented young players on the way up, it's hard to find anyone from the 18-25 crop who will be able to challenge Djokovic during the remainder of his prime (i.e. the next 2-3 years).  It's true things can change quickly in tennis, particularly for superstars that are reaching the end of their twenties.  But after watching Djokovic's dominance in Australia, it's hard not to see him racking up a handful of grand slam titles over next couple of years.

Serena is the best in the world by a mile- except when she isn't:  No one denies that Serena is the best female tennis player in the world, and by a good margin too.  But her performance against Angelique Kerber in the Australian Open finals was simply puzzling.  It was the second straight grand slam she suffered a shocking defeat, but more surprising than the loss itself was how poorly she played.  It appeared nerves were a big factor, but Serena missed countless easy shots that a player of her caliber has no business missing.  To Kerber's credit she played a smart match and made Serena hit lots of extra shots, but if Serena was playing anywhere close to her best level she wins it in straights.  As Federer can attest winning grand slams doesn't get any easy when you're 34 years old, and it will be interesting to see how Serena responds at the majors the rest of the year.

Nadal has to stop letting his opponents enter the zone:  Nadal has to be wondering what it is about his game that is letting lesser players enter the zone against him.  For the second straight grand slam he was knocked out early by a talented player who caught fire during the match.  Just as Fognini's incredible shot making ended Nadal's run at the US Open, he fell victim to the talented Verdasco in Australia.  Not to take anything away from Fognini or Verdasco, but when enough players keep finding the zone against Nadal, it's looking more like it's Nadal who is doing something to allow this to happen.  His forehand has clearly let him down over the last year or two, and his lack of confidence appears to be leading him to leave more forehands short in the box where opponents can tee off.  Nadal may not be in full on crisis mode (he is still top 5 in the world after all), but it's looking like he may be stuck on 14 grand slam titles for the foreseeable future.

The "next generation" on the men's side is nowhere near ready:  As referenced above, there are lots of talented tennis players in the men's game in the under 25 age group.  That being said, they are still completely irrelevant when it comes to challenging for major titles.  The emerging teens of Coric, Chung and Zverev didn't make it past round one, though Chung and Zverev did draw Djokovic and Murray, respectively.  Dominic Thiem lost a winnable match to Goffin in the third round, Tomic fell to Murray in straights in the fourth round, and a perhaps still sick Sock had a disappointing loss to Rosol in round two.  Dimitrov seems to be improved from his awful 2015, but failed to challenge Federer at all in sets three and four when it looked like he was going to make it a match.  The always hyped Nick Kyrgios sounded confident heading in, but fell to Berdych in a relatively routine third round match.  Some of these younger players will likely turn into superstars down the road (perhaps when Djokovic, Federer and Murray stop being dominant in 2027), but it's clear they all have a long ways to go.