Saturday, September 30, 2017

Three Who Need a Big End to the Season on the ATP World Tour

Jack Sock: Sock started off the year better than he could have hoped, but since the clay season started his results have been worse than anyone could have predicted. He lost in the first round at the US Open, Cincinnati, and French Open, and second round in Montreal and Wimbledon. This was supposed be the year Sock took a big step forward, as he’s well-adjusted to life on tour and he seemed to be coming into his own. Instead, he’s taken a surprising step back, and is about to get passed by the younger generation of Americans if he doesn’t turn it around soon. It’s possible the rest of the tour has simply figured out how to play Sock and take full advantage of his backhand, which he has to go to great lengths to avoid being exposed. But despite all his struggles, the talent and athleticism remain. Sock is more than capable of posting some good results anytime he sets foot on a quick hard court, and he needs them about as much as anyone on tour.

Dominic Thiem: Thiem may have cemented himself as a fixture in the top ten, but it’s time he make some noise on surfaces other than clay. He’s got an explosive game that can translate well to all surfaces, but it’s well known that he likes the extra time clay gives him for his long strokes to develop. If he can have a few big results on the quicker surfaces common during the Asia and European swing this fall, his confidence should be high heading into next year. His loss to Del Potro in the US Open after having a two-set lead and match points was as devastating as it gets, and a strong fall season would help Thiem put it behind him. His fall didn’t start out well, losing to Guido Pella in the second round of a 250 in Chengdu, China. But if there’s one thing we know about Thiem it’s that he’ll enter more tournaments than anyone else on tour, meaning another opportunity is rarely more than a week away.

Grigor Dimitrov: Dimitrov is the master at disappointing when faced with big expectations, but stepping up just when you’re ready to give up on him for good. After his strong start to the year, including his run to the semifinals in Australia, it looked like Dimitrov was ready to play with the best of them in 2017. Then, just as we thought he’d realize his vast potential, Dimitrov hit a long stretch in the season where he could barely win a match. But before we could give up on him again, he goes and wins his first career Masters title in Cincinnati. In classic Dimitrov form, he followed that up by losing to Andrey Rublev in straight sets in the second round of the US Open. He's currently sixth in the race to London, and looks likely to make it (in large part to several others being injured or having shut it down for the year). If he can get back to his Australian Open and Cincinnati form this fall, Dimitrov can move past his US Open disappointment and become a threat to do some damage at the ATP World Tour finals.

Sunday, September 10, 2017

As the Inaugural Laver Cup Approaches, The World is Catching Up to Europe Fast

It’s no secret that Europeans have dominated men’s tennis for well over a decade now. Nearly every big tournament since 2003 has been won by a member of the all European “Big Five”, which means few big titles have been left for the rest of the world. While the inaugural Laver Cup, a competition pitting Europe versus the rest of the world, may have been a massive mismatch had it started ten years ago, it appears that it will be a much more even matchup going forward than many may have thought.

When Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka fade out over the next few years, much of the emerging talent in men’s tennis looks to be coming from outside of Europe. The US and Canada alone have loads of young talent who should be able to compete with Europe’s best. Canada can offer new sensation Denis Shapovalov, who has shot up the rankings faster than anyone expected. The scary thing is he may not even be Canada’s best young prospect. Felix Auger-Aliassime, now 17, just won another Challenger title and is moving into the top 200 in the world. Auger-Aliassime is considered by many to be one of the best prospects to come around in years, and with Shapovalov will make sure Canadian men’s tennis builds on Raonic’s success for over a decade.

The U.S. has several good prospects of their own, as Frances Tiafoe, Jared Donaldson, Taylor Fritz, Ernesto Escobedo, Tommy Paul and others have been making solid progress. None have risen quite as quickly as Shapovalov this summer, but there’s still a lot to like amongst this group. And if he can stay healthy and motivated, Australia’s Nick Kyrgios could very well be the “world’s” best player for the next five years.

Even as the “Big Five” eventually stops being dominant, Europe should have plenty of new talent of their own. Alexander Zverev is already one of the best players in the world and should only keep getting better. Dominic Thiem is becoming a fixture in the top ten, and young Russians Karen Khachanov, Andrey Rublev and Daniil Medvedev have all made good strides this year. Borna Coric is still just 20, and after beating Zverev at the US Open, may be ready to make a run at the top 20.

There’s too much young talent starting to emerge for anyone to know for sure who will dominate in the years to come, but it’s hard to imagine the “world” not putting up a better fight against Europe over the next decade. Fortunately for the Laver Cup, it may have come into existence at just the right time.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Is Kevin Anderson’s Apperance in the US Open Finals a Fluke or a Sign of Things to Come?

With Djokovic, Murray, Wawrinka, Nishikori and Raonic all missing the US Open with injuries, and Nadal and Federer in the same half, it’s not surprising that there’s only one superstar playing in the US Open men’s final. Kevin Anderson managed to take advantage of an open draw and blast his way into the finals, but the real question is if we’re headed for an era of the Kevin Anderson’s of the world making more major finals, continued Big-Four/Five dominance, or the “next gen” finally stepping up where it counts.

Even if Djokovic, Murray and Wawrinka come back strong in 2018 and Federer continues to play at a high level, it’s looking more and more likely that they won’t maintain a stranglehold on grand slam finals spots going forward. Counting them out is rarely wise, and they may all win more majors. But with more early losses likely to happen as they enter or proceed through their thirties, more opportunities should arise for the rest of the tour.

The governing bodies of men’s tennis surely hope it’s the “next gen” who steps up and fills the void, but it seems just as likely we could be headed for a few years of less marketable middle-upper aged veterans like Kevin Anderson, Sam Querrey, Pablo Carreno-Busta, David Goffin and others going deep into the big events. This may not be good for tv ratings, but it’s something fans and the tour itself should prepare for before the next gen is truly ready to push everyone else out.

Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios, Dominic Thiem and others have all made good progress in the last couple of years, but with only two grand slam semifinals between them in their careers (Thiem at the French) it might be too soon to pencil them into multiple grand slam finals in 2018. And while the “generation” below them may be every bit as good down the road (i.e. Shapavalov, Auger-Alliassime, Tiafoe, Rublev amongst other talented teenagers), don’t expect them to consistently go deep at majors for 3-4 more years.

Many tennis fans may not be happy, but there very well may be more “Kevin Andersons” popping up in grand slam finals over the next couple of years. While it will certainly take some getting used to, after being spoiled for so long with only legends fighting for grand slam titles, it might even start to feel a bit refreshing to have the occasional mere mortal to root for.