Prior to the 2014 ATP season, there were questions floating about in regards to when the next generation of ATP talent would arrive, players who were talented, and charismatic enough to challenge the current “big 4” players (Djokovic, Federer, Nadal, and Murray), and create their own memorable moments, matches, and rivalries. The so-called “ATP lost boys” have certainly tried their best, and are improving, but it’s safe to say names like Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov are increasingly unlikely to accomplish anything close to what the big 4 did in their careers, as they are still by and large dominant at the top of the game.
That said, the next generation of young guns, who long term do have the talent, and charisma needed to create a shake up at the top and lead to a passing of the torch has arrived, as we saw them rising up in 2014, and now in 2015, a host of them have had solid results, ranging from almost household names at this point like Nick Kyrgios, to players further down the ladder but rising up from the Challenger tour ranks such as Francis Tiafoe. At the French Open, a host of talented young players dot the main draw, and they deserve some of the spotlight as we lead up to the first ball of the tournament, because they could well cause some shocks. For a look at young guns who qualified for the main draw click here.
Locked and Loaded: Young Guns at the 2015 French Open
Thiem is the young gun who should be able to reach the second week, or at least has the best chance of doing so if he can play well based upon draw. The 21 year old is a top 40 player and he is at his best on clay, as this week in Nice he is into his second ATP final on the surface, the other coming in Kitzbuhel last year, a home event for him. He has scored wins over top players Stan Wawrinka, Gilles Simon, John Isner, and Fabio Fognini on clay, and also has a wins over Jack Sock, and Feliciano Lopez this year. He wasn’t fit coming in to the 2015 season, and thus struggled at the start but his results have been picking up, as Nice demonstrates, and that’s a positive sign going into the French, if fatigue doesn’t weigh his chances down too heavily.
Thiem has the typical defensively sound clay court game and I’d expect him to beat most likely Pablo Cuevas to reach the round of 16, where fan favorite Gael Monfils looms. You never know with Le Monf, but if Thiem can upset him, he should get a match with Roger Federer in the quarterfinals. Thiem isn’t as flashy and charismatic as some of the other young guns, but he’s a very humble and grounded player, who is technically sound enough to challenge just about any opponent.
19 year old Australian Thanasi Kokkinakis hasn’t had as flashy of a start to his career as his counterpart Nick Kyrgios, but he’s still done an excellent job cementing himself as a player who is a threat to the top players, and could see himself in the top 20 in due course. A lanky hitter who has had to grow into his strokes, but is technically sound in most facets of the game, he first made a name for himself when he played Novak Djokovic in the 2013 Hopman Cup, then as a 16 year old, when he served as a fill-in after one of the expected participants was injured. Though that was just an exhibition, it was clear from just that match that Kokkinakis had tremendous promise, and over the past two years he’s proven that to be the case. He’s up to 8 career ATP level main draw wins including a 5 set win over Ernests Gulbis, where he turned the momentum of the match on its head, at the Australian Open, and a gutsy run to the round of 16 in Indian Wells. Kokkinakis plays without fear, and this will be his French Open debut after failing to qualify last year.
The fact this is clay should be his main impediment to going far, given he’s an Aussie, his game is best suited for hard courts, and he’s had to learn proper clay court tennis, he has pop, and solid groundies and he’s clearly gotten better, but the hard court slams are going to likely be where he posts his best results. That said, he just won a clay challenger in France, and he’s been perfect in ATP qualifying this year, including qualifying for a pair of events on clay. He has a great chance to win his opening contest as an unseeded player against qualifier Nikoloz Basilashvili and then he is likely to face the next young gun on my list, Bernard Tomic, his countryman
Bernie has been someone forgotten even though he is still just 22 years old. After breaking through to the Wimbledon quarterfinals in 2011, and also winning his maiden ATP title in 2013, personal issues, and also injuries to some extent have hampered his development, and his career stagnated, with many people writing him off after once reaching the top 30, and then sliding from there. The good news is, he’s in fact back in the top 30 now, and with other young Australians taking some of the pressure and spotlight off of him, he’s done so with a lack of fanfare. His non-traditional slice, and junkballing strokes remain a pestering annoyance to just about any player on tour, and he still can throw in enough pop on his groundstrokes to threaten the big names.
The downside right now is, he’s struggling mightily on clay, after having a good spring hard court season, and thus is unlikely to do much at the French. He has five ATP quarterfinals, a semi, and a second week showing at the Aussie Open on his resume this year, but none of those results have come on clay, which he is just 1-5 on this year, not to mention he retired in his last match. It’s quite a shame he’s cooled off, but he does have a lot of grand slam experience for a young player, and given that he opens with qualifier Luca Vanni, who he lost to in Madrid earlier this year will and be seeking revenge against, he has a good chance to at least equal his best showing at the French, which is the second round. A likely match with Kokkinakis will be interesting, and I’d give Thanasi the edge on clay right now, though Tomic has beaten him twice this season on hard courts. Either Tomic or Kokkinakis is likely to get the machine that is Novak Djokovic, if they reach the third round.
Nick Kyrgios, also known as #NKRising, is likely the young gun you’ve heard the most about given he has two slam quarterfinals already, one at Wimbledon last year, where he upset both Richard Gasquet, and Nadal, and the other at the Australian Open this year, where he won a huge five setter against Andreas Seppi. Kyrgios is a power player who has a big serve, and can push his opponents, off, and all around the court with rapid, whipping groundstrokes.
He’s struggled a bit with a back injury this season, but at 20 years old he’s already a respectable top 30 player who reached his first ever ATP main draw final in Estoril this year, a clay court event. He was quite impressive in that tournament, beating competitive clay court players with both style and substance, though it’s clear he’s still learning techniques for clay such as sliding. He also shocked Roger Federer in a thriller in Madrid, which was yet another top 10 win for him, that said, and this French Open could actually be challenging for him given he retired in his last match in Nice.
Presuming he’s healthy, he should be able to match his best French Open result (round 2 in 2013), given he is a seed and his first two opponents are weak, his round 1 opponent being Denis Istomin, and his round 2 opponent a qualifier (Kyle Edmund or Stephane Robert), that said, I see it as highly unlikely he’ll beat Andy Murray in round 3, given how well Murray has played on clay this year. Kyrgios is a big time player who thrives under the spotlight and the pressure, and he did so well in Australia while nursing a back injury, but I don’t see clay doing him any favors, and if he doesn’t bow out due to injury, I don’t believe he makes the second week.
Presently, it can be argued there are only two American men who are competitive clay court players, and one of them is the young, and top 40 ranked Jack Sock (the other is John Isner), who has fleshed out the rest of his game, including his fitness, to augment his elite quality forehand, and since coming back from injury this spring, has posted some excellent results, including his first ATP title in Houston, a clay court tournament. Sock has lost three straight matches, but to be fair all of those losses were in three sets and two of them came at the hands of top 30 players Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Gilles Simon. Sock has wins over Fabio Fognini, Roberto Bautista Agut (twice), Pablo Andujar, and Kevin Anderson this season, and in a best of 5 sets format, I no longer worry about the young American’s fitness, which previously was his achilles heel. Sock has been excellent at changing the momentum and rhythm of his matches to suit him this season.
Sock has consistently posted a good record on clay, especially for an American man, over all his years on tour, going back to the challenger circuit, but he’s still going to have the tough task in round 1 of facing off against Grigor Dimitrov, who is higher ranked, more accomplished, and certainly superior on clay as it stands. That said ,Dimitrov has had his struggles this year, and if Sock can fight him hard and play some clutch tennis, he could pull it off, and be a pleasant round 1 surprise. Should he do so, he could well reach the third or fourth round, but at a minimum I see him taking a set off of Dimitrov and putting on a good show, as he is one of the tougher round 1 non-seeded matchups in the draw, and that forehand is a threat on any surface. It’s unfortunate that either Sock or Dimitrov have to go home after just one match, but that’s tennis for you.
17 year old Francis Tiafoe earned the USTA main draw wild card for the French Open with his fine play in a set of three spring green clay challengers on US soil. The Marylander, a child of immigrants from Sierra Leone, rose from humble roots, literally growing up at a tennis club to become one of the top junior players in the world, and now he’s looking to translate that top play in juniors to the senior circuit. Big Foe, who made his ATP main draw debut last year at his home tournament, Washington D.C. an also played the main draw in Memphis this year before turning pro, shows great promise, and enough swagger to be signed by entertainment icon Jay-Z’s sports marketing agency. He lost in Nice early on as a lucky loser, but his first round opponent Martin Klizan has lost two straight matches, which increases his chance of pulling off a huge upset. I personally don’t see him getting past round 1, but in coming years, he has top 20 promise to say the least, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the limelight, and the increasing pressure of turning pro as a teenager.
Borna Coric is almost certain to be in the top 50 in the matter of a week or two, as the next great Croatian tennis player has had his breakthrough season in 2015. The 18 year old isn’t as physically imposing as some of the other young guns, but he’s a solid mover, and a clean ball striker who has some of the best return skills on tour, that are only improving as he matures. Coric, like the three names I touched on before him, does tend to favor hard courts and fast surfaces, but he’s no stranger to clay as he has a quarterfinal, and a semifinal on the surface this year at the ATP level (Estoril, and Nice), with strong play in Nice, he also comes into the French on a good run of form.
The other thing that helps Borna’s chances is he already has two wins against the big four, one against Rafa Nadal in Basel last Fall, and the other against Andy Murray in Dubai this year. Though both those times, his opponents struggled mightily, he still had the mettle, and the game to see the match through and grab huge wins for his career. Coric will be making his French Open debut, though he has best of 5 set experience at the US Open lat year, and also in Davis Cup play, where he is now a regular on the Croatian Davis Cup team.
Coric will open against a beatable Sam Querrey, and he has a great shot at reaching the third round, since the seed in his section, Tommy Robredo has not been healthy as of late. A likely third round match with Grigor Dimitrov looms large, though it could also be Sock in that spot, and that will be the big test as to whether he reach the second week or not.
Vesely is quite an enigma on the ATP tour right now, the 21 year old lefty Czech has won an ATP title this year, his first, in Auckland, and reached a final on clay in Bucharest, but in between, he’s struggled mightily and lost to players, that a player of his caliber shouldn’t be losing to (he did reach the semis in Casablanca though). Vesely is competitive on both clay and hard courts on a good day, and he packs a punch with his tennis, but a notorious lack of consistency has prevented him from getting the same amount of headlines and attention as his counterparts, though for quite some time he was the highest ranked teenager in the ATP rankings. He does have a somewhat favorable draw here, as his first opponent, Nice finalist Leonardo Mayer, should be fatigued from that tournament, and both Jerzy Janowicz, and 9 seed Marin Cilic are beatable in rounds 2 and 3. Vesely did lose routinely to Cilic in Madrid, but Marin has been inconsistent so that result could flip, and thus Vesely could actually be the young gun that reaches the second week.
21 year old Frenchman Lucas Pouille is another streaky young gun, and a talented shotmaker, who can do a lot of damage with his forehand on a good day, but barely look challenger level the next day, and that lack of consistency has limited his rise up the rankings, though he is now in the top 100. It seems like Pouille has been around for quite some time, but he only made his French Open main draw debut in 2013 where he won his first match before losing in round 2. Last year he lost in round 1 to Monaco, so he is 1-2 in French Open main draws, and though he’s a European player, he actually tends to play better on hard courts than clay, given that his game revolves around being able to dictate play, and his fitness for long grindfests is lacking.
Pouille had his best ever result on tour when he reached the semis in Auckland at the start of the season, but he has yet to replicate that again, and thus it’s hard to predict how he will do in Paris after a so-so clay court season. He did score a win over Thiem in Monte Carlo, but he is going to have a tough match with French veteran Gilles Simon, who is a bad matchup for him, given that he’s a grinding pusher who should be able to work Pouille into errors. Time will tell how Pouille will pan out, as he could be a top 30 player, but if he doesn’t gain some consistency on tour he’s going to be languishing near the challenger level for a while.
Quentin Halys and Maxime Hamou
I’m going to touch on the two young gun French wild cards together, as neither is likely to go far in the draw, but they still hold promise for the future. Halys is an 18 year old who reached the final of the junior US Open last year, and has also reached the semis of the junior French. He has three career futures titles, but an opening match against Rafael Nadal is a huge step up, and simply making the sets competitive will be a big accomplishment for him.
Hamou is a 19 year old former top 10 junior player who just made his ATP main draw debut in Nice, and now will make his slam debut at the French. He does have a futures title this year, and a few decent runs on the challenger tour, as his best surface is clay but it would be quite a shock if he even took a set off his opening round opponent Jerzy Janowicz.
Don’t sleep on the best young Argentine player, who lives and breathes clay court tennis, Diego Schwartzman, a 22 year old. DSS has perhaps drawn the fewest headlines of any of the young guns, as he hasn’t had a breakthrough run like Kyrgios, the consistency of Thiem, or top junior results like Tiafoe, but he’s built his game up into the caliber of a top 70 player and accorded himself well on the ATP tour thus far when given the opportunity. Long term, Schwartzman should find the red clay of Stade Roland Garros suitable for his game, and is likely to make his mark in slams at this tournament. He has a winnable round 1 match against Andreas Haider-Maurer in round 1, and then Gael Monfils, who he is unlikely defeat, awaits in round 2. He’s an undersized ball striker who may struggle to not get hit off of the court against the big hitters, but he’s fleet footed, and he reached the semis in Istanbul this year, his best ever result on the ATP tour. His 6 challenger titles have all come on clay, and very simply, don’t write him off, and check out his game, as he’s a fun player to watch who truly seems to enjoy playing tennis, displaying positive body language on the court, and a good attitude overall. He has played Roger Federer twice, once this year at Indian Wells, and the other last year at the French, and he also played Novak Djokovic under the lights of the US Open.
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