Are the Youngsters Set to Challenge the Status Quo in 2016?

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The upper echelons of men’s tennis looked under little threat from the hot prospects in 2015. But after a season of consolidation or disappointment, we look at how the game’s younger talents will be incentivised and genuinely challenge tennis’ status quo. It has certainly been a promising start for them in 2016…

2014 enjoyed four different men’s Grand Slam champions, inspiring pundits and fans alike to prophesize the imminent reshuffle of the game’s hierarchy. 2015 exposed these predictions to be highly premature. The embodiment of this lies most strongly in Grigor Dimitrov. The Bulgarian left a barely perceptible mark on 2015 after being dubbed – perhaps for the first time with some genuine sincerity – as ‘Baby Fed’. His break up with Roger Rasheed at the start of July was a far cry from his Wimbledon semifinal success of just a year prior. Yet, now armed with new coach Franco Davin, Dimitrov also embodies the resurgence of the young elite that seems to be set for 2016.

True, Dimitrov is hardly a fledgling youngster anymore. At 24, the world #28 has been on the pro circuit since 2008. But his age could be exactly the thing to propel his year forward. There is an expectation for Dimitrov to come-of-age now, and play with the maturity to match his experience. In Brisbane this week, he has already shown promising signs, defeating Gilles Simon 6-3 7-6(10). The Frenchman is the epitome of the savvy match player – not gifted with wonderful shot making, but an adept tactician. Dimitrov is the antithesis of this, so a victory over Simon – and in such close circumstances – denotes a bright start to the year for the Bulgarian. This was then followed by victory over Viktor Troicki 5-7 7-6(6) 6-2, with another tight tiebreak triumph. Dimitrov’s most noteworthy performance though came in the quarterfinal versus Roger Federer. Last year, the Swiss was formidable over three sets and many players were mercilessly put away at his hands. In fact one such player was Dimitrov himself in Brisbane in 2015, being swept aside 6-2 6-2. This time around though, it took Federer over two hours to defeat his unofficial protégé 6-4 6-7(4) 6-4. It would be certainly premature to compare these two results and claim it as proof of Dimitrov’s improvement, but his overall performance in Brisbane hints at a more mature, and subsequently more consistent, season ahead.

Milos Raonic, another prospect now actually advancing into his mid-twenties, acquitted himself even better in Brisbane this week, overcoming Roger Federer 6-4 6-4 to lift his eighth ATP title trophy. The Canadian’s usually imperious serve actually somewhat misfired in the clash, yet it is this which makes his victory so impressive. Federer, after suffering from flu earlier in the week, was somewhat out of sorts, but Raonic executed a shrewd, composed performance to exploit this. The pressure is invariably increased when an opponent is suffering from some such ailment (recall the players who faced the ill Serena Williams during the French Open in 2015), but there were no signs of this in the 25-year-old’s performance.

The Canadian hit a career high ranking of #4 in 2015, but saw his ranking slide all the way down to 14 by the time of its conclusion. This, in part, was down to his abject record versus fellow top 10 opposition – with a win/loss record of 2-8. The stats also point to a sizeable deficiency in Raonic’s returning, only winning 24% first serve and 44% second serve return points in 2015, an imperceptible improvement from previous years. Compare this to Marin Cilic – a player of a very similar ilk – who won 28% of first serve and 50% of second serve return points, and the extent of Raonic’s weakness becomes clear. Federer’s serve was not at full capacity on Sunday, but there were signs that the world #14 had addressed this part of his game in the off season. Improvement in this area could really take the Canadian’s game to the next level.

One of the hot prospects who looks set to mount a challenge on the men’s top players in 2016, has meanwhile been putting the ‘hop’ into the Hopman Cup… (apologies, it was irresistible. Click the image below to play).

Nick Kyrgios went unbeaten throughout the week in Perth; he added another top 10 scalp to his résumé in his 6-4 7-6(5) defeat of Andy Murray. The impressiveness of the Aussie’s season arguably went relatively unnoticed, obscured by controversy. He reached a career high #25 in the world and became the first teenager to reach the quarterfinals of multiple Grand Slams since Federer in 2001. Yet some of his performances – in particular at the Aegon Championships against Wawrinka and in the Davis Cup – still exposed him as just a mercurial talent, rather than a player who could conceivably mount a six match run to the final of a major. This past week though, there was an undeniable continuity to Kyrgios’ form. It’s time for him to transform his cameo, headline wins into sustained, title-winning success.

Also in action this week was Kyrgios’ fellow countryman Bernard Tomic. Now residing in the top 20, the 23-year-old also acquired a top ten win, versus an albeit out of form Kei Nishikori, on his way to the semifinals in Brisbane. Tomic was not without his own controversies in 2015, but last season provided substantial evidence that he has predominantly ironed out the erratic temperament that Aussie tennis fans have been so frustrated in the past by. It is therefore conceivable that in 11 months Tomic could be vying for a place at the ATP World Tour Finals. His Grand Slam form still requires significant improvement however; the Australian Open, on home soil, should be the ideal place to do that and complete the restoration of his image in Australia.

In the top 50 also lies Borna Coric, the highest ranked teenager in the world. He certainly possesses the firepower to upset one of the ‘Big Four’ in a Slam – as shown in his 6-1 6-3 demolition of Andy Murray. Coric has likewise enjoyed a good start to the year, reaching the final in Chennai before succumbing to Stan Wawrinka in straight sets, 6-3 7-5. At times, Coric’s inexperience was uncovered, but the Croat managed to push Wawrinka close in the second set in spite of the latter’s outstanding serving. The 19-year-old though, indeed to the detriment of some people’s opinion of him, has the abundance of self-belief needed to avenge this defeat. After a generation of humble, courteous players it is a refreshing twist–one that could surely assist Coric on the big stage. Cast your mind back to Kyrgios’ clash with Nadal at Wimbledon in 2014. The Australian executed a game plan of such outrageous audacity that it could only have been augmented by the arrogance of his character. It would not be at all startling if Coric turned out such a breakthrough performance in a Grand Slam this year and consequentially upset the stranglehold Djokovic, Federer, and–to a lesser extent–Murray and Wawrinka had over the game last year.

According to a recent ATP article title, “Kyrgios and Coric” led the “2015 Charge” of the “Young Guns”. Yet in comparison to what appeared to be a revelatory season in 2014, 2015 was, I daresay, a predictable year of Djokovic dominance. The work of the ATP tour’s rising stars was hidden by the breathtaking stories of Djokovic and Serena Williams – a tale of two world number ones. Some of these “rising stars” can no longer have the carefree attitude of their younger, less pressured years, and this will surely incentivise the likes of Raonic, Dimitrov, and Tomic. Then the layer of players below them – Kyrgios, Coric, and their peers – will be looking to edge up the rankings after a year of establishing themselves as top 50 or top 100 players. 2016’s story will not be one of the top players’ monopoly, it will be one of that status quo being challenged.

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