As the class of 1997 exhausted its eligibility, it’s time to begin speculating about which youngsters will earn their berth for the NextGen Finals 3.0. Based off today’s ranking, the following eight players would be expected to qualify for the event.
|As of December 16, 2018|
|Player||Country||Year of Birth||ATP Points||Ranking||Comments|
|Stefanos Tsitsipas||Greece||1998||2095||15||2018 Next Gen Finals Winner / 2018 ATP Most Improved Award|
|Denis Shapovalov||Canada||1999||1440||27||Only man to qualify for Next Gen Finals in 2017 and 2018 born in 1998 or after|
|Alex de Miñaur||Australia||1999||1298||31||2018 ATP Newcomer of the Year Award|
|Frances Tiafoe||USA||1998||1080||39||First to break into ATP Top 100 among eligible players (January 2017)|
|Ugo Humbert||France||1998||653||84||69 wins across all levels in 2018. Best mark in the group|
|Michael Mmoh||USA||1998||563||103||Born January 10: oldest contender|
|Félix Auger-Aliassime||Canada||2000||525||109||Second youngest player ever to win 4 Challenger titles|
|Gian Marco Moroni||Italy||1998||246||224||*Best Italian in the class|
|Casper Ruud||Norway||1998||518||113||Alternate. Former #1 Junior|
|Miomir Kecmanovic||Serbia||1999||433||132||Alternate. Former #1 Junior|
If you are thinking about catching the first flight to Vegas and betting on this exact lineup, please don’t. Can’t predict tennis. The progress of an individual prospect is not linked to a fellow member of the same age group due to a myriad of reasons. Injuries or bad scheduling can sabotage a campaign. Just like in baseball, a rock solid pusher without a go-to shot may get by in the minors but can’t cut it in the big leagues.
Take the following individual case studies into account:
- Former teen wunderkind Stefan Kozlov nearly broke into the Top 100 in early 2017, only to crash out of the Top 400 by now.
- The aforementioned Humbert began 2018 as world No. 378, supposedly slated to grind it out in the Futures circuit. Instead, he evolved into a Challenger juggernaut and notched his first Grand Slam main draw win at the US Open.
- In between the drastic fall of Kozlov and the meteoric ascent of Humbert lies another Franch lefty, Corentin Moutet, whose development has stalled in 2018. He went from No. 155 on January 1st to No. 149 on December 16th.
Does that mean a volatile dude boasting a huge game albeit with pronounced peaks and valleys has a better chance of making it than your typical rock-solid baseliner who may top out as a B on everything? Considering tennis’ ranking system, I’d argue so. Give me someone who can get hot and make a few deep runs a year over the guy who never loses in the first round but rarely ever scores a big upset.
In 2019, owing to the implementation of the brand new ITF Transition Tour, it will be impossible to replicate Humbert’s brutal rise–i.e. burning all stages within a year. Until now, a Futures title was a juicier reward than a Challenger quarterfinal loss. That will no longer be the case. A meager 5 ATP points will be awarded to the singles titlist at a 25K +H Futures, while the runner-up and semifinalists will get 3 and 1 ATP points, respectively. At 25K Futures sans hospitality, only the champion (3) and finalist (1) will receive ATP points.
Under 2018 scoring system, Humbert obtained 97 ATP at 25K Futures. As Stuart Fraser indicated on Twitter, on January 1st, a whopping 88 of those 97 points will vanish. In other words, only ATP and Challenger regulars have a realistic shot of making it to Milan.
Anyway, here are my way-too-early predictions.
The Zverevs Skippers
Stefanos Tsitsipas (No. 15) – 20 years old
Tone down your expectations for the Greek after his magnificent 2018. He understandably aspires to reach the World Tour Finals, but history has taught us that sophomore slumps do exist, sometimes. Regardless, with the Next Gen trophy already in the glass case, Tsitsipas has nothing to gain, everything to lose.
Denis Shapovalov (No. 27) – 19 years old
The 19-year-old fits the mold of the streaky player flashing tantalizing potential. His attacking game is second to none and, whenever he improves his return of serve, sky will be the limit for the Canadian. Expect major strides in his second full season on the circuit.
Alex de Miñaur (No. 31) – 19 years old
Already one of the best returners in the game on hard court, the Aussie needs to bulk up a little in order to get more free points, but there is no doubt that he is destined for stardom. One of the players to avoid at all costs during the Australian summer.
Felix Auger-Aliassime (No. 109) – 18 years old
If there’s a youngster who checks all the boxes, it’s Auger-Aliassime. The 18-year-old, who notched impressive wins over the likes of Lucas Pouille or Hyeon Chung, moves phenomenally considering his 6’3’’ frame, which helps explain his three Challenger titles on clay. The patience of his coaching staff regarding his development will surely pay off throughout 2019. FAA is too talented not to make noise next season. Hopefully his heart condition stops bugging him for good.
Frances Tiafoe (No. 39) – 20 years old
The reigning Delray Beach champion has seen his year-end ranking progress, although a two-month long slump marred his strong 2018 campaign. While I believe his ceiling may not be as high as other players mentioned above, he’s a sure-fire NextGen Finals participant. His main question mark (the forehand) is slowly coming along. Per Tennis Abstract, his Elo rating sits at #68 in the world, which suggests Tiafoe’s real ranking is inflated.
Consistently…on the Bubble
Miomir Kecmanovic (No. 132) – 19 years old
Yes, he has yet to prove he belongs in the circuit. Sure, he lacks explosiveness off the forehand wing. Just like the players listed before, the Serbian has steadily improved his ranking year after year. Having collected 178 ATP points in his final three Challengers of 2018, Kecmanovic showed signs of outgrowing that level. He may not be a threat to reach second weeks at Grand Slams yet, but his reliability clinches him a spot in this tier for me.
Michael Mmoh (No. 103) – 20 years old
Two seasons after breaking into the top 200 as a junior, the American managed to slash his ranking it in half. Nevertheless, his stats at the ATP level raise concerns. In 12 main draw matches in 2018, Mmoh’s dominance ratio (percentage of return points won divided by the percentage of service points lost) is a subpar 0.87. Besides, shouldn’t a physical specimen like Mmoh play more aggressive, especially off the forehand wing? He will probably qualify for the NextGen Finals but I’m not buying long term stock.
Ugo Humbert (No. 84) – 20 years old
The Frenchman climbed nearly 300 spots in the rankings over the last 52 weeks on the back of three Futures and three Challenger crowns. Will this dominance translate to the main circuit? Humbert certainly has the tools to succeed, but growing pains seem inevitable during his first full year on the main tour. Clay will be a struggle.
Casper Ruud (No. 113) – turns 20 years old on December 22, 2018
Formerly labelled as a clay specialist, the Norwegian obtained stronger results on hard (23W-11L, 1.08 dominance ratio) than on the dirt (18W-17L, 1.01 dominance ratio) in 2018. Having parted ways with ex-Pepperdine star Pedro Rico, Ruud’s development is now being supervised by his father Christian Ruud and the Rafa Nadal Academy staff. He’s due for a big breakout, but first he needs to improve on his woeful tiebreak success rate. According to Tennis Abstract, the former top junior in the world has won only 12 of 41 breakers over the past two campaigns.
Darkhorse to Win it All
Alexei Popyrin (No. 151) – 19 years old
The lanky Australian began the 2018 season ranked No. 621. Twelve months later, you can find Popyrin at No. 148. I have a strong feeling a stud is in the making here. The 2017 French Open boys champion has the longest wingspan in pro sports since Michael Jordan in Space Jam. As you can imagine, Popyrin can hit the bejesus out of the ball. On top of his earth-shattering strokes, the 19-year-old has made major strides in his movement. Consistent results may not happen overnight, but the ceiling is stratospheric. A trio of top 100 victories to close out the year in Basel was brief indicator of things to come.
Alejandro Davidovich Fokina (No. 229) – 19 years old
The 2017 Wimbledon boys titlest oozes with potential. What he lacks in measurables, he makes up with unbelievable craftiness. Davidovich’s wide array of tools is a double-edged sword. For instance, he often relies a tad too much on the drop shot. All in all, I believe the Malaga native is a year or two away from making a real impact on tour, but it would be foolish to rule him out of the race to Milan.
Nicola Kuhn (No. 269) – 18 years old
The Spanish-German had a forgettable 2018. After a promising run to the Budapest Challenger final in February, a severe toe injury forced him to miss two months and totally derailed his campaign. Moreover, Kuhn cut ties with his second coach in two years and is now working with former pro Iván Navarro. The best ability is availability, isn’t it? Or is it stability? Kuhn’s backhand belongs in the big leagues, but it would take a substantial leap for it to happen in 2019.
Corentin Moutet (No. 149) – 19 years old
A few glimpses of brilliance like the Istanbul Challenger title or the Roland Garros win versus Ivo Karlovic intertwined with regular meltdowns. The French lefty posted a meh 32-33 record in 2018. At 5’9’’ he is not the next Goliath and he ought to take care of his temperamental outbursts if he wants to take his game to the next level. The 19-year-old is too talented to be dismissed from contention, but there’s plenty of work to do.
Rudolf Molleker (No. 198) – 18 years old
Let’s play the knee-jerk reaction game with the German:
Wins over David Ferrer, Jiri Vesely or Jan-Lenard Struff = star.
No Futures titles in ten tries = bust.
Winner of four consecutive three-setters on his way to the Heilbronn challenger trophy = clutch.
Despite being the best ranked ATP player at the 2018 Australian Open and French Open boys draws, the 18-year-old mustered only two combined wins at those events = overwhelmed.
Now seriously, let’s temper the expectations on Molleker, at least until he shows consistency away from German soil. The future should be bright, though.
The Hail Mary
Chun Hsin Tseng (No. 441) – 17 years old
Born on August 8th like Roger Federer and Felix Auger-Aliassime, the Taiwan prospect completed one of the best junior seasons of the century with a 24-2 Grand Slam record, capturing the first Roland Garros & Wimbledon double since Gael Monfils did so in 2004. The Mouratoglou Tennis Academy product was no slouch at the Futures level either, conquering three titles in just seven tournaments entered. Owing to the new ranking rules, Tseng will basically have no ATP ranking, but with a few wild cards here and there, he could make a splash in 2019. Yet, it would be wise from his team not to rush his development.
If any (non-Italian) player not listed here were to sneak into the NextGen Finals, it would be against the odds, but remember: can’t predict tennis.
Main Photo from Getty