Teenagers in the ATP Top 500: Looking Forward to 2021 (Part 2)

The year-end ATP Rankings for the 2020 season feature a total of 18 teenagers in the world’s first 500 ranked players. 14 of them are already 19 years of age, while just two have not yet attained adulthood yet. Some had amazing success on the Juniors tour, while some only broke through on the professional stage. In this article, we look at all the under 20s in the ATP top 500 and ask the question: which of these are ready for the biggest challenges possible? Feel free to come back in a year and torment me with all the predictions that will make me look dumb.

We split the 18 teenagers between two articles. You can find the nine highest-ranked teenagers in this article, while the rest are in the second article.

#37 – Jannik Sinner

Nationality: Italian
Best results: 2020 Roland Garros quarterfinalist; 2019 NextGen ATP Finals champion; 2020 Sofia Open champion; three ATP Challenger Tour titles
Age: 19

This one doesn’t even need an introduction. Jannik Sinner’s junior career wasn’t spectacular; the youngster peaked at no. 133 in the junior rankings and didn’t feature in any Grand Slam tournaments. His short career has already featured a number of major breakthroughs, but the first sign of the scale of his talent came completely out of nowhere. As a wild card for the 2019 Bergamo Challenger, Sinner went all the way to defeat his compatriot Roberto Marcora in the final, despite being ranked at just no. 546 in the ATP Rankings.

While he continued to improve throughout the 2019 season, the NextGen Finals was when literally everyone boarded the hype train. Sinner not only defeated such established competitors like Frances Tiafoe, Miomir Kecmanovic, or Alex De Minaur, he did so in superb fashion, basically blowing them away on the lower-bouncing fast indoor courts in Milan. His ability to accelerate out of nowhere is uncanny and doing so with a rather lanky posture only speaks wonders about his technique. That he probably owes to Ricardo Piatti, who’s been coaching him since 2014. The experienced mentor used to work with such icons of the game as Novak Djokovic, Ivan Ljubicic, or Milos Raonic.

In the latter part of the 2020 season, Sinner managed to add impressive consistency to his baseline game, which was most evident at the 2020 Roland Garros. Starting from a blowout win over David Goffin in the opening round, Sinner maintained his focus and composure for every game of that tournament, something which wasn’t that obvious with him in the past. He even served for the opening set against Rafael Nadal in the quarterfinals and only after blowing that chance did he let the Spaniard regain control. The youngster capped off his 2019 season with a maiden ATP title at Sofia and barring any unusual circumstances, it seems like the only way from here is up. In 12 months, it would be a surprising turn of events if his ranking wasn’t to improve.

2021 year-end ranking prediction: #20

#128 – Lorenzo Musetti

Nationality: Italian
Best results: 2020 Italian Open 3R (wins over Wawrinka, Nishikori); 2020 Forli Challenger champion; 2019 Australian Open boys’ singles champion
Age: 18

As you can see, there is quite a big ranking gap between Sinner and the next teenager on the list. Lorenzo Musetti had a different path than his older compatriot, winning a Grand Slam in juniors and holding the no.1 ranking in that category. His journey through the professional ranks is a bit more slow-paced but also appears to be heading towards a great future. The youngster performed solidly throughout the 2019 season (two ITF titles; a Challenger semifinal in Milan) and impressed in a not so straightforward loss to Andrey Rublev early in the season in Dubai. But it wasn’t until after the season restart when Musetti’s extreme talent really began to shine through.

The Italian qualified for the ATP Masters 1000 event in Rome and managed to cruise to the third round after wins over veterans Stan Wawrinka and Kei Nishikori. That tournament kicked off an extremely impressive run of six top 100 wins in 12 days, which resulted in his maiden ATP Challenger Tour title in Forli. Musetti’s stylish single-handed backhand and amazing shotmaking shined as he kept sending off one experienced athlete after another.

While his season ended on a bit off a poorer note with a couple of indoor losses to Roberto Marcora at Challenger level, can there really be any doubt that his game and place in the rankings will improve in 2021? Not really. It’s a great time to be alive if you’re an Italian tennis fan as Musetti and Sinner are expected to become one of the world’s best players for years to come.

2021 year-end ranking prediction: #60

#141 – Carlos Alcaraz

Nationality: Spanish
Best results: Three ATP Challenger Tour titles; a win over Albert Ramos-Vinolas at the 2020 Rio Open
Age: 17

Carlos Alcaraz is the real standout among the group of players that were born in the year 2003. He was the first player from that class to win an ITF World Tennis Tour match; then an ATP Challenger Tour match; and lastly, the first to score a tour-level win. The first of these achievements came at just 14 years of age in Villena and Alcaraz has been breaking every record possible ever since. While he got some success on the board on the junior circuit, he basically jumped straight over that level of competition to begin his journey on the professional circuit.

Alcaraz made headlines for the first time this year in February, taking out Albert Ramos-Vinolas at the ATP 500 event in Rio. Because of that result and the previous achievements, tournament directors of tour-level events in Miami, Barcelona, Madrid wanted to grant him wildcards to play their events in the European clay-court swing. None of these were played because of the pandemic but Alcaraz just couldn’t be slowed down. After the restart, he won three ATP Challenger Tour events to become the second-youngest player to achieve that feat (behind Richard Gasquet).

The Spaniard plays an aggressive game based around the forehand and has a quite incredible knack for drop shots. While there are some doubts about how he’ll perform on other surfaces than clay, his coach, former world no.1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, believes he is destined to achieve great things. “He has to be ambitious and never settle. I had a good career, but he can do even better”, says the 2003 Roland Garros champion. The next season will be a big test for the youngster, an evaluation of whether he is ready to take his game to the next level. Looking at everything we’ve seen in the year 2020, he should be.

2021 year-end ranking prediction: #50

#166 – Brandon Nakashima

Nationality: American
Best results: 2020 Delray Beach Open quarterfinalist; 2020 Orlando Challenger champion; 2018 ITF Junior Masters champion; Atlantic Coast Conference Freshman of the Year
Age: 19

After one year of playing college tennis for the University of Virginia, Brandon Nakashima decided to quit and turn professional as soon as possible. From what we’ve seen so far, this might have been a good decision. As a junior, the American peaked at World no. 3 in the ITF Rankings and won the year-end championships. His college career was extremely successful as well but with consistent good showings on the ATP Challenger Tour circuit, it had to be tempting to try his best as a pro.

In February this year, Nakashima made great use of a wildcard for the tour-level event in Delray Beach, defeating Jiri Vesely and Cameron Norrie to make it all the way to the quarterfinals. His game and mindset seemed to be in a perfect place by the time March rolled around and it was quite a shame that for reasons out of his control, there would be no ranking tournaments for the next five months. The youngster kept training hard and was able to find a lot of his form back right off the gate. At the US Open, he played a great four-set match against the eventual runner-up, Alexander Zverev. His spectacular double-handed backhand proved to be just as dangerous on the big stage as it was on lower levels of competition.

While he isn’t used to playing on clay at all, he still opted to go to Europe and play a total of four events on that surface. A decision like that should pay off in the future and it seems like his career is very sanely-led by his team, including the 1987 Wimbledon champion, Pat Cash. After a string of clay-court losses, many were uncertain as to how Nakashima will react mentally back on American hard courts. As it turned out, the last event the teenager would play in 2020 was to become his maiden Challenger Tour title. Nakashima dominated the field and ended the season on a very positive note, leading us to believe his 2021 season should be full of bright moments as well.

2021 year-end ranking prediction: #90

#280 – Chun-Hsin Tseng

Nationality: Taiwanese
Best results: 2018 Roland Garros & Wimbledon boys’ singles champion; 2018 Australian Open boys’ singles runner-up; 2019 Prague Challenger runner-up
Age: 19

An absolute revelation of the 2018 season on the juniors circuit, Chun-Hsin Tseng has been struggling to transfer that success to the pro tour. With a not so muscular build, it looks like most of his colleagues developed physically while he sort of stayed in the same place. Training in the Mouratoglou Academy since he was 13, Tseng had a lot of opportunities to practice with the stars of the game. While they all speak very kindly of his talents, the results haven’t been quite up to par.

Tseng himself compares his game to Kei Nishikori, and it is a sound comparison. Both Asians move extremely fast around the court and try to play quick off the bounce. Yet, they also face a lot of similar issues – insufficient power game and a serve that can be a vulnerable target at the highest level. Enough with the criticisms though – Tseng’s feel for the ball is great to watch and while most of his 2020 season was uninspiring, there were a couple of great runs.

In February, Tseng made it to the semifinals at an ATP Challenger Tour event in Bergamo. He also hit a good run of form later in the year, going deep in ITF 25K events in Hamburg and Vale de Lobo (lost to Poland’s Kacper Zuk twice). Tseng’s ranking only improved by 25 spots from where he finished the 2019 season and there are a lot of indicators that his progress might not be as steep as for some of the players mentioned earlier.

2021 year-end ranking prediction: #220

#303 – Jack Draper

Nationality: British
Best results: 2018 Wimbledon boys’ singles runner-up; Four 25K ITF titles
Age: 19

British tennis is still struggling to find someone who will follow in Andy Murray’s footsteps and so far, Jack Draper is looking like their best bet. In 2018, he reached the final at the junior edition of Wimbledon, losing to the aforementioned Chun-Hsing Tseng. While he hasn’t really skyrocketed towards the top of the game as many hoped he would, there are encouraging signs. In December, Draper impressed at the Battle of the Brits exhibition, taking his best-ever win ranking-wise over Cameron Norrie.

Previously a bit too glued to the baseline, Draper is working hard on his performance in the forecourt. The youngster’s big lefty serve and forehand can be a really deadly combination. He’s already done a lot of damage on the ITF level and if he maintains his level from the recent exhibition, some great things may be waiting just around the corner for Draper. The potential is there and it feels like he might be about to unleash it.

2021 year-end ranking prediction: #170

#309 – Sebastian Baez

Nationality: Argentinian
Best results: 2018 Roland Garros boys’ singles runner-up; 5 ITF World Tennis Tour titles (1 25K; 4 15K); 2020 Guayaquil Challenger quarterfinalist
Age: 19

Just six spots under Draper is the second of Chun-Hsin Tseng’s Grand Slam finals conquests. Formerly a top-ranked junior, Baez has enjoyed a lot of success on the ITF circuit but is only making his first steps on the Challenger Tour. What’s been keeping him behind? The answer isn’t simple as Baez appears to have a very competent clay-court game. The Argentinian tries to remain aggressive and has the means to do so but can also counter-punch when needed.

The last three events of the 2020 season showcased his improvement as Baez was able to score 5 match wins (3 in the main draws) in Challenger events. The Argentinian should look to play more higher-tier events in the upcoming season and that should give us a more accurate assumption of what his ceiling is. Looking at his level in Guayaquil or Campinas, Baez should have everything he needs to have considerable success on the Challenger circuit.

2021 year-end ranking prediction: #230

#319 – Duje Ajdukovic

Nationality: Croatian
Best results: 2020 Split and Maia Challengers semifinalist; Four ITF World Tennis Tour titles (1 25K; 3 15K)
Age: 19

In contrast to Baez or Tseng, Duje Ajdukovic was a much lesser-known name before this season. Despite a couple of solid results on the ITF circuit, the Croatian flew under the radar pretty much until the Challenger event in his hometown, Split. Ajdukovic came out on the courts with a huge game and complete lack of hesitation, which took him all the way to the semifinals following wins over such established clay-courters as Jozef Kovalik or Martin Klizan. He would repeat that achievement once again in 2020, only losing a thriller to Carlos Taberner at the indoor clay tournament in Maia.

Consistency appears to be an issue with Ajdukovic, who mixed up these runs with a couple of really poor losses this year. But when he’s “on”, the Croat can really blow his opponents off the court with huge shots off both wings and good hands at the net to follow. His transition game could do with some improvements though as he gets stuck in a baseline rally too often after hitting a deep, well-placed attacking shot. Despite a lot of streamed matches this year, it still feels like we know little of Duje Ajdukovic. His trajectory for the 2021 season also remains a bit of an enigma.

2021 year-end ranking prediction: #210

#324 Giulio Zeppieri

Nationality: Italian
Best results: 2019 Australian Open boys’ singles semifinalist; 2019 Parma Challenger semifinalist; 2019 M25 Santa Margherita Di Pula champion
Age: 19

Another talented Italian youngster, although developing at a much slower pace than Sinner or Musetti. In fact, the state of the sport in his country had a rather important influence on his ranking. The sheer number of ATP Challenger Tour events organized in Italy allowed Zeppieri to keep building up his ranking by getting a number of main and qualifying draw wildcards. Two of his most painful losses came to Musetti – the 2019 Australian Open juniors semifinal and it was also his younger compatriot that made him miss out on a main draw spot in the 2020 Italian Open.

The lefty Italian has been playing at a quite similar level for about two seasons. He’s able to consistently win a round or two in Challenger main draws but getting to tour-level requires so much more. His lefty forehand is a decent weapon but the inconsistency in his baseline game seems to be bringing him down. So far, Zeppieri is yet to show any indication that we should expect a meteoric rise from him in 2021.

2021 year-end ranking prediction: #280

Which one of these do you think can become a future star of the game? Or will it be someone different, perhaps someone who hasn’t quite reached the top 500 yet?

Main Photo from Getty.


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