By David Zakhodin
With the inaugural ATP Next Gen Finals in the books, many exciting tidbits came out of the year-end event for tennis’ rising stars. Only time will tell how much of an impact the tournament will have on the career trajectory of these eight men, but here is a look at the winners and losers from the last week of the season for the 21-and-unders.
Hyeon Chung’s Wallet: We mentioned on The Fan’s Country Club Podcast that there were no ranking points available for the winner of the Next Gen Finals, but Chung took home $390,000 following his undefeated run to the title. While Chung was certainly not favored by many to win it all, he played extremely disciplined tennis throughout the week and proved that his prospects are still as bright as they were when he first broke into the top 100. The question now remains whether he will be able to play the same sort of tennis against superior opponents and pick up wins against top ranked players, something he has failed to do in his career in order to make deep runs in tournaments. Most importantly for Chung, the Next Gen Finals gave him an opportunity to display his lighthearted personality and great energy on court, something we had not previously seen from him.
The Fiera Milano Venue: While the tournament was not played in one of tennis’ biggest indoor facilities such as the O2 Arenas in Prague and London, the Bercy Palais Omnisports in Paris, or the Qi Zhong Stadium in Shanghai, the scene on Center Court looked pretty “lit” to borrow a favorite term among millennials. The dim lighting in the seats gave the stadium the sort of feel that the Staples Center has during Lakers games. The bright red light behind the baseline in contrast with the darkness made it seem like the matches were being played in a night club. If you ask me, it’s certainly an upgrade from what we’ll be seeing this week in London with a sea of dull blue lighting up the court surface.
Daniil Medvedev’s Attitude: There’s a good chance you’ve heard very little about the young Russian who snuck into the Next Gen Finals at the very end of the race. His one hallmark moment of 2017 was defeating Stan Wawrinka on Centre Court in the first round of Wimbledon, and that was about it. With no disrespect to what he’s accomplished so far in his career, Medvedev has pretty janky strokes and not exactly the talent or footwork of his fellow competitors this past week. However, what has been noted about Medvedev in the press is his track record of poor sportsmanship and behavior. He tanked a Davis Cup match in February against Djokovic after winning the first set. He claimed that umpires have fixed matches against him and has gone as far as throwing coins at an umpire. Not sure if Kyrgios or Fognini gave him any creative tips on how to blow off some steam, but Medvedev has been notorious for not behaving early in his career. However, he seemed very calm and composed throughout the tournament, both in victory and defeat. Perhaps the young Russian with a big serve has undergone a maturation process.
Andrey Rublev and Denis Shapovalov: Neither of these two won the tournament, but I would bet their prospects are the highest from this field of eight. Is it because they are the most talented? In my opinion, yes. But more importantly than talent, these two players have proven in the second half of 2017 that they can already compete at the highest level and beat players ranked higher than them. In fact, it would not surprise me if both Rublev and Shapovalov were both ranked inside the top 20 a year from now. The trend in men’s tennis has pointed toward young players having a very difficult time in breaking into the top tiers, but these two have many of the ingredients that Alexander Zverev channeled to make the jump from Next Gen Star to one of the best players in the world.
Tournament Organizers and their Draw Ceremony:
Safe to say they probably won’t be doing this awkward charade next year.
New Rules: When it comes to rule changes in men’s tennis, I am very much a traditionalist. Having said that, not all of the new rules implemented in this week’s event were bad. For example, I didn’t mind not having to see line judges on the court or play be delayed by players being allowed to take multiple medical timeouts per match. Nonetheless, any rules aimed at speeding up pace of play such as the shot clock, no ad scoring, and no service lets simply went too far. Even though the ATP doesn’t follow the NCAA model of trying to monetize college tennis, these matches seemed too Division I-esque. On another note, the best of five with sets to four format was intriguing for the purpose of adding a new wrinkle to this brand new tournament, but it’s certainly not something that should be enacted on the ATP tour. Finally, the worst new rule of all was the ability players had to receive coaching via headset at the end of each “set”. What is this, football? On-court coaching has no place in men’s tennis. The current model of players barking at their box or exchanging signals between points is a perfect marriage of a rule that is difficult to enforce yet prevents players from getting strategic advice during a match. Professional men’s tennis, along with a handful of individual Olympic events, is unique and one of the most difficult sports in the world because a player is truly alone during competition. Golfers have caddies; boxers have a whole entourage between rounds. My message for the ATP is to stop feeling pressured by the WTA and ESPN tennis commentators, who have argued in favor of on-court coaching, in order to preserve what makes ATP tennis so unique.
Borna Coric: The ATP Next Gen Finals should not be a referendum on any of these players’ career trajectories. They are all under 21 years of age and have shown flashes of promise for the future. But for Borna Coric, a player who received so much hype after turning pro, this event was a microcosm for how disappointing his career has been relative to expectations. Coric came out and played awesome tennis in his first three matches (all of which he won in group play), pumping the fist and playing with the sort of confidence that demonstrated why he was more than just one of eight who qualified for Milan. And then a la Kei Nishikori not showing up in big semifinal matches, Coric absolutely laid an egg in the semifinal against Rublev. Not only did he lose in straight “sets”, but he also withdrew from the third place match against Medvedev. I’ve searched all over the Internet and still cannot find a justification for this decision. No information about any injuries has come out of the press, putting Coric in a bad light for undermining the tournament. Would it really have been that hard to come out and play three “sets” to four against Medvedev? Zero class from Borna Coric.
Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic: They didn’t play in the Next Gen Finals, but they appeared in the tennis headlines the last several weeks. The two top players from 2016, allegedly recovering from season-ending injuries, were spotted in London and Paris, respectively, making appearances at the final two tournaments of the ATP season. It’s one thing for Novak to show up in Paris and watch the event, as weird as the whole scene was of him having a guest pass and sitting in the stands during matches. However, Andy’s presence in London during the World Tour Finals is unwelcome. If you didn’t qualify for the event or aren’t an on-site alternate, you should not be allowed to practice with Dominic Thiem during the tournament. As an example, when they have missed the year-end events, both Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal have disappeared. They don’t seek the spotlight, and you won’t see them on the court until they post videos practicing in either Dubai or Mallorca in late December. Stan Wawrinka set a perfect example earlier this week by posting a video of himself lightly hitting one handed backhands in some cold warehouse-looking club in Switzerland. In essence, Murray and Djokovic greatly devalued the final stretch of the ATP calendar by choosing to sit the rest of the season out when their injuries probably did not require so many months of rest. However, no one was going to knock them for their decisions considering how successful the likes of Federer and Nadal have been after a long hiatus. But for them to be craving the spotlight in this manner is quite frankly an implicit way of indicating that they could have played in these events and just chose not to. Simply put, it’s a bad look for tennis and two of its biggest icons.