By David Zakhodin
As we approach the much anticipated second Grand Slam of the tennis calendar, there is a lot of excitement building up over the buzz generated by this past week’s Italian Open. While we may all have issues with the coverage and organization of the French Open, one thing that can mitigate all those problems is high quality tennis. Without a doubt, the center of attention will be the King of Roland Garros. Rafael Nadal is on one of his hottest runs ever on clay, and he will be pursuing La Decima in hopes of moving into sole possession of second place on the all-time Grand Slam list. However, in Paris, Rafa is a known quantity. The source of much of the accompanying buzz is derived from three men who made big news this past week in Rome.
No More Next Gen for Alexander Zverev:
The first time I saw Zverev play he was getting rocked 6-0, 6-1 on TennisChannel in the semifinals of Hamburg 2014 against David Ferrer. Clearly outmatched and inexperienced in his first few tournaments, Zverev still demonstrated an uncanny level of talent as he picked up his first four career ATP victories as a 17-year-old at that tournament. While he lost handily to Ferrer, I, along with the rest of the tennis world, knew that there were special things to come in the German’s future. Several weeks later, I saw Alex in person hitting with Novak Djokovic on a practice court in Cincinnati. If I were to describe him in one word at that time, it was raw. It was clear the kid had all the talent to succeed, but it was to be determined if the weight of expectations would deter Zverev’s success in the same way it stunted the progress of many other members of the next generation.
Safe to say Zverev has come a long way since the summer of 2014. When the rankings came out earlier this morning, he made his inaugural appearance in the top 10 following his first Masters 1000 victory in Rome. Even though many Zverev believers would suggest that this performance is expected of a player who has been predicted to be a future world number one, I see winning the Italian Open as a very big leap for Zverev. It is without question that his physical skills are up to par with the world’s best. Whether it be the lanky figure that gives him a powerful serve, the footwork that helps him set up for an aggressive forehand, or the rock-solid and offensive two-handed backhand, Zverev has all the attributes of a Top 10 player in 2017. Moreover, he has also put in the hard work off the court to improve his fitness and durability, factors that have also hindered the improvement or staying power of younger players looking to end the reign of the Big Four.
The final question with regard to Zverev’s future potential revolves around his mental game. In an age where players are peaking in their late 20’s and early 30’s, it was difficult to make a case for Zverev to have immediate success when he was only a year removed from being a teenager. But even in the midst of his occasional outbursts, there has always seemed to be a calm about Zverev even in the face of adversity against tennis’s best. He had beaten Federer multiple times in the past two years and officially announced his arrival as a serious contender with his decisive win over Djokovic in the Italian Open final. What I admire most about Zverev is that he could have settled for the top seed in the Race to Milan and hovered around the Top 20 in the ATP rankings while continuing at a natural rate of progression. Instead, he took the bull by the horns and left his fellow “Next Gen” rivals in the dust by becoming the first of the group to win a Masters 1000 title. The Italian Open kept trying to remind Zverev that he wasn’t supposed to win with their “Next Gen” Arena and all the Next Gen ads for the year-end event in Milan, but Alexander proved to us all that he is no longer defined by that label; he has arrived.
Is Dominic Thiem the Prince of Clay?
Even though he had no answer against a poised and fiery Novak Djokovic (a rare sighting these days) on Saturday, Dominic Thiem electrified the tennis world with his resounding victory over Rafael Nadal the previous day. The experts predicted Rafa to go into Roland Garros undefeated, but the third time proved to be the charm for Thiem who had previously lost to Rafa in Barcelona and Madrid earlier in the clay court season. Thiem’s win was impressive not only because of the sheer fact that he beat Rafa but because he did not employ the blueprint we’ve previously seen used to beat Rafa on clay. For both Djokovic and the big hitters like Robin Soderling (major throwback) who have gotten the best of Rafa on clay, the goal has been always to stay on top of the baseline and dictate from the middle of the court when Rafa had a tendency to leave balls short in the court.
However, Thiem’s game is not exactly designed to take the ball early and inside the court. Instead, especially on clay, Thiem relies on his large backswings both on the forehand and backhand side to generate the type of heavy ball that makes clay his most lethal surface. The Austrian was able to dictate play from further back in the court than we’ve previously seen against Rafa and finally got his first win over the King of Clay. While it may be premature to call him Nadal’s heir since those are pretty big shoes to fill, it is clear that Thiem’s semifinal appearance at last year’s French Open was no fluke. He truly is one of the best both clay court and overall players at just the age of 23, and we hope as fans that he and Zverev can both carry the mantle for tennis once the Big Four retire.
Power Rankings: Who Wants To Be Tennis’ Next Star?
As an anonymous source once told me, “tennis is going to be in big trouble once Roger and Rafa retire.” Hard core fans may be unwilling to accept that fact, but ultimately there needs to be more sustained success from guys who have yet to reach their late 20’s. In the top 20, there are currently nine players below the age of 28. What follows is a ranking that combines their future potential, past ability, and their ability to at least attempt to fill the shoes of the Big Four:
1) Alexander Zverev -- Big splash, first in the group to win a Masters 1000 title, #1 potential
2) Nick Kyrgios -- Headcase. Arguably most talented player in this group. Swagger. Still a bit out there.
3) Dominic Thiem -- Already ranked top 7, best clay court player, great coach, doesn’t have anything other than fifth gear
4) Lucas Pouille -- Has proven ability to perform on the biggest stage, may be the first Frenchman in a while with a semblance of a strong mental game. But does he…?
5) Grigor Dimitrov -- Probably the biggest choke in this group when it comes to losing tight matches. How many years can he go underachieving as baby Fed without being considered a huge disappointment?
6) Kei Nishikori -- Congrats on reaching a U.S. Open final. What have you done since then? Nothing.
7) Milos Raonic -- Weirdo. Plays a brand of tennis few people outside of Canada enjoy. Should dedicate less time to his hairstyle and more time to prehabbing. Wears New Balance.
8) David Goffin -- Phenomenal all-around player but lacks weapons and finishing power to win Slams. Got roached by chair umpire in Monte Carlo.
9) Jack Sock -- He might move up a spot if he learns to hit a pro-level backhand. Could use some help from Lavar Ball in marketing himself. Sock socks for $150?
Without a doubt, I am picking Dominic Thiem to perform the best out of these nine at Roland Garros. None of the other eight have reached the semifinals of the French Open and probably should not be considered as title contenders. However, with Zverev on a hot streak following his win in Rome, I would not be surprised to see him make a run and perhaps give one of the top guys a run for his money in the second week of the tournament.
OPEN by… Novak Djokovic?
We all thought it was just a rumor, but it is, indeed, now true. Andre Agassi is joining Novak Djokovic’s thin camp for Roland Garros on an experimental basis to try to help lift the Serb out of his current funk. It seemed as if the table was set for everyone to start picking Novak as a dark horse to win the French. He transitioned from a sarcastic and negative attitude in his first several matches in Rome into a determined and fiery passion during his demolition of Dominic Thiem in the semifinals. However, with an opportunity to beat an inexperienced opponent when it comes to winning Masters series events, Novak faltered as he often has the last few months.
Although hiring Agassi seems like a great move, it guarantees nothing. The two have been speaking over the phone prior to every Djokovic match the last several weeks, and Novak’s head still does not seem to be in the right place. But what Novak’s semifinal performance against Thiem revealed is that his level of tennis is very close to where it needs to be in order to regain world number one form. As mentioned in last week’s column, the mental ingredient is the last and most difficult step in helping him return to his previously dominant level. While Agassi can in no way guarantee that, the man does know a little something about winning a French Open having no momentum going into the tournament. Who knows, maybe Novak even considers leaving his underwear back home prior to arriving in Paris for a fortnight of tennis?
When it comes to a longer term outlook, we know nothing is set in stone. With the variability of Novak’s mental state and Agassi likely committed to other aspects of his life, it is yet to be seen whether this relationship succeeds or fails. But if Novak’s 2017 P.R. campaign has been all about him rekindling his love for the sport, then there is no better coach to show him the ropes than Agassi, who discovered a newfound appreciation for the game in the latter parts of his career. Combine this with the fact that the two greatest returners in the history of the game have teamed up, and you’ve got a stacked team headed to Roland Garros.
Mailbag Question from David (not me): Which player would you coach, and what would you bring to the table?
First off, we don’t do two-part questions. What is this, a White House press briefing? A player I would want to coach who should be a part of the Next Gen conversation but isn’t because of his inconsistency is Borna Coric. He has both the talent and the brains to go a long way, but as a coach I would spend an inordinate amount of time working on his forehand. No one in the Top 20 (Stan Wawrinka included) has a bigger backhand than forehand, and in order to make the big jump that someone like Zverev has made, Coric needs the forehand to be his main weapon in order to transition from being a counter-puncher to a more aggressive player.
Mailbag Question from J.B: Why do Americans seem to dominate the juniors but underperform professionally?
This is a very good question that probably does not have a definitive answer, but the reality is that a great junior career does not guarantee anything in the pro’s. Even though Americans have recently dominated the Grand Slam junior circuit, success becomes more “relative” at the pro level because everyone has accomplished a great deal prior to reaching the professional circuit. Therefore, we need a better perspective when we evaluate the Americans who seem to struggle. For example, Donald Young seems like a bust because expectations were set too high for him. On the other hand, everyone seems to think Ryan Harrison is an underachiever because of his inconsistencies over the years but yet he is currently ranked 42.
With respect to the younger guys, I think more time needs to be given before their progress is evaluated because they are all still developing. Since we rarely see young guys being immediately successful at the pro level, we need to allow these guys a few years worth of match play under their belt until we begin determining whether or not they have played up to expectations following their junior career performances.