Wimbledon 2018: Young and restless tennis’ next gen likes to hit it hard
Aggressive baseliners, uncomfortable at the net, are playing a punchier brand of the sport
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Having dislodged Rafael Nadal from his clay perch, Dominic Thiem had looked set to rule the red dirt at the Madrid Open in May. What he didn’t look ready for was the all-out onslaught that Alexander Zverev unleashed, starting with that crack-whip serve, in the final. The 21-year-old German stepped on to the court and besieged a backtracking Thiem with his fast and flat ground strokes.
It wasn’t the best day in office for the Austrian, but Zverev’s urgent, first-strike tennis completely wrong-footed Thiem on his favourite surface. Zverev cracked 15 winners to wrap up the final in 78 minutes and win his third ATP World Tour Masters 1000 title.
Even more impressive was the fact that he had gone through the week, and some pretty tough opponents, without dropping a serve. Moreover, the final against Thiem, like most of his matches in Madrid, had been bereft of the long rallies that are a staple on clay. The average rally length in the first set was 3.9 shots.
Ranked No. 3 in the world, Zverev is the undoubted leader of #NextGen. He is also representative of a generation of players who are throwing caution to the wind and playing a punchier brand of tennis.
In a subtle shift from the age of the defensive baseliner, the younger players, age 23 and below, are counting winners rather than percentages. Why hit 10 shots in a rally when one is enough?
“Tennis is moving that way,” Nadal had said during the 2015 French Open. “Younger, aggressive. The tour in general is moving to hit the ball stronger and quicker, going for the winners all the time.”
Spearheaded by Zverev, the group is dominated by some impressive shot-makers like Denis Shapovalov (Canada), Andrey Rublev, Karen Khachanov (Russia), Frances Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz (US), Stefanos Tsitsipas (Greece), and the slightly older, but by no means more cautious, Nick Kyrgios (Australia) and Australian Open semi-finalist Kyle Edmund (UK). They come from all corners of the world, unlike the Eurocentric model that the game currently revolves around.
“These guys were aggressive players even as juniors,” says 1987 Wimbledon champion Pat Cash on email. “Rublev, Shapovalov and Khachanov have always been aggressive, hitting hard from the baseline and serve.”
All of Shapovalov’s bravado was on show in 2017—a breakthrough year for him. The blond-haired Canadian crackles with youthful energy and tries to turn every shot into a spectacle. Not only can the southpaw generate explosive power off both the flanks, he is also one of the few youngsters who moves to the net for a kill, confidently. It was this high-tempo, high-risk tennis that got him Nadal’s scalp in the Rogers Cup Montreal last August.
Bucking the trend of the marauding youngsters, though, has been Hyeon Chung. The South Korean, who uses Novak Djokovic’s ultra-athletic game as his template, has been lauded for his tireless play and the Djoko-esque transition from defence to offence. But Chung’s coach Neville Godwin said in an interview to the ATP website that they had spent most of the off-season improving his serve and sharpening his attacking instinct.
“There were a few things Hyeon just needed to do a little bit better,” Godwin is quoted as saying in a New York Times article. “Obviously, he has got great wheels, but you can’t just defend for 10 years as a pro, otherwise you end up like Andy Murray with hip surgery, and probably sooner.”
The result of this onus on attack was that Chung made it to the semi-finals of the Australian Open this year. He defeated Zverev and Djokovic en route, to lay down the first marker for #NextGen in Grand Slams.
At the other end of the draw, England’s Edmund was having his own coming-of-age moment. Until his semi-final against Marin Čilić, Edmund had bulldozed opponents, especially with his massive forehand. He hit 127 forehand winners in his first five matches, making it one of the most destructive shots of the tournament.
There has been a string of more encouraging results from these younger, more daring players. Tiafoe won his first ATP title at Delray Beach in February, beating his hero Juan Martín del Potro on the way. Tsitsipas blitzed his way to the final of the Barcelona Open, and Shapovalov made it to the round of 16 at the US Open last year, having started as a qualifier. All these young players are ranked in the top 50, but they are yet to hit the high ground of consistency.
This is especially true of the Grand Slams, where anyone not named Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal isn’t doing great.
“The game is more physical now than it has ever been,” says elite coach Darren Cahill on email. “Bigger, stronger bodies are needed to be able to compete with the best players in the world. They need more years of training to build a stronger base. So the breakthroughs are taking longer, but, on the flip side, the elite careers of many players have been extended well into their 30s. All of the next-generation players are well placed right at the moment, assuming the likes of (Roger) Federer and Nadal won’t play forever. Actually, I take that back. The way they are playing, maybe they will.”
The one tactic, experts believe, that can help younger players expedite their progress to the top is their net game. Apart from Shapovalov, none of them is entirely comfortable backing up big serves and ground strokes with a quick dash to the net. With the courts slowing down all round the world, the walls between playing styles have already come down. Unlike the eras gone by, the one-game-fits-all strategy can work in today’s tennis.
“For the most part, they are still only attacking baseliners,” adds Cahill. “For sure, the net game and transition forward is being encouraged and coached more but none of these guys is all that comfortable around the net, especially when they’ve been brought forward against their will. All players have realized that you need to transition forward more to protect the body and shorten points, so it’s a matter of committing to it over the course of time to improve it.”
It could lend the X factor to this Generation Z.
They have already shown the potential to move tennis up another gear. In the past two seasons, they have perked up an ageing game with youthful zest. This golden era of men’s tennis, led by the irrepressible Federer and Nadal, has been blinding. But there are definite bright sparks on the horizon.
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