The Young Punks
As the saying goes, history repeats itself. In this case, we see a kind of harmonic in tennis history between these past few generations and the first few generations of the Open Era. The first generation of Rosewall and Laver was extremely strong, followed by one of the very weakest, with only Arthur Ashe winning multiple Slams, then the third—headlined by John Newcombe and Ilie Nastase—was much stronger but still not quite a generation of greats (aside from Newcombe). And so we see a similar pattern with the last few generations: the 1984-88 was (and still is) one of the greatest generations in tennis history; 1989-93 one of the weakest. The verdict is still out on this new young generation of 1994-98, with players ending 2015 at age 17-21, but there are promising signs, as we shall see, and it certainly looks to be stronger than the 89-93 generation.
I call them the “Young Punks” for two reasons: One, because of the “punkish” attitude of Nick Kyrgios, so far the most successful of the group, and secondly because they carry a kind of swagger that seems to be lacking from the previous generation—which is a good thing.
Best Players by Birth Year:
1994: Lucas Pouille (FRA), Kimmer Coppejans (BEL), Jordan Thompson (AUS), Adam Pavlasek (CZE), Luke Saville (AUS), Mathias Bourgue (FRA)
1995: Nick Kyrgios (AUS), Yoshihito Nishioka (JPN), Kyle Edmund (UK), Matteo Donati (ITA), Mackenzie MacDonald (USA)
1996: Borna Coric (CRO), Hyeon Chung (KOR), Thanasi Kokkinakis AUS), Jared Donaldson (USA), Quentin Halys (FRA), Elias Ymer (SWE), Noah Rubin (USA), Christian Garin (CHI), Karen Khachanov (RUS)
1997: Alexander Zverev (GER), Taylor Harry Fritz (USA), Andrey Rublev (RUS), Tommy Paul (USA), Omar Jasika (AUS)
1998: Frances Tiafoe (USA), Stefan Kozlov (USA), Duckhee Lee (KOR), Mikael Ymer (SWE), Michael Mmoh (USA)
No Slams yet, with the operative word being “yet.” With this group it is only a matter of time, and we will almost certainly see several multi-Slam winners, if only because the previous generation is so weak, and Novak, Rafa, Andy, and Stan can’t maintain their hold of dominance forever.
As of this writing, seven players are in the Top 100: Kyrgios, Coric, Zverev, Chung, Fritz, Edmund, and Pouille, with Kokkinakis dropping out due to inactivity. There are another dozen or so in the No. 101-200 range, with several having a chance of entering the Top 100 this year, so by year’s end we could see 10-15% of the Top 100 being players of this generation, finishing the year 18-22 years old.
While there’s no player that looks like a surefire future great, at least not yet, there are quite a few that are potential future Slam winners, and several that could be multi-Slam winners. Part of this is bolstered by the weakness of the previous generation, but there are also some young players that are the most exciting young talents since Juan Martin del Potro and Marin Cilic.
1994 is relatively weak with the highest ranked player being Pouille, No. 87 at the ripe age of 22, but then the generation starts becoming stronger in 1995 with Nick Kyrgios, a player whose antics have made him unpopular. But most believe that he’ll eventually be a Slam winner, if he can remain healthy enough. Still, the floor is probably a Berdych-like player and career, but one who peaks in an era with more opportunity than poor Tomas, so with better results. His ceiling might be something like a Juan Martin del Potro, but hopefully with better health. Nishioka and Edmund look like two players who could be future regulars in the Top 40, maybe Top 20 even, but probably not Top 10.
The generation gets even stronger in 1996, with standouts Coric and Chung, as well as Kokkinakis, Donaldson, Halys, Elias Ymer, Rubin, Khachanov, and Garin showing various degrees of promise. Again, at this age almost every player shows some degree of promise, so it is hard to see now who will continue to rise and who will find a lower level in the rankings and stay there, that is “do a Berankis.” Coric is the player who has risen the quickest, although the feeling on him is mixed. He has stagnated for almost a year now: he broke into the Top 100 in October of 2014, and then climbed further into the Top 50 by May of 2015, but has fluctuated in the 30s and 40s for almost 10 months now. Still, he’s almost certainly going to rise higher, but he may be more of a future Top 10-20 player rather than the future star some pegged him out to be.
When we get to 1997, we see the two players who look to be the jewels of the generation: Alexander Zverev and Taylor Harry Fritz. Both Zverev and Fritz are getting a good amount of press, with my article about Fritz here. Zverev turns 19 in April and, in my mind—as with Fritz—isn’t far from a big breakout performance. I expect both of these players to win their first titles this year, and make it to the second week of at least one Slam. I think we’re going to see both of these players start head-hunting Top 20 and even some Top 10 players as soon as this year. Andrey Rublev also shows some promise and is eight days older than Fritz, but has yet to make his run at the Top 100. But he did just win his first Challenger title and could rise quickly.
1998 also has some promising players with Americans Francis Tiafoe and Stefan Kozlov, as well as the Korean Duckhee Lee and the Swede Mikael Ymer, Elias’s younger brother. Of the two Ymer brothers, Mikael may be the more talented. He’s still only 17, however, and still only ranked No. 590, but his is a name to keep in mind.
2016 will see this generation turning 18-22, so we should start seeing better indicators as to how good they might be, and maybe see a sprinkling of lesser titles. As I’ve written elsewhere, every single all-time great of the Open Era—which I’m defining as players with 6+ Slam titles—has accomplished three things before American drinking age: won an ATP title, reached the second week (QF or better) in at least one Slam, and finished the year in the Top 20. No player of this generation has accomplished all three, and while Kyrgios accomplished reached the second week of a Slam two years ago in 2014 at age 19, he won his first title this year a couple months before turning 21, but has yet to reach the Top 20. That said, I think we can loosen up a bit on those criteria, given the theory that players are taking a bit longer to mature these days. Perhaps two out of three of these criteria is enough to still be a possible future great.
It should be noted that this generation saw its first title when Nick Kyrgios won Marseille. Consider that 2016 is the equivalent year as 2011 was for the previous generation and 2006 for the 1984-88 generation. In 2011, the previous—and very weak—1989-93 generation won its second title, but wouldn’t start winning multiple titles until 2012. The 84-88 generation starting winning titles in 2004, and won their first Slam and first Masters in 2005 in the name of one Rafael Nadal. It seems likely that the 94-98 generation will be somewhere between the two, although as of this moment they are even behind the weak 89-93 generation. But look for players like Zverev and Fritz to challenge for titles this year.
Underachievers and Forgotten Players
It is too soon to tell. If there are any players I’m at all concerned about being underachievers, it is either Lucas Pouille or Christian Garin. At 22, Pouille should be showing a bit more; at this point he’s looking like yet another good-but-not-great Frenchman.
As for Garin, a couple years ago he was a highly touted junior, defeating Alexander Zverev in the 2013 Junior French Open. While Garin is still only 19, the luster has started to fade a bit as he’s yet to crack the Top 200. Still, we shouldn’t quite give up on him…yet.
Did You Know?
I: Alex Zverev’s father was a tennis player, as is his older brother, Mischa.
II: Andrey Rublev is the name of an illustrious Russian literary figure, and also the title of a film (Andrei Rublev) by the great Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky.
27. Nick Kyrgios
47. Borna Coric
58. Alexander Zverev
64. Hyeon Chung
80. Taylor Fritz
82. Kyle Edmund
87. Lucas Pouille
119. Thanasi Kokkinakis
122. Kimmer Coppejans
123. Jordan Thompson
Other players in the Top 200: Yoshihito Nishioka (No. 124), Adam Pavlasek (No. 134), Karen Khachanov (No. 146), Elias Ymer (No. 152), Jared Donaldson (No. 158), Andrey Rublev (No. 161), Quentin Halys (No. 175), Francis Tiafoe (No. 177), Matteo Donati (No. 181), Luke Saville (No. 186), Matthias Bourgue (No. 187).
Kyrgios and Coric have been stagnating, although the former has been playing very well of late and should start rising again. Chung has also stagnated, but Zverev and Fritz are both on the rise and should be in the Top 50 shortly.
Top Ten Players of the Generation (Predicted)
Right now the most accomplished player of the generation is clearly Nick Kyrgios, the only player with a title and a second week Slam result (he has made a QF twice). But given that their career accomplishments at this point are minimal, and we can see their current rankings above, I’m going to go out on a limb and predict how this list might look 20 years from now. Of course this is impossible to predict, but why not?
1. Alexander Zverev
2. Taylor Harry Fritz
3. Nick Kyrgios
4. Andrey Rublev
5. Mikael Ymer
6. Francis Tiafoe
7. Borna Coric
8. Hyeon Chung
9. Stefan Kozlov
10. Jared Donaldson
Honorable Mentions: Elias Ymer, Yoshihito Nishioka, Thanasi Kokkinakis, Kyle Edmund, and just about everyone else.
This is wild conjecture at this point, but humor me! The top three are safe picks considering their recent performances. After that, I have a feeling about Mikael Ymer and Andrey Rublev, but could be very wrong about one or both. Coric and Tiafoe are paired in my mind, both being somewhat overhyped but both should still be very good players, but again it is just too soon to tell. Chung snuck into the Top 100 by winning a ton of Challengers and Futures, but has yet to do much at more significant tournaments–he’s only made it past the Round of 16 once, at Shenzhen (ATP 250) last year when he lost to Marin Cilic in the QF; the point being, he’s a good “Berankis candidate,” although like all of these players it is too soon to tell. Kozlov is another young American to look out for. After that, Donaldson is a player that I’ve been expecting a breakthrough from for a while now, but haven’t yet seen it.
Postscript: Gen 14 (1999-03) – Millennials
Yes, Gen 14 is beginning to show up on the edge of the radar. Right now just a few players are ranked, but as of the end of 2015 we have:
1999: Corentin Moutet (FRA), Denis Shapovalov (CAN), Alex De Minaur (AUS), Santiago Fa Rodriguez Taverna (ARG)
2000: Felix Auger Aliassime (CAN), Rayane Roumane (FRA)
All of the above are ranked between No. 700 to No. 1,000, which basically means they’ve played in Futures but haven’t gone pro yet. And yes, there are players born in 2000 that have ATP rankings. A scary thought. Aliassime has turned some heads and even reached the QF of a Challenger last July when he was 14 years old, before losing to then No. 145 Yoshihito Nishioka—but not before talking the first set from him. He definitely bears watching, but all of this Generation Next are two to three years away from being a serious prospect.
Cover Photo (Creative Commons License): Marianne Bevis / Carine06 / mirsasha