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NextGen 2016 in Review and 2017 Outlook — Part Two: The Sun Also Rises (1997-2000)

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In Part One we looked at the players born from 1993 to 1996, with a resulting outlook which was pretty grim. There are several players who should be good players, even possible Slam contenders, but in general they continue a trend of weak talent from the 1989-92 group, with no clear future elite players. Let’s take a look at the players born in 1997 to 2000, the teenagers who turned 16 to 19 in 2016.

CLASS OF ’97
24. Alexander Zverev
76. Taylor Fritz
156. Andrey Rublev
204. Reilly Opelka
205. Alexander Bublik

The sun will always rise. Here we see arguably the brightest young player in the game: Alexander Zverev. If I had to put money on any one young player being a future multi-Slam winner, it would be Zverev. He may or may not be a future great, but he should at the least be very, very good. Consider that the last players to finish their age 19 season ranked in the top 25 were Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray in 2006, ranked #16 and #17, respectively. In other words, Zverev is the first teenager to finish in the top 25 in ten years. In fact, the list of teenagers in the Open Era who have finished in the top 25 is a relatively short one:

2016: Alexander Zverev (24)
2006: Novak Djokovic (16), Andy Murray (17)
2005: Rafael Nadal (2), Richard Gasquet (16)
2001: Andy Roddick (14)
2000: Lleyton Hewitt (7), (Roger Federer 29)
1999: Marat Safin (24), Lleyton Hewitt (25)
1995: Marcelo Rios (25)
1993: Andrei Medvedev (6)
1992: Andrei Medvedev (24)
1991: Michael Chang (15)
1990: Pete Sampras (5), Goran Ivanisevic (9), Michael Chang (15)
1989: Michael Chang (5), Andre Agassi (7), Jim Courier (24)
1988: Andre Agassi (3), Guillermo Perez Roldan (18)
1987: Kent Carlsson (12), Guillermo Perez-Roldan (19), Andre Agassi (25)
1986: Boris Becker (2), Kent Carlsson (13)
1985: Stefan Edberg (5), Boris Becker (6)
1984: Pat Cash (10), Aaron Krickstein (12), Stefan Edberg (20)
1983: Mats Wilander (4), Jimmy Arias (6)
1982: Mats Wilander (7), Jimmy Arias (20)
1980-81: Insufficient data
1979: Ivan Lendl (21)
1978: John McEnroe (4)
1977: John McEnroe (21)
1975: Bjorn Borg (3)
1974: Bjorn Borg (3)
1973: Bjorn Borg (18)

That’s 26 individual players in the ATP Era (1973-2016) who have finished a year ranked in the top 25 as a teenager. That may seem like quite a few players, and certainly there are several players on that list who didn’t have exactly stellar careers, but the majority of them were very good, and every applicable 6+ Slam winner—those who were teenagers during the ATP Era—is there, all except one: Roger Federer, who finished 2000—the year he turned 19—ranked #29; so he was close.

Furthermore, consider the aging of the tour: In the last 26 years, a teenager has ranked in the top 25 only 13 times  by 11 players; in the previous 28 years (1973-1990) it was done 28 times by 16 players. Zverev is the first player in ten years to accomplish this.

All of this is to point out that Zverev’s accomplishment is quite rare. Secondly, it points to likely future success. Of those 26 players, 20 of the went on to win at least one Slam (77%), 14 won multiple Slams (54%), and 10 won 6+ Slams (38%). The Slamless players are Krickstein, Carlsson, Perez-Roldan, Medvedev, Rios, and Gasquet. Of those six only Krickstein, Perez-Roldan, and Gasquet didn’t win at least a Masters. If we look at only the last 26 years, of the ten players previous to Zverev, only three didn’t win Slams (Medvedev, Rios, Gasquet), five won 1-3 Slams (Chang, Hewitt, Safin, Roddick, Murray) and two became truly great players (Nadal, Djokovic). Going purely on percentages, that’s a 70% probability of at least one Slam title and a 50% probability of at least two. Of course this isn’t enough data to go on, but it gives us a sense of possible outcomes.

All that said, Zverev had a very good year, going from #83 to #24, and winning his first ATP title in his third final of the year, defeating Stanislas Wawrinka in three sets in St. Petersburg, an ATP 250 event. He didn’t make it past the third round of a Slam, but he had consistent results overall and situated himself to be seeded in Slams going forward.

Among the other players, Taylor Fritz is another exciting young player to watch. After starting the year ranked #174, he surged in early 2016, winning an early Challenger title and then gaining larger attention by a strong run at the ATP 250 Memphis Open, defeating second-seeded Steve Johnson en route (#29) to the final, which he lost to Kei Nishikori. He rose as high as #53 in late August, including a memorable three-set loss to Roger Federer at the Mercedes Cup, but then faded a bit later in the year, finishing at #76.

The big disappointment for me is Andrey Rublev, who is exactly the same age as Fritz but after winning his first Challenger title in March, stalled out and didn’t progress, going from #185 in 2015 to #156 in 2016. Big server Reilly Opelka shows some promise and could be the next John Isner. He rose from virtually unranked in 2015 (#981) to #204, including his first Challenger title in November.

2017 Outlook: After going from #83 to #24, including his first title, I’d like to say that Zverev—who turns 20 in April—is poised to enter the elite. But I think we’ll be talking that way more likely a year from now. In 2017 I predict stabilization and further modest gains, with an outside chance of sneaking into the top 10 and a World Tour Final berth, but more likely finishing in the 10-15 range. Look for him to be win more low level titles, maybe even compete for a Masters. More importantly, he needs to go deeper into Slams; he still hasn’t made it past the third round, which he made it to at both Roland Garros and Wimbledon. While 2018 might be the year he breaks through into the true elite and Slam contention, he is going to be a dangerous opponent in 2017, and not someone the elite will take for granted. I think that at some point this year, there will be a tournament that we look back on as breakthrough. It may be a second week run at a Slam, or a Masters final – but at some point this year, the big boys will take notice of him.

Fritz is exactly half a year younger than Zverev, and is probably more like a year behind him developmentally; expect to see him do in 2017 what Zverev did in 2016. His gains might be a bit more modest, but he should be in the top 40 by the end of the year, if not higher, and is a good candidate to win his first title. Fritz also will start getting more and more attention as he starts to upset top 20 players, and going deeper in tournaments.

I do expect both Rublev and Opelka to reach the top 100 this year; they just seem a year or so behind their two more successful peers. I do still hope that Rublev figures it out; he seems the type that could do it quickly, but his candidacy as a future elite is now greatly reduced. I see him more as a potential tier two or three player, which is still pretty good.

CLASS OF ’98
108. Francis Tiafoe
116. Stefan Kozlov
143. Duck Hee Lee
198. Michael Mmoh
209. Stefanos Tsitsapis
231. Casper Ruud

This is a subtly strong group, with no players that look like future greats but at least six—those listed above—who could be top 40 types. The jury is still out on Tiafoe; he made good strides this year, and some see him as a future star, but others are worried about his erratic serve and play. I don’t have much to say about Lee except that he continues to progress. Kozlov looks promising and between the first and final draft of this piece, moved up thirty ranks on account of winning his first Challenger title, which was the fifth won by an American teenager in 2016, after Fritz, Tiafoe, Opelka, and Mmoh, who is another promising young American. In those five players, the United States has the most talented group of young players since at least 2003, when Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, Taylor Dent, and Robby Ginepri were all 22 or younger and ranked 33 or better. But more on that in another article.

Tsitsapis, a #1 ITF Junior, made good progress, as did Ruud. Another player to keep an eye on is Mikael Ymer (#492), who missed most of the year to injury but still holds promise.

2017 Outlook: These players are still quite young so expectations should be modest, but we could see several of them enter the top 100 in 2017, maybe even win a title. Of all of the “classes,” this one has perhaps the deepest talent—at least that we can see so far—so bears watching in 2017. Tiafoe, Kozlov, and Lee should all reach the top 100 sooner than later, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Mmoh, Tsitsipas, and Ruud all approach the top 100 by year’s end. If Ymer stays healthy, he could rise quickly and be on the cusp of the top 100 as well. So that is at least seven players who bear watching.
CLASS OF ’99
250. Denis Shapovalov
354. Alex De Minaur
519. Corentin Moutet
806. Miomir Kecmanovic
926. Yibing Wu

Denis Shapovalov is the big revelation here, with none of the others standing out yet. Shapovalov won his first Junior Slam at Wimbledon, defeating De Minaur, and also won three Futures titles, but it was at the Rogers Cup that he garnered more attention, upsetting Nick Kyrgios in the first round before losing to Grigor Dimitrov in the second.

2017 Outlook: Look for Shapovalov to move steadily up the rankings as he focuses on the Challenger tour. Good progress would be for him to reach the #100-150 range by year’s end, winning a Challenger title or two. It is possible that he breaks into the top 100 as soon as this year, although that is probably unlikely.

CLASS OF ’00
601. Felix Auger Aliassime
789. Nicola Kuhn
925. Yshai Oliel
1063. Rudolf Molleker
1066. Alen Avidzba

It is hard not to be excited about Felix Auger Aliassime, who just turned 16 in August shortly before winning the Junior title at the US Open, as well as winning his first Futures title just a couple weeks ago. And how about this: his birthday is August 8, the same day as a certain Swiss great you might have heard of….although Aliassime is 19 years younger than Federer. To put that in context, when Aliassime was born on August 8, 2000, Roger Federer was ranked #38 in the world and rising.

Aliassime is, by all accounts, an immense talent. There is also some room for concern, as it was revealed earlier this year that he has a heart condition that will almost certainly impact his career, although the question is to what degree (for reference, Mardy Fish had a similar condition). Let us cross our fingers and hope.

As for the others on the list, there isn’t a lot to know right now—but they’re the top players born in 2000. But chances are this list will look very different in  year, when we should have a better sense who the true prospects of this year are.

2017 Outlook: Given that these players enter 2017 as 16-year olds, there isn’t much to expect and we just don’t know enough about any of them except for Aliassime, so we’ll have to revisit this group in a year or two. But Aliassime does bear watching, both because of his prodigious talent but also his health concerns. Aliassime will focus on the Junior tour and should be dominant; look for him to win a Slam or two, and start playing in more Futures. A year-end ATP ranking in the 200s is not out of the question.

 

Cover Photo by Steven Pisano from Wikimedia Commons, Courtesy of Creative Commons License

Comment below, or you can also discuss in detail with fellow tennis fans on the Tennis Frontier Message Board Forum

 

About Jonathan Northrop

Jonathan Northrop is the resident in-house analyst of numbers, trends and how they can be applied with an eye on tennis history. You can contact Jonathan via: eldude@tennisfrontier.com
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