NEW YORK—They are the most talented bunch of young male players I can remember in decades. They have won ATP titles, beaten Top 10 players and seem certain to flood the top of the rankings in the next couple of years.
At this year’s US Open, there were 24 of them aged 22 or under in the first round. Ten of those were already ranked in the world’s Top 50. Thirteen made it to the second round. Seven advanced to the third round. But only Borna Coric of Croatia made into the last 16, and when he fell to Juan Martin del Potro, that was it.
All that talent, all that promise...but none of them could fill the gaps that opened up in the draw. The opportunities were all grabbed by seasoned pros who, for various reasons, had never hit the heights. The leader of that pack, of course, was John Millman, the oft-injured Aussie who stunned Roger Federer on a steamy night that melted the great Swiss and took the 29-year-old into his first ever Grand Slam quarterfinal. Also making it to the fourth round in that half of the draw were 34-year-old Philipp Kohlschreiber, 29-year-old Joao Sousa and 26-year-old Nikoloz Basilashvili. With respect, these are journeymen who, unlike the a large number of the NextGen group, will struggle to get near the Top 10.
So what is the problem? Why is it proving so difficult for young players to crash through the early rounds at Grand Slam level when they clearly have enough ability to do so? Frances Tiafoe won the ATP title at Delray Beach last February; Coric, in the upset of the year considering it was on grass, defeated Federer in the final of Halle, and two weeks ago Daniil Medvedev beat Steve Johnson to win Winston-Salem. To top it off, at the Rogers Cup, 20-year-old Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas beat no less than four players ranked in the Top 10 on the way to his first ATP Masters 1000 final.
And what can you make of Alexander Zverev, the 21-year-old German who, last year, launched himself into the No. 3 spot by winning five singles titles, including Masters 1000 events in Rome and Montreal to add to his first triumph in St. Petersburg at the age of 19 a year earlier.
There is no questioning Zverev’s talent but, at Grand Slam level, he has just one quarterfinal showing. Yet another opportunity was squandered here in New York, when he was outplayed by Kohlschreiber in a quarter of the draw that would have seen him play Kei Nishikori in the quarters and Marin Cilic in the semis—not easy, but doable for a man ranked third in the world.
Not even the arrival of Ivan Lendl as the new coach in his player’s box could give Zverev the confidence to produce the level of tennis we see from him routinely on the ATP tour.
WATCH—TenniStory: Martina Navratilova, who believes the best-of-five-set format is the reason for the ATP Next Gen's struggles at the Slams:
So what is the problem?
“Five sets,” said Martina Navratilova emphatically.
“Best of five,” said Mark Knowles, the multiple Grand Slam doubles winner who now analyses for Tennis Channel.
John Lafnie de Jager, the South African who coached the Springfield Lasers to the World TeamTennis title last month, went straight to the same answer.
“The young guys are not emotionally prepared for the long haul,” says de Jager, who sees players achieve things in the quick fire, no ad, go-for-it format of WTT that they would never be able to achieve at Grand Slams.
“And even though they are incredibly fit, there is the physical aspect as well,” says de Jager. “Fatigue eventually starts to play on the mind and question a player’s confidence. The ability to concentrate for long periods of time is another necessity and that has to be learned. It’s what has made Federer and other members of the Top 4 who have dominated the game for a decade so exceptional.”
Navratilova agrees that both the physical and emotional elements come into play.
“Lose the first set and best of five seems a very big mountain to climb. Someone like Novak Djokovic brushes it off and settles down to a long war, but young players find it daunting.”
Navratilova, of course, did not play best of five during her illustrious career, except when the WTA decided to play the final match of their season-ending championships as best of five. The experiment lasted from 1984 to 1998, and Navratilova won the first four of them, only having to play a fourth set once, against Hana Mandlikova in 1986.
“But I never took it lightly,” Martina added. “I knew best of five could be a very different deal. I went out and practiced playing five sets straight off to make sure I could handle it physically.”
“It is something you need to get used to,” says Knowles. “ I am not sure how many coaches put their players through the business of playing five sets in practice. Perhaps those in charge of young players should include it in their preparation when the Slams come around.”
Navratilova also brings up the question of bigger playing arenas.
“The tendency is to think of a tennis court as always being the same size," she says. "It’s true that it is inside the lines, but entire playing areas vary enormously. Just look at the space available to chase balls or return serve from way back in Arthur Ashe [Stadium]. You can indulge in tactics and shot making that would be impossible on some of the outside courts. The established players are used to that.”
Boris Becker, who won Wimbledon at 17 and, just to prove it wasn’t a fluke won it again at 18, takes a slightly different slant.
“It’s a mental problem,” he says. “The young players today—many of them very talented—aren’t mature enough. They can’t think for themselves. They lose a set and think, ‘What do I do now?’ It’s hardly surprising because they only have to show some promise and suddenly there are four people carrying their bags. They can get away with it over three sets but five poses a bigger challenge.”
Maturity, in all its forms, probably sums it up best. Zverev, Tsitsipas, Coric, Tiafoe and the powerful Karen Khachanov, who gave Rafael Nadal such a thrilling work out in the third round, are all far too good not to rise to the top. But it will take time. Nadal was stretched even further during an incredible four-hour, 49-minute quarterfinal battle with Dominic Thiem that the Austrian was so desperately close to winning in the fifth-set tiebreak. But Thiem is 24, and those two extra years count.
The NextGen still have hurdles to overcome. Most of them will manage it but, as these results have shown, one should never underestimate how difficult it is, and why playing best of five is a different ball game.