August 15, 2017
Rafael Nadal may have taken over as world number one, but his claim to that crown will soon be sorely tested by the young pretenders of our sport at the forthcoming US Open, as the Spaniard well knows.
And the young guns will be led by the brilliant Alexander Zverev, who blasted his way to Rogers Cup victory in Montreal with a 6-3, 6-4 win over none other than Roger Federer.
True, the Fed was suffering from a twinge or two in his back, and that hardly helped the older man’s cause. But the 20-year-old Zverev is showing all the signs of becoming a world number one himself before too long.
He had already bagged Washington DC recently and admitted: ‘Back-to-back tournament wins, that’s amazing and I feel I’m playing the best tennis of my life.’
Federer says of Zverev Junior:’He’s healthy, he’s motivated, he has a big game and I like it. He serves well and I like his backhand.’
“Sascha” Zverev has that blend of power and skill that seriously troubles even seasoned opponents. His shot selection, control and consistency are improving all the time too. Eye-catching results have followed.
Take this summer alone. Zverev defeated Novak Djokovic to win the Italian Open, triumphed in DC for a fresh highlight, then took Federer’s scalp in Canada. He also beat another of the game’s most exciting young guns, Denis Shapovalov, during his winning run in Montreal.
But who’s to say that the 18-year-old Shapovalov won’t create more shocks of his own at the US Open, after what he has achieved recently?
Famous wins over the great Nadal in Canada, and also over the superb Juan Martin del Potro, show that Shapovalov, a former Junior Wimbledon winner, is more than ready for the big time too.
Federer seems even more effusive about Shapovalov. Of his Coupe Rogers campaign, the generous Swiss said: ‘I loved watching Denis play. I think he had the matches of the tournament, with all these great three-setters he had to play, especially the one against Rafa. I think he caught the attention of the tennis world, and rightfully so. I really enjoyed watching him.’
Meanwhile Nick Kyrgios surely has to strike gold in a Grand Slam sooner or later. In Montreal, the 22-year-old became yet another victim of Zverev’s, despite beating the German at Indian Wells and Miami earlier in the year.
But Kyrgios has what it takes to achieve glory, if he gets his head right for the big moments in the calendar. We all know that his time is coming if he stays on the rails – and he keeps showing us why.
Look what happened in Cincinnati. He swept away Nadal with some awesome tennis in their quarter. The Australian went all the way to the final, beaten only by the resurgent Grigor Dimitrov on the big day.
Does Dimitrov qualify as a “Young Gun”? Maybe not, since he is already 26. But he is certainly part of that next generation, trying so hard to take over from the likes of Federer and Nadal.
Perhaps Dimitrov is about to move up a level, just when it seemed he never would. The Bulgarian’s form at Flushing Meadows should be interesting, to say the least.
Meanwhile it’s strange to think that both Sascha Zverev and Kyrgios could easily have been lost to our sport already.
Sascha was interested in so many other sports as a young man that he wanted to quit tennis completely at one stage. Meanwhile Kyrgios has always walked the tightrope between professionalism and the temptation to just walk away from the challenge of elite tennis to enjoy himself in other ways.
‘It’s only a game,’ Kyrgios said of tennis once more in Cincinnati, as he sought to take the pre-final pressure off himself.
If that’s the attitude it takes to keep him involved, and create moments like that magnificent victory over Nadal, then so be it. Indeed we should feel lucky that both Kyrgios and Zverev are still here to entertain us, with the promise of so much more to come.
And we can’t finish this fanfare for the young guns without mentioning Dominic Thiem. The likeable Austrian has enjoyed an impressive year, particularly in the first half of 2017.
He beat Nadal in the Rome masters and Novak Djokovic at the French Open, meaning that he had defeated each of the big four, including Federer and Andy Murray, at least once. Not bad before the age of 24 – and he is currently ranked eighth in the world.
It would be wise to throw home-grown hero Jack Sock into the Flushing Meadows equation. You never know how much the improving Sock might be capable of, especially in America’s most prestigious tournament.
And now we can add Frances Tiafoe, the 19-year-old American who ended Zverev’s winning streak in Cincinnati. That makes for an impressive list of contenders still under the age of 25.
No wonder the likes of Nadal and Federer have begun to look over their shoulders. The legends, you sense, know that their era of dominance will soon be over, magnificent as this golden age has been.
But fear not. A new era of legends is already in the making. And they are playing some great tennis. Good enough for one of them to win the US Open? Why not? Tennis is now perfectly balanced between the powers of the older and younger players.
As Montreal and Cincinnati perfectly illustrated, we don’t know which way matches are going to go. New Yorkers should already start getting excited.