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Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, at 23, should be part of the next wave of tennis greats. (Peter Schneider/Keystone via AP)
Russia’s Daniil Medvedev, at 23, should be part of the next wave of tennis greats. (Peter Schneider/Keystone via AP)|Associated Press
Tennis

Tennis: Where Are Future Men's Champions Coming From? Russia, Canada, Australia, Serbia, the U.S. and France

Medvedev, Khachanov and Rublev make for a strong trio under 23.

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

The four Grand Slam tournaments of 2019 are over, and the Big Three dominated these events, as we have grown accustomed to. With Rafa Nadal taking two of the four Slams this year (the French—his 12th, and the U.S. Open—his 4th) and Novak Djokovic taking the other two (Australia—his 7th, and Wimbledon—his 7th), they have solidified their place at the pinnacle of the rankings. Number 3, Roger Federer, reached the finals at Wimbledon, and has gone an unworldly 43-7 for 2019 so far. These three guys are far and away the best players in Men’s tennis, and nothing seems to be slowing them down.

Since Federer won his initial Grand Slam title, at Wimbledon in 2003, there have been 65 Grand Slam titles to be won, and all but 11 were won by one of the Big Three. Andy Murray has three titles, Stan Wawrinka has three, and Marat Safin, Gaston Gaudio, Marin Cilic, Andy Roddick, and Juan Martin del Potro all won one. Any way you look at it, this is an astounding statistic.

But Father Time is creeping up on all of them, particularly Federer, who is now 38-years-old, and like all athletes, these guys will see their stay at the top end some day. When that day comes, where will the future champions come from?

We know that there are several players who stand alone near the top of the rankings as the only representatives of their countries. Those who immediately come to mind are Stefanos Tsitsipas (Greece), Alexander Zverev (Germany), Dominic Thiem (Austria), Kei Nishikori (Japan), and Borna Coric (Croatia). But Nishikori is already 29, and that would exclude him from those who I would identify as tomorrow’s champions. Tomorrow’s champions today would have to be 24 or younger, and I doubt that those who are already 24-years-old would show as future champions if they’re not champions already. I’m also looking for countries that are producing more than one player, as the meteoric rise of a single player can happen from anywhere. So let’s look at my list:

1. Russia

With Daniil Medvedev (#4), Karen Khachanov (#9) and Andrey Rublev (#38) all under 23-years-old, I think it’s safe to say that we’re going to see a lot of Russian Grand Slam champions by the early 2020’s. Medvedev has shown how far he’s come in a short amount of time by pretty much dominating the summer hard court season and translating that to a run to the finals at the U.S. Open. But he’s not the only great young Russian. Karen Khachanov, at 6’6”, has all the talent in the world, and just needs to put his game together. Once he does—and he will, he’s a danger to win any tournament he enters. And Andrey Rublev has already shown his greatness by totally destroying Roger Federer, in straight sets, in Cincinnati this summer. Give him another 9-12 months and we’ll all be praising his game to high heaven.

2. Canada

Yes, our neighbor up North is doing a far better job in developing world-class tennis players than we are in the Colonies. They may only have the population of California (in fact, they’re smaller than California—37,000,000 to 39,750,000) but they are doing one heck of a job in developing the best of the best. With the recent ascent of Bianca Andreescu to the top of the women’s game, to add to the stagnating Genie Bouchard, they’ve now got a pretty formidable Federation Cup Team. But the North has also added two terrific young Men in Denis Shapavalov (#33) and Felix Auger-Alliasime (#21) to current Top 20 pro Milos Raonic, who are all trying to climb the rankings ladder. I believe that both Shapavalov and FA2 are future Grand Slam winners-in-waiting, and if the Davis Cup keeps it’s format of two singles, one doubles, and two reverse-singles, I see Canada battling it out with Russian and a couple of other countries I’ve mentioned down below to hoist the prestigious Cup for years to come.

3. Australia

Australia hasn’t produced a really top player since the incredibly annoying Lleyton Hewitt, but they’ve got a few banging at the door right now who will change all of that. Both Nick Kyrgios (#27) and Alex de Minaur (#31) have the talent and the time needed to develop to win Slams. For Kyrgios the biggest challenge he’ll have to overcome is himself, and for The Demon, it will be to harness his talent and strength and not allow his small frame to keep him from his ultimate destiny. Whenever I mention Nick Kyrgios I feel like I almost always must add an asterisk to his name to make sure that all readers know that he’s not just a simple athlete. Nick is blessed with perhaps the most athletic ability currently on the ATP Tour. He has a booming 140 mph serve, a wickedly powerful forehand, great movement, wonderful touch and feel on his volleys, good ups for reaching overheads, and a real grasp at winning tennis strategy. His problem is that he’s mentally ill. Now, I don’t say that in a demeaning, slanderous way. I say it with utmost concern and sincerity, and with the real hope that he gets the help he needs. If he does, he’s your next big-time champion. If not, we can always adjust the Thorazine drip that he’ll surely need.

4. Serbia

Serbia, a small country (under 9,000,000 population - think New Jersey) that used to be part of Yugoslavia and borders on both Bosnia/Herzegovina and Croatia, has produced both Novak Djokovic (#1), and Dusan Lajovic (#29), but at 32 and 29-years-of-age, neither of these guys will be around forever. They are the present. But the future looks bright in a couple of young stars in Laslo Djere (#40), at 24-years-old, and Miomir Kecmanovic (#47), at just 20. Although Djere appears to excel on a slower court, Kecmanovic is the whole package, and even though he's only 6-feet tall, he is big enough to play with the big boys, but small enough to maneuver around them. This year, the 20-year-old got wins over Djere, FA2, Sascha Zverev, and Ugo Humbert to show that he’s got some sizzle to his game. Whether either of these two guys will climb to the top of the mountain, like Djokovic, will be seen. But I’d be surprised if they stall at or around where Lajovic is.

5. United States

How long will Americans be embarrassed by the lack of home-grown Men’s champions hoisting the U.S. Open hardware? Hasn’t it been long enough since Andy Roddick won his only Grand Slam event here in New York City to capture the title in 2003? We got spoiled when we had an embarrassment of riches in the 1990’s, and we could watch champions Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, and Todd Martin continually show us excellence on the court. They followed the remarkable and reliable Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, and Vitas Gerulaitis. But since the Sampras generation retired, the USTA has developed no one! Well, I’m here to say that we don’t have many champions on the waiting list, but we have a myriad of contenders who will battle it out for future excellence over the next ten years. The U.S. has only four Americans currently ranked in the Top 100 Men’s players on the ATP Tour in Taylor Fritz (#21) and Frances Tiafoe (#43), both 21, and Reilly Opelka (#46) and Tommy Paul (#92), both 22. Mackie McDonald, at #104 and 24, is nipping at their heels. But there are a bunch of Juniors and college-age players who will be showing us what they’re made of shortly. This lengthy list includes Emilio Nava, Tyler Zink, Eliot Spizzirri, J.J. Wolf, Brandon Nakashima, Cannon Kingsley, Martin Damn, Toby Kodat, Zach Svadja, and Govind Nanda. Keep your eyes out for these ten youngsters, and you might see one of tomorrow’s champions today. It’s just hard to say which one….

6. France

From a country that has produced current stars Gael Monfils, Benoit Paire, Lucas Pouille, Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Adrian Mannarino, and Jo-Willie Tsonga, the cupboard in Paris is decidedly slim in it’s pickings. Of those players, only Pouille is younger than 28, at 25-years-old, and most of these guys are already dealing with the injuries that age bestows on professional tennis players. But they do have three other, young guys in the Top 100, who deserve our attention. Ugo Humbert, 21, is ranked #72, Corentin Moutet, 20, is chomping at the bit at #82, while Antoine Hoang rounds out the Top 100, at age 23. All three of these guys could develop into future champions, but the French Tennis Federation seems partial to Moutet.

So, as you prepare to handicap the Year-End ATP Tour Finals (won last year by Alexander Zverev over Novak Djokovic), take a look at the guys above, who should start to challenge for Grand Slam titles beginning in January when they congregate Down Under for the 2020 Australian Open. But also recognize the countries that have been left off the list, particularly Germany, Spain, Argentina, and Switzerland. If you’re a fan of Italy, they came in #7. But for fans of those countries that are currently overrepresented in today’s Top 100, enjoy today, because your tomorrows may be a bit slim, as you may have very few future champions to call your own.

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