The ‘Next Next Generation’

Another long overdue post!

For so long, we have been marvelling at the sustained excellence and consistency of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, and yes, Murray in regards to the Masters and Grand Slams.

We have been waiting for the Next Generation to really establish themselves – Dimitrov, Raonic, Nishikori, Dolgopolov etc but a quick look at their ages 23, 24, 25, 26 shows they’re not really the new guard any more. Even the prodigy of yesteryear, Richard Gasquet is now 28, having already been on tour for 13 years!

A year is a long time in tennis though. The two surprise Grand Slam winners last year Wawrinka and Cilic are 28 and 26 respectively. Hard to believe Cilic is only 26.

Dimitrov has the all-round package but hasn’t quite figured out how to make his game as efficient as it could be. For all the effort he puts into his shots and movement, my gut feeling is that he still labours to end points as easily as his predecessor, Federer. That extremely conservative Eastern backhand grip mystifies me too – if he does not strike it with the perfect angle of flex in his wrist, it goes awry very easily.

Raonic has a serve to die for. The real issue is his mentality, not necessarily his movement or backhand or anything technically apparent on the surface. He can mow down lower-ranked players with the ease of a Top 5 player but struggles when he faces the Big 4. Why? Because they bring chaos to his neat-and-orderly-one-serve-and-maybe-one-forehand-if-needed-game, they can return his missiles and then can tie him up at the baseline or bring him to the net against his will. Word is that he is very very academically intelligent and good with numbers, as was his father so people like that usually are very logic-orientated. “If I do this and that, therefore this should happen.” As of late, he has been working very hard to think outside the box and to go with the flow. Adaptability is what will make him a more watertight and coherent force in the big moments

Nishikori has serious game. Weapons off both sides, touch, foot speed, agility, endurance, improving first serve. His second serve is dubious under pressure due to his not-quote Continental grip but because his hands are so good, he gets away with it until he comes up against someone willing and ready to punish it! At the moment, because he was out for so long with injuries, career-wise, he is still about 22-23 years old in my opinion. It’s going to take time before he consolidates that rock-hard self-belief that he needs in the later rounds of the tournament against the big boys. Not just one match on clay against Nadal or against Djokovic on hard court but Masters after Masters and major after major. This is the real reason for Wawrinka’s ascension so when Nishikori catches up, watch out!

Dolgopolov – explosive. He is a lot like Nishikori in his physical gifts, but game-wise, he is willing to pull the trigger a lot earlier. Bigger serve and serious touch off the ground. He has talent to burn and expresses his love for the game in the way he plays. Will he continue this or will he ever decide he wants more? To want more means to carefully examine your shot selection and decision-making processes in order to be more effective at winning the big points but this does not gel well with his exciting, flashy game.

Tomic is sort of between the Next and Next Next Generation is now the elder of these guys and is now learning (maturing) what real professionalism is. Game-wise, his court craft and ball control is second to none. He can serve big, hit big, volley, slice, construct and deconstruct points, win without exerting too much energy, reads the play before opponent even hits the ball, there’s no question he knows tennis. The question marks are his movement and ability to hang with the big hitters when they’re on song.

So, until the Next Generation find out how to really win the big matches against the Big 4, time is ticking away and new blood is always emerging.

This brings us to our new group of rising stars, the Next Next Generation.

Kyrgios, Kokkinakis, Coric, Vesely who have made a real splash in their first foray onto the ATP tour. Their age and weapons and early results have earmarked them as real contenders for huge careers. In particular, Kygrios has displayed huge physical weapons and big-match experience to go for glory under pressure. Kokkinakis is a year younger but has the same fearlessness as Kyrgios, though perhaps not the same level of nuanced point execution yet.

This is the perfect time for them to combine their youth, athleticism and no-fear games to consistently forge big results but the real key will be who acts on their development the best. There is plenty of information out there but only those who are willing to explore everything and anything in search of success will win.

They are the ones who will not wait for their turn.

It’s entirely possible that when all of Federer, Djokovic, Nadal, Murray are really ready to step out of the game and the Next Generation are absolutely poised to finally snatch up their first majors, being nearly 30 themselves, they will be beaten to it by the Next Next Generation!

 

The magic elixir

Why is Djokovic flying so high right now? What is the one thing that is allowing him to look down upon all others from stratospheric heights? What is the magic elixir that keeps him from becoming the modern day Icarus?

One word – confidence. Not the fleeting, day-to-day, or even hour-to-hour flimsiness version. The tangible, rock hard, version that can only be achieved with a clear mind and accumulation of wisdom.  The difference between a talented player and a true champion.

Despite his inherent natural ability and formidable athleticism honed through years of backbreaking, mind-numbing practice and hundreds of mental battles fought in matchplay, there was always a seamlessness missing from Djokovic’s tennis despite a game that professed exactly that. From the ever-present familial influence in his players’ box, his frequent gasping for air after long rallies, his slumped shoulders and bowed head and to his sometimes violent verbal outbursts, Djokovic appeared to be a man who played for something or someone outside of himself and was drowning under that burden. He was playing not for himself but for Serbia.

Djokovic is a proud and patriotic citizen of his beloved Serbia to the point where he felt compelled to address a rally in Belgrade commenting on Kosovo’s declaration of independence. It was no secret that last year following the US Open and during the Masters Cup, his real focus was on the Davis Cup final against France as the implications of a triumph would be the makings of history.

In that fateful final, he stood tall. He swept aside Gilles Simon to level the tie for Serbia at 1-1. Then, facing a 2-1 deficit on the final day of singles, he rose to the occasion again dismantling Monfils in straight sets to set the stage for Troicki to seal the historic triumph. Not only had Djokovic spearheaded his country to their first ever Davis Cup win but in doing so, he cast off the Atlas-sized pressure of carrying his country and consolidated his confidence that he could perform under immense pressure in one go.

In short, he became a man who plays free of any mental or physical shackles. A man of true confidence.

We saw it with Roger Federer from the Tennis Masters Cup of 2003 to the Tennis Masters Cup of 2007 before his wings began to smoulder from the sun’s fierce heat and he was forced to retreat to a lower, less perilous height where he steadily circles today.

We saw it with Rafael Nadal in 2010 when he emerged reborn after his triumph at Monte Carlo which sparked his superhuman rampage through the history books to the point where he went supernova.

And so we see it today with Djokovic. It is apt that the latest Head commercial features Novak playing tennis on an old world biplane in the skies and his results show that he is still playing such audacious tennis in reality.

Win or lose against Nadal in the final of Miami, this time his confidence won’t desert him so easily.