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 final challenge

Already, the twilight years have begun.

The man who is considered by many to be the Greatest Of All Time, if not by virtue of his achievements, but also by the completeness of his game and sheer audacity of his talent, has now entered his final years on the professional tour.

One could forgive Roger Federer if he chose to simply play out his final years whilst basking in the glory and the adulation showered upon him from adoring audiences wherever he went.

Instead, he is facing the greatest and most formidable challenge of his entire career. This is not a challenge wrought by any particular player, neither the Spanish nightmare or the Serbian juggernaut. This is a challenge that arises from the very core of Federer, lurking in every impossibly graceful movement and every incredulous shot he undertakes.

How can someone with the hand-eye coordination far beyond what ordinary people can comprehend, miss the most basic shots at the most inexplicable times and yet is capable of supernova-grade brilliance without blinking an eye? The answer is simple but yet so audacious that it beggars a more complex answer befitting someone of Federer’s stature and achievements in the game.

He is not as mentally strong as he should be.

At first, it appeared the jitters were only caused by one certain Spaniard and only on clay. Even the Australian Open 2009 final was deemed to be an aberration by some Federer loyalists, given its slow playing qualities at night.

Even after losses to Del Potro at the US Open 2009, Soderling at Roland Garros and Berdych at Wimbledon in 2010, and Tsonga’s stunning win from two-sets to love down at Wimbledon 2011, the general feeling was that he had been unlucky to run into extremely dangerous players who happened to be riding a wave of incredible form that day.

The one match that really laid bare Federer’s mental fragility was the semifinal of US Open 2011.

Federer surged strongly to a commanding two sets to love lead and many felt that after his loss to Tsonga at Wimbledon, he would not make that same mistake again. Especially when serving for the match at 5-4 in the 5th set against a punch-drunk Djokovic. Yet 3 games later, it was Djokovic who raised his hands in victory. In spite of that famous all-out service return winner at 40-15 by Djokovic, despite having one more match point on serve, despite still being on serve at 5-5, Federer was already a broken man. A startling sight to behold of a man considered to be the Greatest Of All Time.

How can such a statement be true now with not one, but two arch-rivals who have demonstrated much stronger mental fortitude on the biggest of stages?

This is Federer’s true challenge and the defining one of his career. His generational rivals, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, David Nalbandian all burned brightly but faded quickly and Federer was unchallenged in a display of unparalleled dominance over a period of 4 years. It is fair to say that he is the greatest of his generation and never was truly pushed to improve.

Against Nadal and Djokovic, two incredible players who are more than 5 years younger than Federer, it is only now Federer has realised he has to make tangible improvements mentally, physically and tactically in order to compete. They force him to concentrate at crucial points, to develop truer self-belief under pressure and to actually take the win from his opponents, not just to wait for them to miss – something his generational rivals could not do on a sustained and consistent basis over a lengthy period of time, let alone in matches.

Nearly 31 years old and at No.3 in the world, facing public pressure, the weighty burden of his incredible past successes, two players who have thwarted him at every turn and his own mental demons, can Federer survive this career-defining challenge?

Since the US Open final, Federer has been on fire. He has won 6 tournaments in the space of 6 months and compiled a staggering 40-3 win-loss record, including wins over Nadal both on fast indoor court and outdoor slow hard court.

I wouldn’t bet against the great man.