By: Reed Bakich
For several years now, there have been a clear, elite group at the top of men’s tennis: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. They have dominated the game in every fashion with Roger Federer being at the top of list for a long time. As a huge Federer fan, I’m certainly not one to discount him. But with his age and the current slump he has been in, he may finally be on the down end of his career. This leaves a void in the “Big 4” that tennis fans have come to know and love. Who are the most likely candidates to take that spot? Below, I assess the futures of several names that I could see winning Grand Slams, a few years down the road.
Once upon a time, Juan Martin del Potro was a grand slam champion. The Argentine was just 20 years of age, when he put an exclamation point on a breakout year by defeating a still-in-his-prime Roger Federer who was looking for his sixth straight US Open title. Usually when this happens in tennis, it isn’t a fluke. But four years have passed and del Potro has yet to capture another major title, or even return to a final. This in large part has not been by his own fault, however. The year following his US Open win, del Potro was forced to take a step back due to a persistent wrist injury. So instead of being able to capitalize on his big accomplishment from the year prior, 2010 became a lost season for Delpo, in which he gave back all that he had gained and then some. By the early part of 2011, he had fallen in the rankings all the way to no. 485, due to the lingering effects of the injury. It has been a long road for del Potro since then, but he has slowly risen back to the top of the game, most recently achieving a Wimbledon semifinal berth and reaching the number 7 ranking in the world. Del Potro is trending upward and with age catching up to Federer as well as the ever-present injury concerns to Rafael Nadal, there is reason to believe that he can cement himself within the current group of greats in men’s tennis. He possesses one of the most powerful forehands in the game and plays well on every surface, reaching the semifinals on both the Wimbledon grass and French Open clay in addition to his US Open title on hard court. And at 24 years old, he still has time to improve and take his game to the next level. Del Potro has been through a lot since he won the US Open four years ago. But with the final grand slam of the year set to begin again in just a week’s time, it would be a special occasion to see him hoist the championship trophy for a second time. I certainly wouldn’t be surprised to see it happen.
The Big Servers:
There are other players however, who are already taking the game by storm and could find themselves breaking the mold of the Big 4 in due time. Men’s tennis is filled with big players who possess powerful serves. Many consider it to be the biggest weapon in the game because of the fact that your opponent has basically no control over it. The challenge for these types of players though, is the ability to develop an all-around game. There are two specifically in today’s game that are honing the skills necessary to become elite players. Meet Milos Raonic and Jerzy Janozicz. Both have seen recent spikes in their world rankings, with Janowicz making his big breakthrough in last month’s Wimbledon where he also reached the semifinals, and Raonic just recently emerging into the top 10. Separating them from other big servers is their strong movement around the court. Janowicz also has a very effective drop shot in his arsenal, which he displayed throughout his tough four set loss to Andy Murray in that semifinal. But it really is about the serve for these guys, which can dominate opponents and win them so many free points. To give a sense of how overpowering their serves are, last year, Raonic held 93% of his service games and consistently ranks at the top of the ATP in that stat. Raonic and Janowicz also have two of the three fastest average serves on the tour, at 233 and 230 km/h, respectively. Time will tell if either of these young guns can join the elite group, but either way, most would agree that they are pretty exciting to watch.
The Dark Horse:
In every sport, there are players who possess supreme ability, but never are able to live up to expectations. The so-called “bust” if you will. In the NBA we think of Darko Milicic as one of the all time big busts. In the NFL there’s quarterbacks Ryan Leaf and Jamarcus Russell. For tennis fans, the hope is that Bernard Tomic doesn’t become just another one of these disappointments. Tomic has tremendous talent especially considering that he only 20 years old. In an era of power tennis, the Aussie and former world Junior no. 2, possesses great feel and touch around the court with a shot selection that can only be properly expressed through this video. So what’s all this concern about? One thing many people forget is that tennis is an equally physical and mental game. So far in his career, Tomic hasn’t shown the ability to handle the mental aspect of the game. Between off the court issues and his lack of work ethic in practice and games, there’s no telling if Tomic will ever develop the killer instinct to be a winner. The truth is, it would be a crying shame to watch a player with his skill set, go up in flames because of his inability to get out of his own way. The saving grace is that he’s only 20 and with age he should gain the maturity to help him overcome the mental roadblocks that have plagued his career thus far. Based on his age and his current ranking of #42 in the world, it’s worth reevaluating Tomic in a few years. By that time we should see what kind of player he will become: a star in the making or just another name.