Young guns set to take on Big Four?

Marlborough Express - - FRONT PAGE -

Is this the year when the next gen­er­a­tion of men’s ten­nis fi­nally usurps the ‘‘Big Four’’? It is a ques­tion that has been asked again and again over the past decade.

At first glance, it might seem strange to sug­gest that the Big Four – the in­jury-rav­aged Andy Mur­ray aside – are about to be re­placed. Af­ter all, the other three mem­bers, Roger Fed­erer, Rafael Nadal and No­vak Djokovic have hoovered up the past eight grand slams be­tween them. The trio will be the top three seeds at the Aus­tralian Open, which be­gins on Mon­day, and are the book­ies’ favourites.

And yet there is in­creas­ing con­vic­tion among some of the ten­nis cognoscenti that 2019 will be a year of change. ‘‘There’s cer­tainly some­thing in the air,’’ Boris Becker told The Daily Tele­graph. That ‘‘some­thing’’ can broadly be split into two cat­e­gories: the cred­i­ble emer­gence of younger tal­ent and the re­duced in­vin­ci­bil­ity of the Big Four.

Start­ing with the former group, Becker is well placed to as­sess the strength of the lead­ing young­sters. Becker won Wim­ble­don twice be­fore his 19th birth­day, and be­lieves that in Alexan­der Zverev, 21, Karen Khachanov, 22, Ste­fanos Tsit­si­pas, 20 and Borna Coric, 22 there are young play­ers ready to be­come grand slam cham­pi­ons.

‘‘Zverev looks like the best of the rest. He is catch­ing up, his vic­tory at the ATP Fi­nals, beat­ing Fed­erer and Djokovic back to back was huge, but equally Khachanov win­ning the Paris Masters, Tsit­si­pas’ per­for­mances through­out the year, Coric’s per­for­mances again. They’re knock­ing at the door very loudly, and even­tu­ally it will blow open.

‘‘There’s cer­tainly some­thing in the air, that the young guys are go­ing to break through at the grand slams – es­pe­cially this year.’’

Brad Gil­bert, the Amer­i­can former world No 4 and one-time coach of Mur­ray and An­dre Agassi, is equally bullish.

‘‘I’ll be sur­prised if one of them doesn’t make a slam fi­nal this year,’’ he said.

Zverev’s vic­tory at the ATP

Fi­nals, Khachanov us­ing his fear­some power to bully Djokovic in the Paris fi­nal and the el­e­gant Tsit­si­pas beat­ing four top-10 play­ers at the Rogers Cup pro­vided com­pelling ev­i­dence last year of the ‘‘some­thing in the air’’ to which Becker refers.

Zverev, in par­tic­u­lar, looks primed to ma­ture into a slam cham­pion since hir­ing Mur­ray’s former coach Ivan Lendl last Au­gust to help add men­tal for­ti­tude to his all­round game.

Now the chal­lenge is for the ‘‘Next Gen’’ to prove they can do it at grand slams. Britain’s Kyle Edmund, 24, and Chung Hyeon, 22, pro­duced runs to the Aus­tralian Open semi­fi­nals last year, but none of Zverev, Khachanov, Tsit­si­pas or Coric have come close to get­ting that far at a ma­jor.

And one only needs to look at their near con­tem­po­raries, Grigor Dim­itrov, Kei Nishikori and Milos Raonic – the ‘‘Lost Gen’’ – to see that rich tal­ent does not a grand slam cham­pion make.

Is there any­thing about the lat­est group of gifted young­sters that sug­gests they can be dif­fer­ent?

‘‘Men­tally, they’re start­ing to have sim­i­lar qual­i­ties to No­vak,’’ Becker says. ‘‘I think Zverev and Tsit­si­pas, they don’t seem to crack un­der pres­sure. When you start to smell the roses you want more of it. I think it’s a good sign. They en­joy be­ing good ten­nis play­ers, they en­joy be­ing on the tour. They know who’s win­ning, they fol­low the matches. They’re in the locker room a lot be­cause they both like the en­vi­ron­ment.

‘‘They are both tall, that seems to be the way now. But they have an over­all game, they’re not just big hit­ters. That’s im­por­tant.

‘‘A lot of the young guys in the past have had a good win and then strug­gled with the pres­sure. But for these other play­ers, es­pe­cially Zverev and Tsit­si­pas, it looks easy. They have time, they don’t panic if they lose a round or two, and they don’t get too over­joyed when they win ei­ther. For them it’s a jour­ney.’’

But is it a jour­ney in which they are the driver or pas­sen­ger? For 15 years, those play­ers out­side the Big Four have largely been pow­er­less if Fed­erer and the oth­ers have been op­er­at­ing at full strength.

This brings us to the sec­ond part of the ‘‘some­thing in the air’’ the­ory – the sus­pi­cion there might be chinks in the Big Four’s ar­mour.

As well as Mur­ray’s hip prob­lem, fit­ness con­cerns are grow­ing over Nadal, who has suf­fered ter­ri­bly with in­juries over the past year and not played com­pet­i­tively since Sep­tem­ber’s US Open.

Fed­erer looks far less vul­ner­a­ble, but he en­dured a rough sec­ond half of last sea­son and is not con­sid­ered as un­beat­able as he once was.

The main ob­sta­cle is Djokovic, who is less a fly in the oint­ment than a mas­sive hor­net. Af­ter a rot­ten cou­ple of years, Djokovic claimed the fi­nal two ma­jors of 2018 and with it the No 1 rank­ing, to firmly reestab­lish him­self as the man to beat.

A crumb of com­fort for Zverev, Khachanov and Tsit­si­pas is that they have all beaten Djokovic at Masters level. But do­ing so at a slam, and string­ing seven straight vic­to­ries to­gether in Mel­bourne, Paris,

Lon­don or New York, is what will de­fine them. We will see at the Aus­tralian Open how ready these boys are to be­come men.

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