Young guns poised to blow away the Big Four

Weekend Herald - - Tennis - Char­lie Ec­cle­share Tele­graph Group Ltd

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 of­ten 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,” said Boris Becker. 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 top10 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 Hyeon Chung, 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.”

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. 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 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.

Photo / AP

Alexan­der Zverev is catch­ing up to the Big Four.

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