What Happened to the 'NextGen'?
Updated: Feb 17
Cast your mind back to 2009. Rafa has won a colossal match against Fed in the Australian Open final about a month ago. In my opinion this match was the climax of their rivalry; The 2008 Wimbledon final had cemented their rivalry into legendary status, and Federer was seeking to reassert dominance after a US Open win. The match play was phenomenal; Roger was flicking one-handers off his shoelaces and Rafa would somehow get to it like he always did and then snap some ungodly forehand down the line, full stretch, wrist only, into a lacuna the size of a golf ball that Fed couldn’t get to, yet Fed would get there, squash-shotting a forehand slice crosscourt so low you lifted your chin helping it over the net, and then Rafa would continue this one-upmanship with his own sinew-stretched reply, until finally, like some beautifully packaged Steve Jobs product, the point would finish with a bow-tied winner.
It was tennis at a level, and of a kind, we never really thought was possible, everything just fit; southpaw versus righty, toro versus torero, gladiator versus emperor. It was Borg-McEnroe stripped down to their parts and built from the ground up again with new strings and new swings that forced journalists to go gonzo. It was great stuff—still is—and along with Novak Djokovic’s unmatched dominance for the past decade, the trio has effectively monopolized Grand Slams for the better part of 16 years. A few others made their mark; Stan Wawrinka, Andy Murray of course, Marin Cilic, and Juan Martin Del Potro, but these were all supporting roles when it came to Grand Slam finals. The Big Three, all born in a 5-year window, have also turned out to be the three greatest players in history. Coincidence? Maybe, but I have a theory—let’s call it ‘The Final Form Phenomenon’—that explains why they still have a firm grasp on the most prized silverware, and it starts back in 2009 in Rotterdam, the AMRO World Tournament, and the next great hope has already announced himself to the tennis world only five years on from the first Federer/Nadal meeting. If you’re reading this in 2020 and haven’t a clue who I’m talking about, I’ll give you a hint: his name rhymes with Schmigor Schmimitrov. That’s right, Grigor Dimitrov arrived in Rotterdam as junior Wimbledon and US Open Champion and played a game so silky people started calling him Baby Fed. He took down perennial top-tenner, Tomas Berdych, in the first round and then pushed Rafa to three close sets. I can still remember watching grainy YouTube clips of his strokes back then. His coach at the time, Peter Lundgren—a knowledgeable merchant of talent as a former coach to Federer and Marat Safin—proclaimed that Grigor was better at 18 than Roger was. It was all very promising for the young prodigy. Roger and Rafa had taken tennis to a new level of 'completeness', the groundstrokes were flawless from both sides, the movement was fifth-gear and balanced, in a way their games made Pete and Agassi look a little slow and one-dimensional. So it was natural to me that Grigor would quickly establish himself as a slam contender and challenger; he had all the tools. I may have even searched the web for a bookie that would make me a ‘total career grand slams’ market in the wake of them, and it was here that I began a nasty little habit.
Whenever I see a young player of a certain high calibre I like to busy myself making vague qualitative assessments of how much they will improve in the next 3-5 years, and then multiply that by some arbitrary number—maybe how many good seasons they will have—which gives me their grand slam tally when they retire. For Grigor, I fancied at least five. After all, tennis was a game of evolution; the wooden frames of the mid-century Australian stars were superseded by T2000’s wielded by American brats, who were in-turn overtaken by Agassi’s over-sized baseline power and Pete’s precision serving. Strings went from cat gut to polyesters. The forehand grip slid under; the swings became faster. Shuffling in Dunlop Volleys on grass became obsolete as Jim Courier trained in the sand and now we find ourselves wincing at players who slide on hardcourts for 5-sets. And it was in this line of thought that I had the Big Three pencilled in as something the Nextgen would just figure out – they’d somehow make them redundant because that’s what tennis did. Tennis was just an artificial evolution.
As it turned out I could not have been more wrong. A whole decade went by without a single player born in the 90’s winning a grand slam. The only new thing in 2020 that we didn’t already have in 2009 is that a whole bunch of younger ‘Nextgen’ stars are being hyped in place of the Raonic’s and Dimitrov’s and Nishikori’s, and to such an extent the ATP went and started a tournament for under-21s only because young players weren’t winning anymore. Why?
There are many possible reasons, but before we break down the Final Form Phenomenon, our despondent Nextgen fan writer has taken player notes to introduce you to the stars we are talking about when say ‘Nextgen’.
Alexander Zverev. Think of a Euro Todd Martin. Tall, well-drilled, and moderately athletic, he has developed his game into the most cliché modern baseliner I’ve ever seen. A purist’s worst nightmare—he crushes the ball without a trace of flair or strategy. Lacks any sort of X-factor, struggles on the big stage, and when he wins it’s usually a snooze-fest of aces and carefully constructed points 3-metres behind the baseline. One of the least explosive blokes on tour, but his limbs are so long that he gets power. Kind of like watching a crane swing slowly around—not exciting, but sheer size generates power. I’d categorise him as a taller, less talented Djokovic. Has a penchant for double faults and pushing forehands.
Denis Shapovalov. A gifted Canadian with a loose, lefty game that seems unbeatable when he manages to find the inside of the lines. A lot of potential, yet he seems to not realise that taking massive cuts at the ball at all times isn’t exactly smart tennis. I must admit he has tried to bring in a chip return with the help of Mikhail Youzhny, the great Russian Head basher, and seems to be finding a more consistent style, but a complete and varied game is still a way off. A chip? Bit of touch? Improv? Nada. I like this kid though. He has a lot of upsides and plays positive tennis. If he can tighten up his serve, return, and style-of-play he could win a slam or two.
Felix Auger-Aliassime. Another powerful Canadian with promising results as a teen. Think of the Quebec version of Tsonga; open-faced forehand take back, big serve, weaker backhand. Doesn’t come in much despite being very athletic and pretty tall. Yet to win a round in a major, though he’s only 19 and has a great attitude. Main problem is similar to most Nextgen prospects; his style is just so…standard.
Stefanos Tsitsipas. If Roger was 20 years younger and born on Mykonos. Probably the most in-form of the Nextgen. Tall and talented with a flowing one-handed backhand, his game is pretty well suited to all conditions and he isn’t allergic to the net. Has a few kinks that need ironing out; backhand slice isn’t great for a one-hander; has a weird leftward fall after each serve that exposes his forehand side. Social media and ‘vlogging’ may have eaten into his tennis last year, but more worrying perhaps is the dribble that plays out. If you have a spare 30 mins that you definitely will regret, try this on.
Dominic Thiem, aka Muster 2.0, is an Austrian workhorse coming off an amazing run at the AO this year, narrowly losing to Djokovic in five sets. Has found success on hard courts in the last 12 months working with Nicolas Massu on shortening his novel-length forehand and now holds impressive head-head records against the Big Three. However, at 26 and slam-less he is just another young player who seems to fall short when it really counts—what is he missing? Whilst his forehand is big, its not Delpo/Gonzalez big, and he has that Nextgen habit of teeing off when the pressure is on. Nicht gut, Domi.
Daniil Medvedev. The AK-47 of men’s tennis. Flat and deep, side to side. Game is similar to Djokovic’s, but tinged with that Nextgen lack of discipline or end-range athleticism. He reminds me of some character out of a Dostoyevsky novel, with his spindly frame and childish face. At 6’6’’ he covers the baseline like a spider but only ventures forward when chasing a drop shot or shaking hands. Presents an almost paradoxical style in that his ball is flat and deep, but also pretty slow. Forehand is a little suspect, almost seems to play it behind him, but his patience makes him very hard to beat for standard issue baseliners.
Karen Khachanov. Another young Russian whose game I would describe as being like Marat Safin without the technique, talent, or charisma. Nonetheless, he does a fine job attempting to hit the ball just as hard. The forehand seems to have evaded any coaching input at all throughout his entire career—an impressive feat for the Russian Tennis Federation. Can’t see him being a world beater with that forehand grip, but he seems to work hard and will be a regular top 30 player.
Andrey Rublev. Think of an angry Davydenko. The final and smallest player out of this Russian doll trio. Tries to hit it as hard as possible despite having a frame more suited to extreme distance running. Not very imaginative on the court. Yet to stumble upon the idea of drop shots or angles.
Kyle Edmund. Ginger Murray. Has a much bigger forehand than Murray’s and a backhand that looks a lot like Murray’s, but doesn’t go in very much. Milk bottles for legs that unsurprisingly make him an average mover (how is that meant to compete with Federer’s glorious bronzed calves?) Right up there for most boring interviewer on tour. May need to hire Andy and learn how to play defence.
Alex De Minaur. Small and speedy battler. Comes in around 60kg dripping wet. Fights hard and is an exceptional mover, although the serve taps out around 180km/h, so it’s tough for him to beat anyone of note or win consistently outside of Australia. His scrambling efforts deep in an ATP 250 is great to watch.
Francis Tiafoe. The ‘Big Foe’ is a powerful baseliner with a forehand every bit as strange as Karen’s. He can give it a good rip, but like most Nextgen players the standard ‘western forehand + two-handed backhand baseliner’ model doesn’t seem to present any problems whatsoever to the Big Three.
Nick Kyrgios. The mercurial Australian phenom with a penchant for playing his best tennis in the biggest moments. A massive serve with a wicked arm and oozing natural talent, he has gone on to amass a total of 0 slams, 0 slam finals, and 0 slam semi-finals. Mainly juggles his time virtue signalling on twitter and shooting hoops. Will probably retire next year and join a B-grade Serbian basketball league. Really wants you to know he doesn’t care—he doesn’t care, okay?—which is a pretty easy façade to see through and a little frustrating given he’s the Nextgen’s best hope of being the next big thing. Probably won’t happen.
Reilly Opelka. The next Servebot model and every bit as boring as the last two. At 6’11’’ it isn’t hard to see why he’s top 100. Smacks aces from the treetops and awkwardly slaps groundies around his knees. Height restrictions going forward? Seems like a nice kid, but it’s really not the kind of tennis that will bring fans flocking.
Jaume Munar, aka Juan Monaco 2.0. A small and mildly athletic player who trains at Rafa Nadal’s Academy and likes clay. Grunts loud, nice spin. Nothing special. Will probably stay exactly between 30 and 80 in the rankings for the next 10 years and then retire and open the Munar academy in Alicante.
Taylor Fritz. A great American hope, winning a title in only his third event ever played. Three years later and it’s still his only title. A big flat serve, a big flat backhand, and a big flat forehand with that typical Nextgen squirrel grip. Big flat feet also. Seems a little disinterested in tennis and very interested in his hair styles. Can’t see him winning a Grand Slam.
Borna Coric. If Djokovic was a premium full-cream Slavic milk product, Coric would be the watered-down nut version. Burst onto the scene with wins over Nadal and Murray at 17. False alarm. Overcoached and overhyped. Plays like Djokovic without the talent or mental desire. Will make boring millions no doubt as his two-hander is consistently deep and he seems to work hard throwing large weights around in the off-season.
Milos Raonic. The Maple Leaf Missile. Hardly Nextgen at 29, but he did wave the flag for the last eight years, so he doesn’t escape analysis. Massive serve from a massive bloke. Can crack the forey pretty well too, but that backhand/movement/return of serve holds him back from getting over the Big Three hurdle. Can’t volley.
Matteo Berrettini. A ginormous Italian with a good amount of fight. Has a big forehand and serve but pretty average backhand and movement (can you see the trend yet?). Not sure he provides anything special at this stage as he’s been a bit of a late bloomer, but the safe money would be for a no.
David Goffin. Also carried the Nextgen flag for the last five years. Talented mover and ball-striker, but his delicate frame and boyish looks make me think he is better fit for a classical ballet troupe. Needed another 10kg of muscle to really have an impact on men’s tennis with his style.
Jack Sock. One of the greatest falls from the top 10 ever witnessed. A mangled forehand with more spin than Nadal and a fearless net player, Sock reached a ranking of 8 in the world in 2017, only to plummet OFF THE COMPUTER SYSTEM 18 months later. Out of shape. Weak backhand.
Kei Nishikori. A Japanese megastar who made the 2014 US Open final defeating Djokovic in an epic semi. Carried high hopes for the last decade, however, unlike Japanese car manufacturers, has a tendency to break down in the second week of slams.
Benoit Paire. Very talented. Absolute lunatic.
Diego Schwartzman. Nice backhand. Too small.
Other two-handed baseliners of note:
Alexander Bublik, Miomir Kecmanovic, Lorenzo Sonego, Ugo Humbert, Casper Ruud, Jan-Lennard Struff, Hubert Hurkacz, Filip Krajinovic, Tommy Paul, Lucas Pouille, Jiri Vesely, Pierre-Hugues Herbert, Corentin Moutet, Vasek Pospisil, Cristian Garin, are all players who at one point may have been touted as Nextgen stars. Alas, all are not.
As you can see, there are plenty of young players out there knocking on the door but lack the whole package required to win. This is a problem; people want to see the Big Three dethroned, not retired. This isn’t to say Roger and Rafa and Novak aren’t popular, but like all businesses, the ATP must be thinking five years ahead and starting to sweat a little. What do the young players lack that the Big Three have been able to catch and bottle for the entirety of their careers? Here’s my take, the Final Form Phenomenon.
Part I: Dawn of the Millennial Game
At the turn of the century there were a lot of changes happening in tennis. In 1998 Pete Sampras and Goran Ivanisevic duelled out one of the most forgettable Wimbledon finals of all time with a barrage of aces and short points that had interest waning. The evolution of the game—the racquets, the fitness, the technique—was starting to come to a head on faster surfaces; power was everything. To counteract this effect, Wimbledon laid a reconstituted grass mix for the 2001 championships and, viola, a new surface was manufactured. The final featured counterpuncher Lleyton Hewitt, and then unknown Argentinian, David Nalbandian. Hewitt did not miss a second serve return until the quarterfinals. Before this event Nalbandian had never played a grass court match in his life. Now they were in the final of the most prestigious tournament there is. These facts are not to say these two men were not great players in their own right—Hewitt is an incredible grass player and Nalbandian ended his career as possibly the best player to never win a slam—but that the balance of the game was shifting towards baseliners and groundstrokes by subtly changing the conditions of the court; a little slower, a little higher. It was a subtle move in isolation, but away from the governing bodies, another change had been slowly taking place.
In 1991, just a few years before Pete and Goran were nuking it out on that 98 grass, a little-known sewing thread company from Antwerp began producing tennis strings made of polyesters. This company was called Luxilon, and by 1994 they released the very first version of a string called ‘Big Banger’. Yes, that Big Banger. Fast forward three years and an unheralded Brazilian by the name of Gustavo Kuerten wins the French Open having never made an ATP final and being ranked outside the world’s top 50. He had switched to Luxilon’s strings only six months prior and would go on to win the French Open two more times. Within a few years Luxilon would become the tour’s most widely used string. I would wager today that nearly every top male player uses Luxilon or something similar now, as the amount of control and spin it garners is unmatched by synthetics and natural guts. This allows players to take risky cuts and opens up angles and areas of the court previously impossible to find—volleyers were left shrugging in the service box. All of a sudden the clay courters didn’t have to book return flights the day after their Wimbledon match—the grass played more like a hard court.
Part II: Eggs and Potatoes
These two events: the introduction of polyester strings and the slowing of surfaces, gave rise to the version of tennis we have now come to know for the past 20 years. The brutal baseline rallies, the heavy forehands and the deep passing shots. It’s gruelling work. Ok, so what? The conditions are the same for everyone? Oui, oui, but…if you learned the game in the new millennium, the conditions you experienced as a junior—your formative years of stroke development, point strategy, and mental toughness, were fundamentally different from the Big Three. The Big Three grew up with heavier racquets, smaller racquet heads, and synthetic/gut strings that danced around the string bed like spaghetti. They had to watch the ball that little bit harder, move your feet that little bit more, swing that little bit harder, and prepare the racquet that little bit earlier. In essence, the Big Three were forged in sterner conditions—they were like Goku in the gravity chamber. In contrast, when a child starts their tennis career today, they will be given a chopped down racquet and a ball the size of a grapefruit that’s as soft as a pillow, and taught to hit over a knee-high net. As juniors they will have the latest polyester string that allows them to mindlessly rip the ball without much care or attention. They will be given a two-handed backhand and taught to hit groundstrokes ad nauseum with the big fluffy ball, the mini light racquet, and the low net, all the while jumping through the hoops of ‘development’ to orange balls (slightly smaller and firmer), green dot balls (slightly firmer still), until the age of 10 or 11 when they are finally allowed to play with regular tennis balls. I’ve tried coaching my younger students with regular tennis balls, and many of them smile with glee at the opportunity to play big boy tennis, until they actually start hitting and realise it’s much harder. The smile quickly melts into a frown and soon the little guy is begging for orange balls again. I’m not blaming them, who wants to do anything hard these days? So they go back to orange or red balls and bash the thing and play novelty sized baseline exchanges that make many of them look prodigious. Prodigious Shmodshmigous—this is just another symptom of our Instagram filtered existence—looks great, but it’s actually bad for you. The same heat that hardens the egg softens the potato; the recipe to a successful tennis career has not changed despite the change in conditions, hence the reason there are so many potatoes on tour, and only a handful of hard eggs. No junior is given an adult racquet and tasked to wield it like Excalibur, that would be too hard and you would look weak and slow. But that’s exactly what kids did before. Look up any pro born before 1990 and you will see them wielding wooden and graphite frames bigger than themselves. This foundation of soft balls, low nets, and small/light racquets, is akin to a western food pyramid pushing high-glycemic grains at the base; unnecessary and possibly bad for you. More old school. More meat and fat please. Heavier racquets, higher nets, fizzing balls, windy conditions, shitty courts, tattered grips, old shoes. Champions are born AND made—I have no doubt the Tsitsipas' and Medvedev's have the innate talent, but has their environment allowed them to struggle enough to withstand the struggle in the arena? Do they wanna be an egg, or a potato?
Part III: Self-inflicted Devolution and the Death of Positive Idiosyncrasy
As I mentioned in the previous paragraph, tennis today is taught the world over with a remarkable similarity. The varied styles of old have all died out as the over-instructed, technically pedantic industry said you need this grip, that swing, and this style (read: two-handed baseliner). While I appreciate that all players benefit from this to a degree, the hyper-coached era has led to players being manufactured to look good, hit well, but in the famous words of Paul Annacone’s brother, they all simply “look better at losing”. All the young players look great. They can savage the ball and then some, but how many of them can play a balance of defence and offence? How many play drop shots at the right moment? How many dig in and make ugly balls ala Andy Murray when the points are tough and the moment big? How many can volley? How many? Thiem and Shapovalov struggle with shot selection, Sasha can’t serve (6’6’’ and can’t serve, my lord!) and most can’t volley. One of the ironies of this modern era of over-coaching is that the players who have developed the most effective styles or shots are the ones who seem to have forgone federation guidelines of how to play or hit the ball; no one teaches Jack Sock’s forehand or backhand, or Medvedev’s style for a tall guy, and few would encourage players to play flat poke backhands like Kyrgios, yet these shots and players are the ones who have developed the heaviest forehands, the most annoying styles, and an overall impression that they are natural and therefore more likely to work. The shame in this is that these idiosyncratic styles have evolved around lighter equipment that simply don't hold up as well. If players had been nurtured more, with their tendencies and proclivities to his this shot or play from that spot, and given an environment that demanded more from them (heavier equipment, worse strings) the natural forces of evolution would have produced a truly unique player who could trouble guys. Futhermore, the lagged forehand take back so chronic in today’s younger players (Sock, Kyrgios, Khachanov, Tiafoe) are probably what happens when you get good athletes pigeon-holed into bad (read: light) equipment. Kyrgios plays stock and Tiafoe’s frame is light as well. These guys are so strong, yet they use racquets with swingweights some 20 or 30 points less than that of other pro players. They make it work because they are phenomenal athletes, not because it’s an ‘evolution’ of the tennis swing. Light equipment is a commercial move to make the game more accessible for your average player, not an 'evolution' for better tennis. That swing is akin to the narrow-faced, crowded-tooth jaw of modern western man fed a steady diet of soft mashed food—convenient for the masses but massively inconvenient—all the while pre-agricultural skulls that had to chew and rip and tear have perfectly straight teeth and strong wide jaws. The swings of Federer, Murray, Djokovic, and Nadal are all synced to work with high swing weight frames that can both handle pace, and generate it more easily. They had to develop swings like that. Tennis in their youth demanded it.
As it stands, tennis has not had a technological evolution for the past 20 years, and I would wager that the developmental process adhered to today by many has only hindered their abilities to become unique top-level players who can think and bring something fresh to the game. The one thing that is changing is that players are getting taller—but ironically the one facet that this height is best suited to (serving) is the least practiced, and the one Nextgen prospect with the best serve is the only one who consistently troubles the Big Three (Kyrgios). If Zverev serves as he should for his height, he should be near unbeatable, yet he double faults a lot more than a good junior would. If some of these guys could move forward and mix it up like Dan Evans or Lopez, they would be so much more dangerous with the kind of groundstrokes they have. The last 20 years has developed mindless baseliners without the discipline, defensive capabilities, or clean technique the Big Three possess. The best prospects today: Kyrgios, Medvedev, and Thiem, are all still missing pieces of the puzzle. Perhaps one of them can figure it out before the Big Three retire.