Where are the next Federers and Nadals?

Written by  //  January 20, 2011  //  Sport  //  1 Comment

The eras of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal are doubtless far from over. Greatness in big, chunky scoops is constantly served to us and yet I wonder – where are the upstarts? Where is the next Federer? Which teenage sensation is going to put a spanner in their works?

The current group of also-rans look hugely unfavoured to make a sustained dent on the duopoly at the top. Novak Djokovic – a former Australian Open winner – and Andy Murray are both exceptional talents, who will win a few Grand Slams between them. But will they dominate tennis in the manner of a Sampras, Federer or Nadal? I think not. David Nalbandian and Lleyton Hewitt, who fought a cliff-hanger in the first round of the ongoing Australian Open, secured in the fifth set by the Argentine, are players, who much like Nikolay Davydenko and Andy Roddick, looking to find a second wind to their career, and are unlikely to upset the apple cart.

Frenchmen Gael Monfils and Richard Gasquet were heralded as future greats during their junior years. But neither Monfils’s extraordinary athleticism nor Gasquet’s precocious talents have taken them too far. Tomas Berdych and Robin Soderling, both enjoyed a tremendous 2010, with their hard hitting approach affecting Federer, in particular. But they look more probable to disturb the best of players on occasions rather than enjoy any sustained success. Juan Martin Del Potro, who defeated both Nadal and Federer en route to the U.S. Open title in 2009 seemed the most capable of breaking into the very private club at the zenith. An injury to his wrist, though, saw him miss most of 2010, forcing him to now rebuild his career, virtually from scratch. Only twenty-two years of age, the gangling Argentine still has time on his side, but the impact of the nearly year-long absence from the circuit could have more than mere physical consequences.

There are of course a host of other players good enough to be near the top, but not quite capable of reaching exhilarating heights – David Ferrer and Fernando Verdasco, for instance. The analysis, therefore, demands a look into the Junior Championships, which albeit isn’t always the route to professional success – Pete Sampras, consciously avoided junior-level events to focus on peaking at the highest of stages. Roger Federer and Stefan Edberg, though, are notable examples of players who have come through the junior ranks. The latter, in fact, famously secured the Junior Grand Slam – winning all four Grand Slams in a calendar year – in 1983.

A gaze, therefore, into the Junior events over the last two years throws one particular name into the reckoning – Bulgaria’s nineteen-year-old Grigor Dimitrov. Dimitrov, lost yesterday in the second round of the Australian Open to 19th seed Stanislas Wawrinka in straight sets. In evidence, though, was the teenager’s sound and consistent game with no apparent weaknesses. His single-handed backhand, however, does seem his strong suit – often hit smoothly on the rise, it looks a more complete stroke than Federer’s was at that stage. A winner of the 2008 Wimbledon and U.S. Open Junior Grand Slams, Dimitrov has risen to 108 in the world, from the wilderness of a ranking outside the top 300 in a span of just six months. Whether he can transform his obvious talents into persistent success will depend on many factors, including his ability to carry the burden of being heralded as the ‘next Federer’. Expectations, though, are a part of sport, and greatness does not ensue unless one surmounts these pressures.

Surmounting pressure was exactly what eighteen-year-old Bernard Tomic did today against the 31st seed, Spain’s Feliciano Lopez in the second round of the Australian Open. An Australian of Croatian and Bosnian descent, Tomic boasts a game that belies his age. Standing six-foot four-and-a-half-inches tall, Tomic’s style is reminiscent of Del Potro’s – covering the court with a casual air of confidence, he musters oodles of easy power from the baseline. But his game, unlike Del Potro’s isn’t dependent on power. He has an inherent sense of the geometry of a tennis court, and likes to feel his way into points rather than look for the booming forehand at the earliest opportunity. Today, he dismantled Lopez in three, straight sets – 7-6, 7-6, 6-3 – never once looking fluttered and constantly trying to innovate. His double-handed backhand, in particular, worked like a dream, whether hit up the line or cross court, it was often timed and placed to perfection. Having been accorded a wild card into the main draw – a controversial choice after he had withdrawn from a play-off with other Australians, on grounds of illness – Tomic had earlier polished off 44th ranked Frenchman Jeremy Chardy, in the first round with imperious authority – 6-3, 6-2, 7-6. A meeting with Rafael Nadal on Saturday now beckons for Tomic. It would be unrealistic to expect the youngster to conquer the force of Nadal. The real test, therefore, lies in whether he can mould his palpable potential into a consistent game that it richly deserves.

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