Searching for tennis’ next superstar

Talent is a word often bandied about with reckless abandon, especially on the international tennis circuit. 

Since the dawn of the professional era, there has always been a group of players that have captured to imagination of the tennis fraternity. There have been periods of domination and captivating rivalries. 

Legends have been produced. Some retired as heroes, while others competed long enough to become villains. Of one thing we have been certain – all good things must come to an end.

For the greater part of the past decade three men – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic – have had a more profound impact on the growth and appeal of the sport than any other who has come before them. 

The current generation of fans has been blessed with some of the finest tennis ever seen, but that too will come to an end. It is not a matter of if, but rather it is a matter of when and that is ultimately the question the tennis fraternity is currently grappling with. More significant though, is the question of who will take over the reins.

There have been pretenders to the throne. Some still lay claim to it, while others are already fading into oblivion. 

Tobias Kamke, 2010 ATP Star of Tomorrow, is now 28-years-old. Since turning professional in 2004, he has yet to win a singles title on the ATP Tour and with his ranking at 109 in the world in seems increasingly unlikely that he will ever live up the expectations that the tennis fraternity once had of him.

Martin Klizan, the 2012 Star of Tomorrow has been slightly more successful during his brief tenure on the ATP Tour. However, that does not necessarily make him a more promising prospect. His performances of 2015 would suggest as much. 

For a top 50 player of his calibre, defeats against Federico Delbonis, Joao Souza and Victor Burgos, at tournaments where Klizan should have advanced deep into the competition, simply aren’t acceptable nor are they inspiring.

Czech giant Jiri Vesely, the 2014 Star of Tomorrow, is a lower ranked player but there are two elements which still make him an outstanding prospect. He is just 21-years-old and he already has an ATP Tour title. 

Kei Nishikori continues to be an outstanding prospect and a likely winner of at least one Grand Slam title during what is expected to be a largely successful career. It is highly unlikely that he will dominate though. He does not have a good enough serve and the arsenal he does have at his disposal probably won’t be enough to sustain him for a protracted period.

Milos Raonic advanced to the semi-final at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden last week but still does not look like he will be able shift his career into a fifth gear. The Canadian has probably reached his limit, explosive as he can be at the best of times.

Then there is the group that was not earmarked for success from a ridiculously early age, not by the ATP Awards judges anyway. 

Grigor Dimitrov is the man they once called the baby Federer. The Bulgarian has since grown out of his shell. Early defeats against Tommy Robredo (R32), Gilles Muller and Ryan Harrison (both R16) in his three most recent tournaments have been enough to plant a seed of doubt in everybody’s minds. Dimitrov will still be a superstar but the jury is out on whether he will be a dominant superstar. There is a difference.

Spanish tennis has enjoyed a purple patch during the past decade but there are fears that this era of dominance is nearing its end. One young Spaniard has been identified as possibly being the new shining light for tennis in that country and his name is Pablo Carreno Busta.

During the 2014 season there were glimpses of the player that Busta could be. His performances at the 2014 Monte Carlo Masters cannot be ignored. Ivan Dodig and Gael Monfils were among his scalps at that tournament, before he ran into the Serbian storm that is Djokovic.

There was also the compelling victory against a highly competent Mikhail Kukushkin at Qeiras. Other high profile scalps in 2014 were compatriots Marcel Granollers and Feliciano Lopez at the ATP500 in Valencia. 

It is quite apparent that this young man is not to be trifled with but the harsh reality is that he has not built on those early successes during the current season. His failures this year have been enough to create doubt but it is still early in the campaign and there is the distinct possibility he will come to the fore on his favourite surface, clay.

All things considered, it is probably then safe to assume that the next era of dominance will not be spearheaded by anybody currently older than 25-years-old. The generation the tennis fraternity should probably be looking at for the next dominant player in the men’s game has not celebrated a 21st birthday yet and many of those young guns have already made statements in 2015.

Leading the cast of young actors is 18-year-old Borna Coric – not a winner on the ATP Tour yet but a semi-finalist against a star-studded cast in Dubai, an achievement he matched at the ATP500 in Basel last October.

At the risk of sounding cliché, at this level it is often your attitude that determines your altitude. Klizan, Dimitrov, Vesely and to a lesser extent Nishikori have all proven that they are emotionally and mentally vulnerable on the biggest stage.

Coric has given no such indication nor have some of his contemporaries. Among them are Australian teenager Thanasi Kokkinakis, who qualified for the fourth round at the Indian Wells Tennis Garden last week and 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios, who is among the most dangerous players on grass.

Finally, 17-year-old German Sascha Zverev is the latest of the youngsters to make an impression on the international tennis circuit. 

He hasn’t quite produced a break-out season yet but a R16 win against Jerzy Janowicz at the Irving Challenger event earlier this year is a strong indication of what the young man is capable of. He lost his next match of that tournament to seasoned campaigner Gilles Muller but he did take his more favoured opponent all the way. Zverev still needs to eat a few more sandwiches and get a little stronger. However, there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that the young man has talent in abundance.

The jury is out on which one of these youngsters will ultimately take over the throne when Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer abdicate but it does almost seem certain that tennis’ next great superstar will be one of them.

 

Siyabonga Mchunu

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