Who’s got next — The rising tide of the ATP’s Next Gen stars

MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — The intimate, well-designed grandstand court alongside Hard Rock Stadium was less fish bowl than crystal ball Monday evening at the Miami Open. Against the backdrop of a tangerine sunset and sultry dusk, the court provided a juicy glimpse of the likely future of men’s tennis, or at least a significant portion of it, hosting third-round matches featuring three ATP pros — Andrey Rublev, Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas — among whom only Rublev can legally purchase an alcoholic beverage in this state.

Shapovalov outhit Rublev and Tsitsipas earned a fourth-round meeting with the winner when he eliminated 31-year-old relic Leonardo Mayer. Both matches were brutal, swift straight-set affairs, as befits ambitious young men in a big hurry.

The 20-year-old Tsitsipas in particular has had a swift ascent, mesmerizing fans with his vehement, swashbuckling game. He is the first Greek player to reach a semifinals of a Grand Slam and crack the world Top 10, both of which he accomplished earlier this year. He’s also the second young pro (after ATP No. 3 Alexander Zverev) to reach that elite level from the group known — and heavily marketed by the ATP World Tour — as the #NextGenATP collective.

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What began as a clever marketing concept in 2016 has since become much more. As Roger Federer said of the Next Gen cohort here on Monday, “I think [being in the group] really fuels them with motivation to be able to be better than a similar-age guy. In juniors, you always have that. But when you come on the big tour, all of a sudden you’re trying to compare yourself to world No. 1, which seems like such a mountain to climb. So it’s maybe better to first become the best Next Gen guy. I think for that reason, I think it’s worked very well.”

The ad campaign shed the hashtag and became something more than a vehicle used to promote a vaguely defined cadre of young talents in 2017 with the launch of the ATP Next Gen Finals, the season-ending exhibition played in Milan, Italy, the week before the ATP World Tour Finals. The Next Gen event features an alternate scoring system and many other experimental components. Much like the big brother World Tour Finals, it’s a round-robin tournament featuring the eight highest-ranked performers 21 and under.

Daniil Medvedev, who reached the semifinals of that initial Next Gen event in 2017, told ESPN.com here in Miami, “Chris (Kermode, the outgoing CEO of the ATP World Tour) was saying to us at that first finals, ‘Now, all the medias [Next Gen publicity] and stuff take it as a joke at this moment. But also remember that you will be the future of tennis.’ And it’s true. At some point it’s like this, life goes on, the big names go away, new ones come.”

Federer and his fellow icons aren’t ready to swap their rackets for shuffleboard cues just yet. But Federer can read the tea leaves when it comes to the ambitions of his young rivals. “It’s not the young against the old, but it maybe feels a little bit like that for the young guys,” he said. “They look towards one another to be the best of that group, and then naturally, if you’re the best of that group you can then also become the best of the next group, which is the main group, you know.”

The number of young Grand Slam contenders and their skills are approaching critical mass — and the candidates all are veterans of Next Gen campaigns. The Miami Open draw featured 16 players currently or formerly considered part of the Next Gen fleet, meaning they are currently 23 and under. Those players provide the counter-theme to the more familiar one of aging champs clogging the Top-10 rankings and refusing to go silently into the night. After three rounds in Miami, the Next Gen vets have participated in 21 matches — four pitting them against each other.

“It’s not the young against the old, but it maybe feels a little bit like that for the young guys.”

Roger Federer

As one-time members of the group continue to age out, such numbers will mean less and less. But for now they suggest that Federer’s analysis is spot on. In a sport in which players grasp at anything that promises to give them even the slightest edge, the Next Gen players have benefitted from the sense of empowerment the label gives them, as well as motivation to become first among Next Gen equals.

Tsitsipas told ESPN.com that while the bells and whistles at the Next Gen Finals of 2018 cloaked the event in the aura of a festival, it was also inspirational — and challenging — to take part. “It gave me a lot of motivation at the end of the year,” he said. “I took it quite seriously. All of us there wanted to prove that we’re the best of our generation.”

The top seed in last year’s Next Gen Finals, Tsitsipas felt pressure to uphold his status. He won the event and thereby took another significant step in his development. “I had to prove that I deserved to be there, and I did it,” he said.

Tsitsipas knows that you have to bring your A-game against everyone on the tour these days, yet still — there’s extra meaning to meetings with Next Gen rivals. “I know I’m going to compete against these guys for years to come,” he said. “Having the rivalry start on the right foot from the beginning is important. Veterans won’t crack so much under pressure, and having the experience of playing some of them gives me a tool I can use against some of younger guys.”

The players aren’t exactly casting anxious glances over their shoulders, or paying extra attention to the exploits of their Next Gen peers. As Shapovalov, a 19-year-old ranked No. 23 in the world, said in an interview, “You don’t focus on how old a guy is, but on how to beat him. In some ways, though, playing one of these guys is a little different. They’re not afraid to go for it — just like you’re not.”

“Going for it” is the way most of these highly ranked Next Gen players blasted their way up through the rankings. But after that first blush of youthful exuberance and confidence wears off and life on the tour reveals itself as an arduous grind as well as a garden of delights, it becomes more difficult to swing freely, stay healthy and sustain that upward momentum. It’s easy to fall fast — and hard.

Take Rublev. A loser in the championship match of the first Next Gen Finals, he was one of the first among his peers to find major success on the tour. Now 21, Rublev won a clay ATP 250 event (Umag, Croatia) in 2017 and hit a career high of No. 21 in February 2018. Just two months later, though, Rublev suffered a back injury that caused him to miss the French Open and Wimbledon. He hasn’t been the same since his return three months later and is clinging to his Top 100 status at No. 99.

Date Event Time (ET) Channel
March 26 Men’s fourth round/women’s quarterfinals 7:30 p.m. ESPNEWS
March 27 Men’s & women’s quarterfinals 1 p.m. ESPN2
March 27 Men’s & women’s quarterfinals 7 p.m. ESPNEWS
March 28 Women’s semifinals/men’s quarterfinals 1, 7 p.m. ESPN2
March 29 Men’s semifinals 1, 7 p.m. ESPN2
March 30 Women’s finals 1 p.m. ESPN2
March 31 Men’s finals 1 p.m. ESPN2

With well over two years of Next Gen identification, it’s clear there’s been a culling process. Injury, lack of confidence owing to poor results, difficulties embracing the itinerant lifestyle, and arrested development in any number of areas are as much a part of the equation in tennis as elsewhere. Consistency of the kind Zverev, Tsitsipas, Shapovalov, Medvedev and Borna Coric are showing is still difficult to achieve.

As Medvedev said, “I’m not surprised by how much movement there has been for some guys in the rankings. We knew each other from the juniors, and we were all good. But you cannot say at 14 who will really be good. It will mean nothing. When we were in the Next Gen group we were already near the Top 50, but there were still no guarantees.”

Tsitsipas likes to stress the key role played in the success of the best players by experience and confidence — things that can’t be taught or, necessarily, developed simply with age and hard work.

“I feel some of the Next Gen guys lack a little confidence in themselves to take things into their own hands,” Tsitsipas said. “Like, they don’t believe they can go the extra mile and beat those top guys. They just go out to show they can stay with them. But I want to show I can do the dirty work myself. That’s why I’m on the court, to show I can do the dirty work myself.”

The late Arthur Ashe was fond of using the expression, “A rising tide lifts all boats.” This tide has yet to reach flood stage.

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