More stories

  • in

    The Next Generation of Men’s Tennis

    Fixing this and that in their games, these 10 players could join the elite.Novak Djokovic dominated men’s tennis this year, but with Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal wearing down physically, 2021 also signaled a changing of the guard: Stefanos Tsitsipas reached the French Open final; Matteo Berrettini reached the Wimbledon final; Alexander Zverev won the Olympic gold medal; and Daniil Medvedev reached the Australian Open final and then won the United States Open. All are 25 or younger.Now a new crop of youngsters, 24 and under, is charging up the rankings, but some will stall.To separate themselves from their peers, each must refine his game; these 10 are most likely to join the sport’s elite, if they improve one aspect of their game. Following is an assessment of each player from coaches, analysts and former professionals. Rankings are through Thursday.Casper RuudNorway, age 22; world ranking: 8Ruud’s speed and all-around game shine on clay, said Tom Shimada, a coach at the Van Der Meer Tennis Academy in South Carolina, “but now he has to figure out how to play on the quicker services.”Ruud needs more free points on serve, said Jimmy Arias, director of the IMG Academy’s tennis program in Florida and a Tennis Channel analyst. “He still has to grind on his serve and in three-of-five set tournaments that makes it difficult.”Patrick McEnroe, a director of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York and an analyst for ESPN, was pleasantly surprised by Ruud’s serves and instead feels Ruud needs “more firepower on his forehand, whether it’s more power or more spin.”Christian Bruna/EPA, via ShutterstockHubert HurkaczPoland, age 24; ranking: 9Hurkacz turned heads with his Miami Open win this year, but Arias said he needed to retain consistency because he sometimes lost to lesser players.McEnroe sees that as a lack of assertiveness despite his rise in the rankings: “He needs to be more aggressive with his shots, but also with his attitude. He could use a little swagger.”Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesJannik SinnerItaly, age 20; ranking: 11Sinner himself said he could not pick just one thing to improve. “I’m only 20 years old; I have to improve everything,” he said. “I have to improve the serve, my volleys and mixing up my game as well.”McEnroe and Arias said he needed variety and creativity in his approach. “He’s missing the subtleties of the game,” McEnroe said, “when to hit the ball at 60 percent or to slice it down the middle and make the other guy come up with something.”Carmen Mandato/Getty Images Felix Auger-AliassimeCanada, age 21; ranking: 12He sometimes gets tight, leading to service breaks at crucial moments. “He will just hand you a service break with two double faults and two inexplicable first-ball errors,” Arias said.McEnroe said Auger-Aliassime was a true student of the game, so he sometimes overthinks things. “He’s looking for the perfect shot, so he makes errors,” McEnroe said. “He needs to relax, just let it go and play with more freedom, trusting his athleticism.”Carmen Mandato/Getty ImagesDenis ShapovalovCanada, age 22; ranking: 13Shapovalov has been captivating fans since he shocked Nadal as an 18-year-old at the 2017 Canadian Open, but Shapovalov’s power and style can work to his detriment. “He has tremendous weapons, but he’s going for a lot,” Shimada said. Trying to blast winners is “a tough way to consistently beat the guys who play unbelievable defense.”McEnroe said Shapovalov needed more high-percentage shots on his service return: “He tends to take big swings and has to be more consistent on the return, playing smart, neutral or even defensive shots to get in the rally.”Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesReilly OpelkaUnited States, age 24; ranking: 26Opelka needs confidence. “To reach the next level will require an evolution of his mind-set,” Shimada saidArias recalled watching Opelka double fault twice in a row in Atlanta this summer, then mutter repeatedly to himself, “I should have played team sports.”McEnroe said that at 6-foot-11, Opelka needed to maximize his size and power, going bigger on forehands, returns and serves. “He jokes about not wanting to be a ‘serve-bot,’ but he should play like one more often,” McEnroe said. “To beat the top players, he has to overpower them.”Scott Taetsch/USA Today Sports, via ReutersSebastian KordaUnited States, age 21; ranking: 38Korda soared from 119th this year, but his continued climb requires a better serve, Shimada said, citing his loss to Karen Khachanov at Wimbledon, where Korda was broken seven times in the fifth set as Exhibit A.“You can’t have that happen,” McEnroe said. “The serve has to get better, and he needs to get stronger and impose himself more.”Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesCarlos AlcarazSpain, age 18; ranking: 40Even for this article, which is essentially nit-picking, Arias, McEnroe and Shimada were stumped when it came to the dynamic Alcaraz, who jumped in the rankings from 141 this year.“If I had to pick one guy where you can’t come up with one thing, it’s Alcaraz,” McEnroe said. “He can do it all, and he has moxie.”Mark J. Terrill/Associated PressJenson BrooksbyUnited States, age 21; ranking: 56He believes he needs to commit to being physical and running through the ball in points to avoid going on the defensive. “That’s what I’m working on the most,” Brooksby said.While Shimada, McEnroe and Arias are dazzled by his movement and feel, and his unusual strokes and style, they said his big problem was really his serve.“For his size, [6-foot-4], his serve is mediocre at best,” McEnroe said.He will need a dangerous serve to win a major, but if he improves there, Arias said, look out.“With a bigger serve, he could be the American Daniil Medvedev.”Grant Halverson/Getty ImagesLorenzo MusettiItaly, age 19; ranking: 65He is straightforward in his self-analysis. “I need to improve my serve, but especially my return and especially on hard courts,” said Musetti, a clay-court specialist. “With my one-handed backhand, I need to work on stepping to the ball.”Give him points for self-awareness. “He just doesn’t do enough with the serve,” Shimada said, while Arias said that with a one-handed backhand, Musetti needed to at least get to neutral on returns (hit them harder so he does not start rallies at a disadvantage).McEnroe said Musetti “doesn’t step in as naturally as some other guys and needs to take the ball a little earlier.” More

  • in

    With Biggest Stars Absent, Miami Open Serves Up Some Chaos

    Top men’s seeds and Naomi Osaka fell earlier than expected, but there was some normalcy: Ashleigh Barty won in women’s singles, successfully defending her title.MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. — So what exactly happened at the Miami Open over the past two weeks?Other than the top-seeded Ashleigh Barty walking away with the women’s singles title, something like tennis chaos unfolded at the only significant tournament in North America until August.Where to begin? Naomi Osaka, a four-time Grand Slam event winner, lost a match for the first time in more than a year, and on a hardcourt, a surface it seemed she might never lose on again. After the men’s Big Three — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic — skipped this tournament, Jannik Sinner of Italy and Hubert Hurkacz of Poland, close friends and doubles partners, dueled in their first ATP Masters 1000 final. Hurkacz blew past Sinner, a player experts have tapped to be an eventual No. 1, 7-6 (4), 6-4.Barty and Bianca Andreescu, who won Grand Slam events in 2019 but barely played in 2020, gave notice they were just about fully back as they met for the first time in the women’s singles final. A 20-year-old with top-class tennis DNA named Sebastian Korda, the son of the former world No. 2 Petr Korda, made the final eight and was the last remaining American.The top two men’s seeds, Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas, lost in the quarterfinals. Alexander Zverev, the No. 3 seed, lost in the second round after having a bye in the first. Andrey Rublev was the only player in the top 10 of the ATP Tour rankings to make the semifinals, where he lost to Hurkacz in straight sets.Simona Halep, the No. 3 women’s seed, and Sofia Kenin, the No. 4 seed, each won just a single match, and Maria Sakkari, the No. 23 seed, served a bagel to Osaka in the first set of her 6-0, 6-4 quarterfinal win.In short, Miami provided a glimpse of a tennis future that does not include Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Serena Williams, who withdrew from the event after oral surgery: a sport of surprise and entropy.“Everyone can win now,” Rublev said after his quarterfinal win over Korda. “It’s not about ranking.”Rublev was talking about the tournament’s final rounds, but he could have meant the sport. Djokovic and Nadal are still nearly indomitable at big events, but when they skip one, all bets are off. (Federer, 39, has played just one tournament since his two knee operations last year.)Bernard Tomic of Australia said earlier this year that there was not much difference between a player ranked 60 and one ranked 250. It sounded strange, but now seems prescient.Aslan Karatsev, a Russian qualifier, made the semifinals of the Australian Open. Juan Manuel and Francisco Cerundolo, two brothers from Argentina who are ranked outside the top 100, made the finals of tournaments in South America, with Juan Manuel winning a title. Lorenzo Musetti, 19, an Italian ranked 94th, knocked off two players in the top 16 at the Mexican Open.Musetti, though, is only the second-best 19-year-old Italian at the moment: Sinner, the son of a cook and waitress and a surprise semifinalist at the French Open last year, is staking his claim as one of the brightest young players in the game.“He has everything,” Roberto Bautista Agut, the veteran from Spain, said of Sinner after losing to him in three sets in the semifinals. “Big serve. Tall. Moves well. Very good groundstrokes. Mentally great, and he’s improving.”Sinner is 6 feet 2 inches with long arms and legs that make him seem taller, and he has that priceless ability to pivot from defense to offense from nearly anywhere on the court and when his opponent least expects it. On three occasions against Bautista Agut, it looked like Sinner was about to wither, especially when he was down a set and three break points at 3-3 in the second set. Instead, he knotted the game with two winners, including a risky, floating crosscourt backhand that nicked the outside of the line.“Every match has a story,” Sinner said after that win. Later, he said, “Sometimes a few points can decide a match.”Ashleigh Barty, above, played Bianca Andreescu for the first time on Saturday, and beat her in the Miami Open final when Andreescu retired in the second set.Lynne Sladky/Associated PressThe Miami Open was an opportunity to show on a big stage what tennis could eventually look like.“I knew when Novak, Rafa, Roger and Dominic Thiem said they were not going to play, some of the younger guys would have a chance to play really deep,” said Hurkacz, 24, a lanky, pigeon-toed big server who has won two tournaments this year.Hurkacz, who often trains in Florida, was seeded 26th here, but he beat players seeded second, fourth, sixth and 12th in five days. He came back from a set and a service break down to Tsitsipas on a brutally hot day in the quarterfinal; outslugged Rublev in a gutsy performance, on a cool night in the semifinal; then knocked off the game’s latest boy wonder on a bright and breezy Easter afternoon.Sinner served for the first set at 6-5, but Hurkacz broke him at love. Then a series of errors allowed Hurkacz to cruise through the tiebreaker. Hurkacz frustrated Sinner with a serve that kept kicking up above his eyes, and two early service breaks in the second set made the final result come fast.Before the match, Sinner had begged off anointing himself the next big thing in tennis, cautioning that a good 10 days in Miami guaranteed nothing. “The road is long,” he said. “I know that. My team knows that.”Barty, 24, and Andreescu, 20, also know that. The two young Grand Slam champions had never played head-to-head before Saturday’s final, though the showdown proved an anticlimax. Andreescu, who struggled to find her rhythm against Barty’s relentless groundstrokes, appeared to roll her foot and ankle while down, 2-0, in the second set and defaulted two games later, giving Barty her second consecutive Miami Open title, 6-3, 4-0.Barty, the world No. 1 from Australia, opted not to play when tennis returned last August, because of her country’s strict quarantine requirements for anyone returning home during the pandemic. She played little tennis in 2020 from March until October, when she began to prepare for the Australian summer of tennis. She kept her top ranking only because of a pandemic rule change that allowed players to maintain their points from 2019.She won a tuneup for the Australian Open, but lost in the quarterfinals of the Grand Slam event and in the first round of a tournament the next week. Barty has gained confidence. In Miami, she barely used the slices she tends to hit when she loses her edge. She does not plan to return to Australia until the fall so she can avoid the country’s mandatory two-week lockdown for international arrivals.“I knew eventually I would find it,” Barty said of her form and the patience with which she approached her return to the game. “I knew it might not be in the third week or the 10th week or the 20th week.”Andreescu, a Canadian, caught the injury bug shortly after winning the 2019 United States Open. It kept her from last year’s summer and fall events. In Australia, she showed flashes of her shotmaking prowess but was too inconsistent to play deep into events. In Miami, she prevailed in four three-set matches to make the final, surviving a third-set tiebreaker in the semifinal against Sakkari that finished past midnight. Then came another injury, a final twist in this strange tournament.She tried to play through the pain, but eventually gave in to her trainer, Abdul Sillah, who urged her from courtside not to risk further damage. “Abdul basically saved me from myself,” said Andreescu, who crouched and cried when she knew the end had come.With the Miami tournament over, the tours are planning to shift to the clay- and grass-court seasons in Europe, but events there are shrouded in uncertainty. Italy and France are in various stages of lockdowns as the European Union struggles to distribute the coronavirus vaccines. While organizers say the tournaments, the Italian Open and the French Open, which is the next Grand Slam event of the year, remain on track, it’s not clear whether government officials will allow them to take place.While Nadal and Djokovic will no doubt quickly attempt to restore order, Federer has yet to say how much clay-court tennis he will play. His focus, he has said, is being healthy for Wimbledon.Osaka, the winner of two of the last three Grand Slam events, has never won a tournament on those surfaces, leaving the door open for any number of her competitors to catch up to her.“I have more freedom on the clay and grass because I am still learning a lot,” Osaka said last week.In other words, expect more chaos. More