In the competitive world of professional tennis much focus is applied to the ATP Tour and the Masters, 500s and 250s that regularly see the top players compete. This article focuses on the next rung of professional tennis, in the Challengers and profiles four young stars looking likely to earn a place amongst the tennis elite.
1. Casper Ruud: A seventeen year old Norwegian, Ruud hails from a tennis background. His father Christian Ruud was the 1995 Bastaad Open runner-up and a former Top 50 player. Ruud has the potential to eclipse his father’s impressive exploits. Already representing Norway in Davis Cup action, Ruud has seen much of his early success on clay, winning two clay Futures titles (d. Taberner, d. Torpegaard). In September Ruud stepped up to the Challenger circuit, making his debut in Seville. Forced to qualify, Ruud then battled past a number of experienced clay specialists including members or former members of the Top 100 (d. Martin, d. Cervantes, d. Daniel). The come-back win over Cervantes in particular, a five time winner of clay Challengers, proved that Ruud has the ability to compete even at his young age. To put his run in perspective, only three men have successfully won the title on their Challenger debut at a younger age. Ruud joins a unique group that includes former Top 10 star and 2015 Wimbledon semi-finalist Richard Gasquet and Michael Chang. Right handed, with a two-handed backhand, Ruud make his ATP Tour debut in Chengdu as a wildcard, going down to Viktor Troicki 6-3, 6-7. Despite the loss, it would not be a surprise to see Ruud appear in the Roland Garros main draw next year, either as a direct entry or as a wildcard.
2. Mackenzie McDonald: Typically in these posts, a player aged twenty-one does not normally meet my criteria as a young star in the current climate. McDonald however deserves an exception. Like a number of Top ATP stars including John McEnroe and current active Top 100 stars Kevin Anderson, John Isner, and Steve Johnson, McDonald elected to go to college before turning professional. As a result, he only played selectively as tournaments clashed with his schedule at UCLA. Despite this, his talent still occasionally shone through. In 2013, as a Qualifying draw entrant at the Cincinnati Masters, McDonald defeated Nicolas Mahut and Steve Johnson. He had dropped the opening set in each match. He was beaten in the first round of the main draw by David Goffin. McDonald’s success continued in college, and this year he won both the singles and doubles titles in the NCAA. The winner of the NCAA Singles in particular has a successful record of turning professional, with recent winners including Steve Johnson (2011, 2012), Blaz Rola (2013) forging successful careers after winning the title. McDonald elected to turn professional after winning the title, delaying his final year at UCLA. The benefits of more consistent high-level tournament play have seen a marked improvement in his results. After a five-set defeat in his US Open debut (l. to Satral), consecutive Challenger semi-final appearances in Tiburon and Stockton, including victories over former Top 100 players Tim Smyczek and Denis Kudla, as well as current Top 100 member Frances Tiafoe, McDonald can be considered a force to be reckoned with.
Highlights of McDonald’s win over Frances Tiafoe in Tiburon.
3. Michael Mmoh: Mmoh is the second American to feature on this list and for a good reason. The eighteen year-old has joined McDonald in making a big step up in his Challenger results this autumn. A hitting partner for Frances Tiafoe in their respective junior careers, Mmoh has shown in the last few months that he has the game to emulate and challenge his friend in the coming years. Mmoh qualified for his first ATP tournament in Memphis (d. Fratangelo, d. Novikov, l. to Fritz). He then won a close encounter with fellow youngster Casper Ruud in a Futures final before being handed a wildcard entry to the Miami Masters, where he lost 7-6, 7-6 to Alexander Zverev. His year then faltered, at one stage losing seven straight matches including his US Open debut (l. to Chardy). His year has picked up though, qualifying for and reaching the final of the Tiburon Challenger (d. Shapovalov, d. Kozlov, d. Fratangelo, d. Smyczek, l. to King). He followed this up with a strong showing in Stockton (d. Gonzalez, d. Caruso, d. King, l. to Rubin). Mmoh needs to add consistency to his game but has shown the character to emerge from the losing streak over the summer to a level where he is genuinely competing for Challenger titles.
Highlights of Mmoh’s win over another young talent Denis Shapovalov.
4. Stefanos Tsitsipas: At eighteen years-old, Tsitsipas, like Casper Ruud, has shown an aptitude for clay. The young Greek has made giant strides in his performances since the US Open, culminating in a final showing in Mohammedia last week (d. Ramirez Hidalgo, d. Gimeno-Traver, l. to Melzer.) That moved his ranking up seventy-two places to no.241, and with a minimum quarter-final showing this week in Casablanca he could rise higher, indeed he could break the Top 200 with a title win. His recent success on the Challenger circuit replicates his form at junior and Futures levels. Tsitsipas has succeeded at every level he has played at so far. He had minimum quarter-final showings at every Junior Grand Slam, (best SF in Wimbledon and US Open), and has won five futures titles. His success at Challenger level has taken a little longer to produce but now in form and adapting to the higher level, the 6’4 right-hander has every chance and expectation of moving on to even better things.
Intriguing Team-Ups Lure Eyes Doubles’ Way. Will They Stay For The Problems, Too?
Will the recent surge in high-profile double partnerships have any impact on the long term future of the discipline?
In one of his press conferences at the Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, Andy Murray said he would not be playing the US Open. His announcement came a day or so after his initial declaration that he would be playing only the two doubles events in the final Major of the season. A few things came out of Murray’s remarks. The first and the obvious was that the former world no. 1 was ready to give it his all (yet again) to play singles. The second, the understated aspect, was that doubles while seeming easy vis-à-vis singles required just as much focus, if not more. Then, there was a third.
In tennis’ continuity though, the relevance of the doubles game is not a recent epiphany. However, the last few tournaments of the 2019 season that featured some eclectic partnerships – Stefanos Tsitispas and Nick Kyrgios, Andy Murray and Feliciano Lopez, the Pliskova twins, Andy and Jamie Murray, and so on – has made doubles slightly more prominent than singles.
Singles has become monotonous with the same set of players making it to the final rounds. On the other hand, doubles has brought in more verve to the existing status quo of the Tour, with each player’s individuality adding to the dynamics of the team. After his first outing as Kyrgios’ doubles partner at the Citi Open in Washington in July, Tsitsipas pointed this out.
“It’s the joy of being with a person who thinks differently and reacts differently. I would characterise him (Kyrgios) as someone who likes to amuse. I’m very serious and concentrated when I play, but he just has the style of speaking all the time. It’s good sometimes to have a change,” the Greek had said.
These changes – as seen with Murray’s recent decision – may not extend for a longer period. The culmination of these short-term team-ups does – and should – not mean the end of the road of doubles piquing attention, per se. At the same time, these transitory partnerships also reroute the discussion back to the financial side of the doubles game.
In a recent interview with Forbes, Jamie Murray – a doubles specialist – shared how conducive it had become for players to take up doubles as the sole means of a tennis career these days, as compared to in the past.
“Because the money is always increasing in tennis, it is a much more viable option to go down the doubles route a lot earlier than previous generations. Before, people would play singles and then when their ranking dropped, they played an extra few years of doubles. Now it is a genuine option to start off much younger and have a career in doubles,” the 33-year-old said.
Despite Murray’s upbeat attitude, these increases have not exactly trickled towards doubles, especially at the Slams including the upcoming edition of the US Open. For 2019, the USTA showed-off yet another hike in the prize-money coffer. The men’s and women’s singles champions will be awarded $3.8 million. In comparison, the men’s and women’s doubles teams winning the respective title will get $740,000. This sum gets further diluted for the mixed-doubles’ titlists who will get $160,000 as a team.
This is the third and final takeaway that emerged from Murray’s US Open call. For several of these singles players, intermittent doubles play is an option. For those who play only doubles, that is the only option they have. The doubles game requires similar effort – travel, expenses and fitness – the costs continue to outweigh the benefits. These momentary team formations are a gauge revealing the disparity of tennis’ two sides, visible yet obliviated beyond tokenism.
Andy Murray, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic’s Big Four reunion in Cincy
A few years before, there existed a quartet called Big Four in men’s tennis. At certain points in their time-line of dominance, injuries plagued each member of this four-member group. However, the severity of their affliction in one player, Andy Murray, saw his name erased from this elite pocket. Thus, the Big Four was reduced to the Big Three with Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer making up the troika.
At the 2019 Western and Southern Open in Cincinnati, three of the erstwhile Big Four troupe reunited as they re-entered the circuit’s circus. And each player had a different path leading up to the event, too, underlining how divergent their careers had become despite overlapping scheduling.
The 2016 season was the common catalyst leading to this divergence. From Federer’s injury to him pausing his season to focus on rehab after Wimbledon, to Djokovic pushing his boundary as a marauder and completing the non-calendar Slam, and to Murray ending the season as the world no. 1. The year in consideration also threw up other names – Nadal’s season ended in an agony of injury, while Stan Wawrinka won his third Major at the US Open. In its bounty of giving and taking, 2016 changed how we looked at these players – especially the first four – and the irrevocability of assumption that these guys could get past any hurdles stopping their way.
Juxtaposing with Cincinnati, in the three years since 2016, Federer and Djokovic have vaulted past their share of physical problems. Yet, in the Ohioan city, they have different motivations guiding them. This is the first time that Djokovic has entered the Cincinnati draw as the defending champion. Meanwhile, after having been drawn in the same half as the Serbian, Federer has the proverbial score to settle against him. “I can’t wait for my next rematch with Novak or my next time I can step on a match court and show what I can do,” the 20-time Slam champion said in one of his pre-tournament media interactions in Cincinnati.
There are a few opponents to get past before their slated semi-final meeting occurs. Nonetheless, their sustained competitiveness adds its fervour to the already-hefty top-half of the men’s draw. In the midst of their respectively successful opening rounds, Murray’s first-round defeat to Richard Gasquet in straight sets became a contextual misnomer for comebacks.
Yet, Murray’s was the most stirring return. This was not because of the emotional crossroads that had sprung up at the 2019 Australian Open regarding his retirement. But on account of how farther Murray had leapt to put his physical frailties behind and re-join the singles Tour. And, the Briton’s determination to do so is reminiscent of 2016, all over again. It’s the completion of the circle of how Murray had pushed hard to become the world’s best player and now, he is trying just as much to regain his footing back.
Nick Kyrgios’ Washington win is about good vs bad: Of situations and opinions
The Australian’s Citi Open win brought forth a wave of positiveness about him. But its enduring or lack thereof is a test for his viewers, hereon.
Nick Kyrgios picked up two titles in 2019 – in Acapulco and Washington – in the time it took opinion to swing between “He is not good for tennis” to “Tennis needs him”. And, in the days after his win at the 2019 Citi Open in the latter city, the subject continues to be a favoured topic of editorial conversation vis-à-vis his importance to the sport.
The player in question though does not care for any of these. Yes, after his win in the Washington final against Daniil Medvedev, Kyrgios admitted, “I’ve just been working really hard, on and off the court, to try and be better as a person and as a tennis player. And as I said, I wasn’t exaggerating. This has been one of the best weeks of my life, not just on the court but in general. I feel like I’ve made major strides.” But this came with an addendum of sorts. “And I’m just going to take it one day at a time and hopefully, I can continue on this new path.”
As Kyrgios heads into the Rogers Cup in Montreal, these words need to be stamped onto onlookers’ minds, with their significance getting highlighted each time he steps on to the court, hereafter. Especially, when describing his antics that often tend to be over-the-top.
This past week in Washington, Kyrgios came up with some idiosyncratic behaviour. He shimmied, he put himself in the shoes of the prince while conjuring up an image of Stefanos Tsitsipas as Cinderella, and he asked fans for their opinions about which way to serve on match points, following that with heartfelt hugs after winning the match. All of these were endearing gestures with their enjoyableness magnified by his run of triumph thereby leading to thoughts of why Kyrgios was so important to tennis.
Had these same actions come before a result – in any round – that had not gone in his favour? It is not hard to say, after observing past trends that the reactions would have been about how Kyrgios had disrespected the sport and how he did not do much with the potential he has been gifted. The opinions would have changed that quickly.
It is because of these that the Washington result comes as a timely reality-check monitor. That instead of analysing Kyrgios’ every move, both tactical and non-tactical, the world at large needs to just view him as part of the whole of tennisdom. He is like the others who have taken up tennis professionally. But if his route on the Tour is to be measured by others’ straight-line standards, then, he is not the guy to follow that precedent.
And, why should he? Kyrgios is the way he wants to be, not the way people think he should be. Moreover, if it is that easy to accept him as he is when he wins not being able to accept Kyrgios for who he is when he loses is not his lookout. It’s the viewers who need to pore over their preferences.
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