It is 2018 and Rafael Nadal leads the world rankings, followed by long-time rival Roger Federer. You read that right: it’s 2018, not 2008. A lot has changed in men’s tennis, and yet nothing has changed. Novak Djokovic is back in the top 10, too, and will start as one of the prime favorites to win the upcoming US Open.
That these three are still at the top, beating a majority of their opponents well into their twilight years, shows that tennis has an entire ‘lost generation’ of players – the next big things who didn’t become as big as they should have. Grigor Dimitrov, Jo Wilfred Tsonga, Marin Cilic, Kei Nishikori, Juan Martin Del Potro, Milos Raonic, Gael Monfils, David Goffin, Bernard Tomic and others represent this “middle” generation. Then there’s the generation threatening to take over, but still failing to – Alexander Zverev, Nick Kyrgios and Dominic Thiem, in their early twenties, have shown sparks of dominance, but have regularly lost to Nadal and Federer.
But at the Rogers Masters in Toronto last week, it became clear that now there’s the youngest generation threatening to upset world order. 19-year-old Denis Shapolapov made his presence felt last year – and is the youngest in the top 100 (and 30) currently.
Let’s take a look at the next five of these potential champions:
STEFANOS TSITSIPAS (GREECE)
The 20-year-old Greek player was only 19 last week when he defeated Thiem, Djokovic, Zverev, and Anderson in consecutive days in a stunning run to the Toronto Masters Final. He lost to Nadal in the final, but by then had sounded the alarm bells – Zverev and Thiem had reason to be worried, because they may just have found a new rival. He had reached the Barcelona final, too, losing to Nadal eventually. Tsitsipas has a solid all-around game and a one-handed backhand with great court awareness – a cocktail that saw him become a career-high World no. 15. He is the youngest in the top 50 at the moment. He lost a few days later in the first round of the Cincinnati Masters, out of steam and drained after a famous tournament. Fitness and consistency will be his biggest battle in the years to come. Also, wouldn’t it be lovely to have a new European country dominate the sport?
HYEON CHUNG (SOUTH KOREA)
At 22, he is slightly older than the others here, but he has had a bumper 2018 on the ATP Tour. The reigning Next-Gen Champion (he defeated Rublev in the final last year) made a famous run to the semifinals of the Australian Open in January. He defeated Djokovic on the way and finally fell to Federer after getting blisters on his feet. Chung’s game is modeled on Djokovic, which means he could be the slugger that wins Slams with nothing but willpower and endurance.
FRANCES TIAFOE (USA)
An American immigrant born to parents who fled a war-ravaged Sierra Leone, the 20-year-old World no. 38 is strong, smart and on the verge of a breakthrough. His moment in the sun came last season when at 19, he gave Federer a huge scare in the first round of the US Open by going two sets to one up with some lights-out tennis. He shook Federer with his groundstrokes, and even though he eventually lost it in 5 sets, he made his name known to tennis fans across the world. He could well be the star that American tennis has been missing for more than a decade – the Isners and Querreys will make way for Tiafoe, who will surely go one-up on them by winning a major.
ALEX DE MINAUR (AUSTRALIA)
He is younger than fellow Aussie Kyrgios, and arguably less unhinged. De Minaur has trained in Spain for most of his young adult life, and he is from the Lleyton Hewitt school of tennis – with a game suited to grass and quicker courts. He reached the third round at Wimbledon 2018, losing to Nadal, but it was his main-draw debut and he captivated imaginations with his gritty run – which included a victory over French Open semifinalist Marco Cecchinato. Minaur has a long road ahead and will hope that the main draws favor him a little more over the next few seasons.
DANIIL MEDVEDEV (RUSSIA)
The 22-year-old World no. 56 shot to the limelight last year when he defeated World no. 3 Stanislas Wawrinka in the first round of Wimbledon 2017. He then won his first ATP title at Sydney in January this year, where he defeated De Minaur in the final. Medvedev reached the third round at Wimbledon this season and will start the US Open hoping to have a more consistent Grand Slam run than his contemporaries. He has the game, but his temper on the court remains an issue. The next-gen needs colorful personalities – and if he could be the next Safin, why not?