By Richard Evans
“I’m worried,” said Mats Wilander. “I’m seriously worried.”
The former US Open Champion and world No 1 was referring to the hot topic at Flushing Meadows this year. Where are the next generation of male Grand Slam Champions? The question becomes inevitable when most of the young guys who have been spotted as exceptional talents --Kei Nishikori, Jerzy Janowicz and Grigor Dimitrov – all lose in the first round. And Bernard Tomic, who is another young player with considerable potential, loses in the second.
It’s not the same with the girls. Teenage and early twenties talent is readily available. Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys look like future Grand Slam champions and you can pick out Laura Robson, Eugenie Bouchard, Monica Puig, Julia Glusko, Donna Vekic, Alison Riske, the tournament’s surprise package,Victoria Duval, and the increasingly impressive Romanian Simona Halep as young players who have that something extra. And, of course, the 21-year-old Italian Camila Giorgi who upset Caroline Wozniacki in such sensational fashion.
“But you look for boys of similar potential and they don’t seem to be there,” says Wilander who keeps in close touch with international tennis as a commentator as well as the grass roots in America as he takes his “Wilander-on-Wheels” clinics around the country.
You get the same response talking to people like Gil Reyes, who trains adidas-contracted youngsters in Las Vegas with the frequent assistance of Andre Agassi, Steffi Graf and Darren Cahill. “I don’t see any obvious candidates for a future Grand Slam champion amongst the men,” admits Reyes. “You wonder how long the Top Four are going to dominate and who will replace them.”
“It seems inevitable that there will be a dip in standard,” says Wilander. “Maybe players like Milos Raonic, Janowicz and Dimitrov will fill in for a while until the next wave come through.”
But there may be hope for the Raonic/Tomic generation. Peter Lundgren, the Swedish coach who is now working with Francesca Schiavone, had Roger Federer under his wing when the young genius suddenly broke through at 23 to win his first Wimbledon.
“Some of the guys coming up have the ability but do they have the mental toughness to do themselves justice?” asks Lundgren. “You never know at what age it’s going to click. A lot of people thought Roger would never concentrate long enough to make it. When I first worked with him he was a bit of a locker room clown, always fooling around and having a great time. Then he suddenly got it and started using all his weapons which meant his brain as well as his physical ability.”
Max Mirnyi, a two time US Open doubles champion agreed that the early years in a youngster’s career can be deceptive when he joined the discussion at the outdoor players’ area. “I beat Roger here at the US Open early on,” said the big Belarussian referring to his straight set win over the Swiss in 2002. “And I couldn’t believe Marat Safin became as good as he did. He never seemed to be serious enough before he beat Pete Sampras here to win the US Open.”
Alex Corretja, the former French Open finalist, is another who looked dubious when asked to pick out a really talented boy. Like others who follow Spanish tennis, he mentions Pablo Carreno Busta, who is currently ranked 76. But Carreno is already 22. On the upside he is coached by Javier Duarte who was responsible for Corretja’s success as well as several other top Spaniards. Could Carreno be top twenty? “Maybe,” says Corretja. So one can take it there is no Rafael Nadal on the horizon in Iberia.
At the start of the year one waited eagerly to see how the likes of Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, Rhyne Williams, Denis Kudla and a couple of other young Americans would fare as the season progressed. They’ve had some good wins here and there but there has been no hint of them forming a Sampras-Agassi-Courier-Chang generation. That’s a tough ask but this is a tough sport with the bar being set ever higher by the exceptional group at the top and someone needs to step up.
No need to point out the problem to Patrick McEnroe. The man in charge of the game’s future in the US has been reviewing USTA strategy and may change the way things are done at the headquarters in Boca Raton, FL. Fewer players, maybe as few as four, will be kept in residence at the Evert Academy as doubts arise as to the efficiency of taking teenagers away from their home environment and personal coaches.
In Las Vegas, Reyes follows the dictum which is used for students at the Andre Agassi Charter School. I. I. A. Inspiration. Information. Application.“You need all three to succeed,” says Reyes. Wilander is fully in agreement with that and also makes another point which is worth considering. “Youngsters growing up in these tennis academies rarely get to play adults,” he says. “So it’s a big shock and requires a major adjustment when they hit the pro tour and suddenly find themselves facing these battle-hardened, savvy 30 year olds.”
Wilander recounts how he was always playing against adults from the age of ten at the local tennis club in his home town of Vaxjo in Sweden. “It didn’t matter what the standard was, you just got used to playing adult tennis,” says Mats. “I think that is something that is missing for this generation.”
There is obviously something missing. Who will find the key?
Richard Evans has covered tennis since the 1960s, reporting on more than 160 Grand Slams. He is author of 16 books, including the official history of the Davis Cup and the unofficial history of the modern game in "Open Tennis." He was the play-by-play commentator for BBC Radio at Wimbledon for twenty years.