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Steve Flink: The Youth Brigade

9/1/2008 12:57:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Flushing Meadows---Probably the biggest story thus far at the U.S. Open has been the deep impression left by a cluster of young players. No matter what happens from here on in, this brigade of rapidly rising competitors has given this tournament a definite sparkle. Every time one of these young men steps out on the court, it seems as if we are gazing into the future. There is no doubt in my mind that the game is moving through a transformational stage, and the top ten in the world next year is going to look very different from the current lineup among the elite.

Let me be more specific. I already wrote a column lauding the emerging greatness of Ernests Gulbis of Latvia. During his second round meeting with Andy Roddick, Gulbis turned 20. He had a terrific chance to win that match. Serving explosively at the outset on his first and second deliveries, outgunning Roddick regularly from the baseline, playing an uninhibited and often breathtaking brand of tennis, Gulbis put Roddick in a considerable bind. He built a commanding 6-3, 5-3 lead, and served for a two set to love lead at 5-4. He made it to 30-30, and had Gulbis held there he almost certainly would have gone on to record a triumph over the 2003 Open victor.

At that crucial moment, Gulbis cracked. He still has not fully matured as a match player, and his shot selection the rest of the way against Roddick became increasingly suspect. Roddick came back with typical spunk and fortitude, won the second set, and glided through the third. But, to his credit, Gulbis recouped decidedly in the fourth set. He stayed with Roddick every step of the way until he served at 5-6. Gulbis reached 30-0, and was on the verge of reaching a tie-break and possibly rekindling his early match form. But his game broke down once more, and Roddick closed it out 7-5 in the fourth.

And yet, as I projected in my previous column, Gulbis is here to stay. He has gained valuable experience in 2008, reaching the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and facing Novak Djokovic, giving Rafael Nadal a stern four set test at Wimbledon, and now pushing Roddick hard at this event. He will start toppling some of the leading players by next year, and I fully expect to see him among the top ten in the world when he returns to New York for the 2009 Open. Gulbis has all of the technical tools; all he needs now is seasoning and a more disciplined and tougher competitive attitude. In time--- most likely in short order--- Gulbis will grow into his talent.

But a bunch of others have given fans at the Open a great deal to shout about. Consider Marin Cilic, the No. 30 seed from Croatia. He is 6'6", still only 19, and he made life miserable for Djokovic during their gripping third round encounter the other night. Cilic is not simply a big hitter. His mobility for a big man is nothing short of astounding. In the battle with an apprehensive Djokovic, Cilic had some phenomenal exchanges from the baseline with the world No. 3. And what seemed to make all the difference was his ridiculously wide wing span. Djokovic was driving the ball with great depth and accuracy, hitting shots off both sides that would have been winners--- or at least forced errors--- against just about any other player. But Cilic would take a couple of enormous strides and rifle the ball back off his two-hander with pace and depth. Djokovic would virtually have to start the point all over again.

In turn, Cilic took full advantage of any chance he had to step forward and rip winners. He unnerved Djokovic in many ways, and this was reflected in the many opportunities Djokovic missed. In the opening set, Djokovic had a set point in the tie-break and threw everything he had in his shot making arsenal at his adversary. He gave Cilic every conceivable opportunity to make a mistake, but the towering Croatian would not oblige. He won that point with a scorching winner and took the set. Djokovic then served for the second set at 5-4 but essentially choked that game away before collecting two games in a row for one set all.

The drama was not over. Djokovic led 2-0, 0-40 in third set, closing in on a two service break lead. Cilic got out of that game and broke back for 2-2. Djokovic regained his edge and took the set, but he knew that he was still not home free. In the fourth, Djokovic was up a break at 3-2, lost his serve again, but served for the match at 5-4. Djokovic got to 40-15, double match point, but Cilic struck back boldly again, and broke for 5-5. Djokovic must have been distraught. Cilic went ahead 6-5. When Cilic got to 0-15 on Djokovic's serve in the twelfth game, it seemed entirely possible that he could complete a stunning comeback.

In the end, Djokovic steadied his nerves and won 11 points in a row to win 6-7 (7), 7-5, 6-4, 7-6 (0). It was a gritty win registered by the world No. 3, but in defeat Cilic demonstrated emphatically that he is heading to much higher places. Like Gulbis, I see Cilic among the top ten by this time next year. He is as daunting as could be, big and strong, quick and determined, a highly charged man on a large mission to succeed.

Another young player who spiced up the Open with his quiet determination and court presence was none other than 18-year-old Kei Nishikori of Japan. Playing in only his second career Grand Slam event, he made it the round of 16, toppling No. 4 seed David Ferrer in a suspenseful five set skirmish before losing to Juan Martin Del Potro. Making his U.S. Open debut, he displayed much courage in overcoming the indefatigable Ferrer. Nishikori won the first two sets, dropped the next two, moved to 5-2 in the fifth, but was caught at 5-5. Somehow, he finished off Ferrer from there. He does not have an overwhelmingly big game, but he is solid and persistent from the baseline and a dogged competitor.

Nishikori lost in straight sets to Del Potro. He led 3-0 in the first set but lost six of the next seven games. In the second set, he broke Del Potro when the Argentine served at 5-3. Serving at 4-5, Nishikori rolled to 40-0 but blew that game, and the set. He would lose the match in straight sets. Nishikori was so infuriated with himself when he dropped the second set that he blasted a ball high into the stands at Armstrong Stadium. In a strange way, I liked that. He made it abundantly clear how much he cares. Nishikori does not look like a top ten prospect to me, but I could see him eventually in the top 20 if he keeps working hard at his craft.

What can be said about San Querrey? He had some kind of tournament, crushing No. 22 seed Tomas Berdych, toppling 6'10" Ivo Karlovic (the No. 14 seed) and giving world No. 1 Nadal an unexpectedly rough time yesterday in the round of 16 before losing in four sets. Querrey has an excellent first serve and a top notch forehand. He is 6'6" and does not move terribly well, but then again his court coverage is not bad. And he showed a lot of gumption against Nadal after trailing by a set and 5-3, taking the second set and pushing Nadal into a third set tie-break before going down in four. Querrey delighted the American fans with his revival in that match. I liked the way he competed. He came into the Open at No. 55 in the world, but he can surely climb a lot higher.

Last but clearly not least, Del Potro has backed up his dazzling run through summer with his best showing yet at a major. He will face Andy Murray in the quarterfinals. That could be one of the best matches of the tournament. Del Potro takes a 23 match winning streak into his duel with Murray. He started that streak with triumphs on the clay in Stuttgart and Kitzbuhel. Then he won in Los Angeles and Washington on hard courts. And he has handled the larger expectations surrounding him here at the Open admirably. Of this entire young group of movers and shakers who have performed so brilliantly at the U.S. Open, he is the standout individual.

Del Potro seems to have almost no weaknesses. His ground game is penetrating. He can open up the court as well as anyone, and at 6'6", his mobility is excellent. The only mystery to me about Del Potro is his serve. It should be a lot better for a man of his size and stature, and in time I am sure it will be. At the moment, he works harder than necessary to hold serve at times. But he will end this year in the top ten in the world; of that much I am almost certain. And when he comes back to play the 2009 Open, he will probably be right up there in the top five.

Think about it: we have some awfully stellar players climbing rapidly up the ladder in the men's game. They are reshaping the game in many ways. They are going to be around for a long while. They are first rate competitors. For me, the most fun of all so far at this U.S. Open has been watching the likes of Del Potro, Gulbis, Nishikori, and Querrey. Throw them into the mix with the established young giants like Nadal (age 22), Djokovic (age 21) and Murray (age 21) and one can only conclude that we are in for some great years ahead.

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