This article first appeared in the Sep/Oct 2014 issue of World Gaming magazine.
We often look at the world’s tennis elite – the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova – and wonder how anyone is ever going to dethrone them from the top of the rankings. But rest assured, there is an exciting new generation of players starting to make a move.
Just over a year ago now, French newspaper L’Equipe set themselves the task of predicting how the top 10 in the men’s tennis world rankings would look in 2018. Quite clearly, that’s not an easy task and already some of those predictions are looking decidedly shaky, although certainly a handful of them are likely to be spot on or very close to it.
The holes in these predictions are quite clear. For starters, listing Frenchman Benoit Paire as high as number two seems more a determination on L’Equipe’s part to have a French player on the list than a realistic expectation of his potential. Poland’s Jerzy Janowicz didn’t exactly dominate the junior ranks and can put much of his reputation down to a great run at Wimbledon in 2013 where he went all the way through to the semi-finals before losing to eventual champion Andy Murray. He has struggled for results since and has seen his ranking fall 30 places since the end of 2013.
Then there is Australian Bernard Tomic, who certainly appeared to be a top 10 player of the future when he reached the quarter-finals of Wimbledon in 2011 but has since fallen apart both on and off the court. In fact, he has fallen so far that in March this year he was on the wrong end of the shortest professional tennis match in Open era history when he lost 6-0, 6-1 to Jarkko Nieminen in just 28 minutes and 20 seconds!
We’ve also seen a handful of those on the list start to surge in 2014, with Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic reaching the semi-finals of Wimbledon this year and Ernests Gulbis reaching the semis of the French Open with wins over Roger Federer and Tomas Berdych along the way.
With this in mind, we thought we would put together our own WGM list of the top 5 male and top 5 female rising stars of world tennis to keep an eye out for over the next few years.
For the casual sports fan, Grigor Dimitrov is probably best known as the boyfriend of women’s tennis star Maria Sharapova – which immediately puts him in the bad books of men the world over – but rest assured this Bulgarian is a star of the future.
Having moulded his game on the great Roger Federer, he prefers the faster grass and hardcourt surfaces of Wimbledon and the US Open respectively and it is on these that he first announced his incredible potential as a junior. In 2008, Dimitrov won the Wimbledon boys singles title without dropping a single set, then backed that result up with victory at the US Open to become boys’ world number one.
The following year he turned professional but it wasn’t until 2013 – at the age of 21 – that he began to make his mark. At the Madrid Open in May, Dimitrov beat world number one Novak Djokovic in three sets and although Djokovic returned the favor in the third round of the French Open, the youngster finished the year on a high with his first ever ATP title – beating David Ferrer in the final of the Stockholm Open. This also made him the first Bulgarian player ever to win an ATP event.
Since then, Dimitrov has been on a rapid rise with three more ATP title wins in 2013 on three different surfaces. His biggest result, though, came at Wimbledon where he reached his first career grand slam semi-final by beating defending champion Andy Murray in straight sets in the quarters – eventually falling to Djokovic in a tight four-setter.
Keep a particularly close eye on Dimitrov because as many good judges have observed, he’s not just a top 10 player in waiting but likely the next long-term world number one.
Big-serving Canadian Milos Raonic has been hovering around the world’s top 10 for some time now and has recently reached a career high of world number six, but at just 23 years of age there is no doubt his best days are yet to come.
Like Dimitrov, he enjoyed a career best result at Wimbledon this year when he reached the semi-finals before losing to Roger Federer, however his game is vastly different to that of the Bulgarian. Raonic’s big weapon is his massive and highly effective serve which has helped him hold his own against the world’s best while his ground strokes gradually improve.
Incredibly, in 2012, he averaged the most aces per match and most service games won of all players on the Tour at just 21 years of age!
It’s notable that Raonic never dominated at junior level – by far his best result was a semi-final appearance at the 2008 French Open of all places – but while others have plateaued he has continued to improve. He certainly caught many by surprise in 2011 when, after modest results the previous season, he reached the fourth round of the Australian Open and won a set off Spaniard David Ferrer before running out of steam. Two weeks later he beat Xavier Malisse, James Blake and Fernando Verdasco to win his first ATP title at the SAP Open in California, which saw his ranking rise from 102 to 37 in the space of a month.
His rise since then has been gradual but impressive, with a total of five ATP titles to his name and a growing reputation as one of the most dangerous players on the professional circuit.
Japan has been crying out for a truly great player in men’s tennis and in Kei Nishikori it looks like their prayers might finally have been answered. At 23 years of age, Nishikori is already the first and only Japanese player to be ranked inside the men’s top 10 and like Canada’s Raonic has continued to make significant upward progress with each year on tour.
Unlike Raonic, however, he announced his arrival with a bang with a couple of huge and unexpected results that earned him the title ATP Newcomer of the Year. Aged just 18 at the time, he was ranked world number 244 when he qualified for the Delray Beach International and went all the way – defeating James Blake in the final to lift his maiden ATP trophy.
Later that year, Nishikori played his first US Open and made it all the way to the fourth round with a shock win over David Ferrer in the third.
Fast forward to 2014 and the Japanese has started to announce himself as a consistent performer alongside the world’s elite. He won his fourth career title at the US National Indoor Tennis Championships and his fifth on the clay of Barcelona, as well as reaching his first Masters 1,000 final in Madrid and the fourth round of both the Australian Open and Wimbledon.
His next step will be to show he can go deep in the majors but with his tremendous court speed and finely tuned tennis smarts it’s hard to imagine anything other than successful times ahead.
Australian Nick Kyrgios didn’t register on L’Equipe’s radar last season but where compatriot Bernard Tomic has proved to be a major disappointment, this 19-year-old has certainly made the tennis world sit up and take notice.
Blessed not only with a booming serve but some massive ground strokes and the fearlessness of youth, Kyrgios hinted at his profound talent when he won the Australian Open junior title in 2013, then reached the second round of his first grand slam event at last year’s French Open. A second round appearance at the 2014 Australian Open followed, but it was at Wimbledon a few months ago where he truly announced himself as one to watch.
After saving nine match points to defeat 13th seed Richard Gasquet in the second round, he produced the upset of the tournament in the fourth round when he ousted Rafael Nadal in four sets to reach his first ever grand slam quarter-final.
In doing so, Kyrgios became the first teenager to beat a world number one at a grand slam since Nadal did so himself nine years earlier and the first player ranked outside the top 100 to beat a number one since 1992!
Kyrgios eventually fell to fellow young gun Raonic in the quarters but with a powerful all-court game there is no doubt he is destined for big things.
Tennis used to be a young man’s game. Boris Becker was just 17 when he won his first Wimbledon crown; Lleyton Hewitt just 20 when he rose to world number one. But as the bodies get bigger and young players face greater competition to rise through the ranks, it seems that for many players their best years don’t begin until they reach their mid-20s.
Take Ernests Gulbis for example. A prodigiously talented player who has attracted attention for a number of years now, the Latvian played his first grand slam event in 2007 – reaching the second round of the French Open then going on to the fourth round of the US Open later that same year. He reached the quarter-finals of the French Open a year later but failed to kick on as expected in the years that followed.
That all seems to be changing now. Having won two ATP titles in his first five years on tour, Gulbis has won four in 2013 and 2014. At the 2014 Open 13 in Marseille, he beat Richard Gasquet and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga on his way to the title and entered the world’s top 20 for the first time at number 18. Soon after he added his first ever clay court title in Nice, but it was at the French Open where he showed just how far he has come, downing Roger Federer in the fourth round and Tomas Berdych in the quarters to reach his first ever grand slam semi-final.
In doing so, he also moved into the top 10.
Gulbis has earned quite a following off the court too. His penchant for wacky interviews and love of playing blackjack – he joked before Wimbledon that he had already lost most of his French Open winnings and needed to find a new casino in order to win it back – has endeared him to the media and fans alike.
But it is his all-court ability, with his best results coming on the vastly different slow clay and fast hard-court surfaces, that suggests some big results will come in the next few years. Keep an eye out for him.
Few women have ever hit the circuit with such force as 20-year-old Canadian Eugenie Bouchard. The 2013 WTA Newcomer of the Year, she had impressed in making the third round of Wimbledon just 12 months after winning the Wimbledon junior title, but no one could have predicted what was to come in 2014.
Her season began in stunning fashion with a run all the way to the semi-finals of the Australian Open, beating Ana Ivanovic in the quarters before falling to eventual champion Li Na. In May, she warmed up for the French Open by winning her first ever WTA title at the Nürnberger Versicherungscup, then matched her Australian Open effort by reaching the semis of her second consecutive grand slam.
At Wimbledon a month later, Bouchard went one better by going all the way to the final where nerves got the better of her as she was dismantled by Petra Kvitova. However, her impressive results suggest many grand slam wins await – as does her reputation as one of the most fiercely determined players on tour.
In fact, so resolute is Bouchard in her goals that she recently fell out with her former best friend and fellow up and coming player Laura Robson of Britain after reportedly “stealing” Robson’s coach Nick Saviano. When asked about the fallout, Bouchard confirmed the pair were no longer friends and, showing no remorse, simply stated that there was no room for friendships on the professional tennis circuit anyway!
You might not have heard a whole lot about Elina Svitolina just yet. At a tender 19 years of age, the up and coming Ukrainian is still finding her feet on the WTA Tour. But if her achievements over the past few years are anything to go by then this is one girl you’re going to hear a lot more about in the future.
Svitolina was just 15 years old when she enjoyed her first big breakthrough as a junior by winning the French Open girls’ event as well as her first ITF (second tier) tournament on the women’s tour. She added another eight ITF tournament wins over the next three years as she gradually made forays onto the WTA Tour.
Last year, at 18, she won her first WTA title at the Baku Cup in Azerbaijan – becoming the first teenager in two years to achieve the rare feat – then produced a career best grand slam result at the Australian Open earlier this year by reaching the third round, beating former grand slam winner Svetlana Kuznetsova along the way.
Svitolina is one of the youngest of the latest generation of emerging stars so it could be a few years before we see her best but the early signs are of a champion in the making.
Taylor Townsend isn’t your average tennis player. At 77kg, this 18-year-old is hard to miss but while her significant frame has already attracted plenty of attention over the past few years, it is her tennis skills that we expect to do the talking over the next few.
Townsend certainly boasts an impressive record considering her tender years. In 2012 she won the girls’ Junior Australian Open singles title as well as the junior doubles titles at the Australian Open, Wimbledon and US Open. In 2013 she reached the final of the girls’ Junior Wimbledon – eventually losing to Switzerland’s Belinda Bencic in three sets.
And this year she has been particularly impressive, starting the season with her first two ITF tournament wins, then stunning world number 65 Vania King and number 20 Alize Cornet to reach the third round of the French Open in her grand slam debut.
Townsend hasn’t had it easy to this point. The constant talk about her weight culminated in the USTA controversially asking her to sit out the 2012 US Open Junior event due to health concerns, however she has impressed with the manner in which she has handled such setbacks and as the big-hitting 18-year-old told reporters at Wimbledon recently, “As far as fitness is concerned I have a great team and great staff on my side that have pushed and helped me understand and realize that my body is a total gift.”
Spain has a knack of producing top quality tennis players. So prolific are they that at times it seems they must have built some sort of magical production line pumping out player after player on request. Whatever the secret, it appears they’ve got the formula right in 20-year-old Garbine Muguruza.
Muguruza is somewhat of a tennis anomaly given that she had no junior career to speak of. In fact, she played just 16 matches total on the junior girls’ circuit, reaching a highest ranking of 302 and playing just one junior grand slam event at the French Open in 2010 where she lost in the second round.
But since playing her first WTA event in 2012, Muguruza has quickly announced herself as one of the most fearsome youngsters in the women’s game today. In fact, her rise so far in 2014 has been nothing short of remarkable.
Her season began with a maiden WTA title at the Hobart International, followed by an impressive run to the fourth round of the Australian Open where Caroline Wozniaki was one of her victims. It got even better at the French Open, where Muguruza stunned world number one Serena Williams as she progressed all the way to the quarter-finals and took eventual champion Maria Sharapova to three sets.
Having seen her ranking rise into the world’s top 30, our money is on this impressive youngster to become the first Spanish woman since Arantxa Sanchez Vicario to win a grand slam event.
The United States has been crying out for a successor to the Serena Williams crown and in 19-year-old Madison Keys they may well have found one. Not convinced? Williams is – the pair played one another five years ago in a World TeamTennis league match with a then 14-year-old Keys stunning the defending Wimbledon champion 5-1!
Keys was certainly an early bloomer. She was just 14 years and 48 days when she won her first WTA match against world number 81 Alla Kudryavtseva and just 16 when she won her first grand slam match at the US Open.
Since then she has made consistent forays beyond the first round of all of the majors – reaching the third round of the Australian Open and Wimbledon last year and the third round of Wimbledon again this year where she looked like going deep before injury forced her to withdraw. That setback was particularly frustrating for Keys – two weeks earlier she had lifted her first WTA trophy at Eastbourne and was vying to become the first woman since Jana Novotna in 1998 to complete the Eastbourne-Wimbledon double.
Still, at just 19 her best days lie ahead and with her powerful ground strokes and a booming serve she will inevitably make her presence felt.