2019 men's crystal ball: new names, familiar faces?
2019 men's crystal ball: new names, familiar faces?
When Australian Open 2019 began, Rafa Nadal warned us that the younger generation were coming. He hoped that they would wait a year or two before they actually moved in, but they were certainly on their way.
Then, as the tournament progressed, he noticed that the new boys were now standing on the doorstep; they had arrived. The draw was studded with new names, new talents making their mark in the first Grand Slam of the season. And then he, the politest and humblest of men, slammed the door shut in their faces.
Rafa snuffed out the dreams of Alex de Minaur in the third round, Frances Tiafoe in the quarterfinals and Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals. If the young lads were not willing to wait, it did not matter; Rafa would make them wait.
But sport moves on quickly. No sooner had the trophy presentation been made than the players and the tennis caravan was moving on. The European indoor events beckon in February, there are the first two Masters 1000 titles in Indian Wells and Miami in March, and then we are on to the clay courts and the run-in to the French Open. Grass and Wimbledon comes hard on the heels of that – there is no respite and no time for complacency.
This time last year, the Poms were getting over-excited about Kyle Edmund making his first major semifinal in Melbourne. From being a solid top 50 player, he was suddenly catapulted into a different orbit and when he came back this year, he was the world No.14. And he lost in the first round. He is not the first and he won’t be the last that that has happened to.
But of all the young stars to announce themselves these past two weeks, Stefanos Tsitsipas seems the most ready to kick on from his achievements at Melbourne Park.
He inched up the ranking a couple of spots and now lies just outside the world’s top 10 but with a game style that can threaten anyone – he can attack from the baseline, he can attack from the net and he can serve like a howitzer – and a philosophical approach that seems equipped to deal with any high or low. He looks ready to make his move to the top.
Wimbledon is the most obvious stage for Tsitsipas to show off his talents, but by the time he gets there he could well be an established top 10 player. The hard courts of Indian Wells and Miami will suit him, and there are 2000 ranking points on offer in that four-week spell in the USA. With a top eight seeding and a wealth of experience gathered in the first six months of the year, Tsitsipas should thrive on the grass courts of SW19.
Then there is Tiafoe. Once he gets his sneakers planted on his home, hard courts in America, both in the spring and late summer (that would be the northern hemisphere summer), he will be a threat. His game is not as flashy as Tsitsipas’ but his belief is just as strong. Like the Greek, he won his first title last year and now has had his first taste of the big time at a Grand Slam. By the time he gets to the US Open, he will be hungry for more.
Then there is Daniil Medvedev, who pushed Novak Djokovic in the fourth round – he can run until he drops in pursuit of half chances. Then don’t forget Dominic Thiem, last year’s French Open finalist who is salivating at the thought of the upcoming clay court season.
Milos Raonic, providing he can stay fit, will be eyeing the grass-court season with glee. And Alexander Zverev, guided by the poker-faced Ivan Lendl, will be desperate to prove that he can match his tour results (10 trophies won already, a world No.3 ranking and he is still only 21) with Grand Slam glory.
Zverev can play on anything and his best result at a major championship was a quarterfinal at Roland Garros last June. But as Roger Federer told him here last year, he just needs to be patient and not be so hard on himself. He has the talent, he has the game, he just needs to wait and his time will come.
Ah yes, Roger. What of him? He says he wants to play the clay court season this year. But his chances of winning the French Open are slim if Rafa is fit and healthy. Then again, the chances of anyone other than Rafa winning the French Open are slim providing the world No.2 is fit and healthy.
Realistically, Roger’s best hope is Wimbledon, but a certain Mr Djokovic may have something to say about that.
Restored to the top of the pecking order and with his elbow now mended, he is clearly planning on another spell of world domination. When he won the French in 2016, he had been the unstoppable force for two season and more. Now he wants to do it all again and he believes it is more than possible.
“I’ve said it before, I always have plenty of belief in myself and the self-belief is something that always prevails,” he said after reaching his seventh Melbourne final. “There was always a part of me – and there still is a part of me – that believes that I can play this way.
“So I think that’s the key: always relying on your qualities and trusting the process will turn out the way you want it.”
The year is just beginning but the storylines are unfolding quickly. As Rafa put it: “It’s going to be a great year in terms of sharing generations that makes this sport special. That will be interesting. Let’s see what happens.”