Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tennis' Top 20 Under 20: 3rd Edition

This time last year, I posted a ranking of the 20 best teenagers on the ATP at the time, and then six months later, I updated the list, taking into consideration the new results.  This is now the third edition of the series that takes a look into the future of the ATP and it's stars. This is not a ranking of their current form (there is already a computer ranking for that), but rather a ranking of what their future form could be.

The dynamic of teenagers in tennis has changed drastically over the last 18 months, which is what prompted me to start compiling this list of teenagers. Just a couple years ago, there were several months, where there wasn't a single teenager ranked in the top 200. However, this new crop of teenagers hasn't been so shy to break through with a total of nine teenagers now in the top 200 and three in the top 100. In total, the teenagers have more than 50 tour-level wins this year, whereas in early 2013, it was newsworthy when a teenager even made the main draw of a tournament. When making this list, I started with over 50 players, analyzing their results and watching videos on YouTube to find the best 20 out of the group. The analysis is based far more on the results, but that alone certainly doesn't tell the whole story. Anyways, let's get started.

This is my list of the 20 most promising talents in tennis that are under 20 years old.
1. Borna Coric (CRO) Age: 18, Rank 36 -- The Croat already has claimed wins over Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray in the last 12 months, and is now on the bubble for a seed at the US Open. Coric came in at No. 3 on my first list and has finally made his way up to No. 1, and even if Nick Kyrgios hadn't graduated from this group, Coric would still be No. 1. He's shown he belongs in the top 50 on the ATP World Tour and it's no longer an upset when he wins matches. The most impressive part of what Coric has done is that he isn't just winning a bunch at one event, but he is doing well on a weekly basis regardless of conditions or draw, which is how success is truly defined for the top players on the ATP World Tour.

2. Andrey Rublev (RUS) Age: 17, Rank 190 -- Being a great juniors player does not always translate into a great professional career in tennis, but so far, it has been a smooth transition for Rublev, who has climbed into the top 200 of the rankings this month. At just 17 years old, he already has seven tour-level victories this season. Tournament directors are starting to see the talent of Rublev, which has resulted in a limitless amount of wildcards being thrown his way, and he is making good use of them, beating Fernando Verdasco in Barcelona as a qualifier and reaching the semifinals in Moscow. Rublev's overall record this year is 23-14 and only five of his losses have come to players outside the top 100 and only one of those players was not inside the top 200. Yet despite facing a tougher schedule than any 17 year old has faced since Rafael Nadal this year, Rublev's ranking has continued to improve almost every week in 2015.

3. Alexander Zverev (GER) Age: 18, Rank 123 -- It has been a year now since Zverev's appearance in the Hamburg semifinals that made the tennis world stop to watch a part of the season that typically generates the least amount of interest. Since then, Zverev has struggled to live up to the hype with a 7-9 record on the tour-level and just one appearance in a grand slam main draw this year. However, if you take away all the hype and expectations and analyze him like any other teenager, this would be considered a breakout season. He is No. 86 in the YTD rankings after having just beaten Juan Monaco on clay. Also, after entering the season 11-12 on the Challenger Tour, he has gone 11-4 with a title in Heilbronn. There are still some questions about his ability on hard and grass courts, but he is still much further along on those surfaces than other clay specialists his age, like Orlando Luz, Christian Garin, and Nicolas Jarry, who each just missed out on making the list because of questions about their abilities on other surfaces.

4. Jared Donaldson (USA) Age: 18, Rank 160 -- There was definitely a lot of consideration in putting Donaldson ahead of Zverev for the No. 3 spot, especially considering that he is already having a lot of success on both clay and hard courts. Ultimately, Zverev got the nod for the No. 3 spot, because he is already competing on the ATP World Tour. While, Donaldson has an incredible record in 2015, he is still playing primarily on the Challenger Tour. That's why Zverev got the edge, but that's not to say Donaldson isn't having an incredible season. He has tour-level victories in Newport and London, which are both grass events, he won the title at the Maui Challenger on hard courts, and he crushed Hyeon Chung 6-0, 6-1 in the first round of Roland Garros qualifying after reaching the quarterfinals or better at every event in the America Har-Tru series on green clay. The United States is loaded with young tennis talents, and Donaldson is the best candidate to have a great career on the ATP.

5. Hyeon Chung (KOR) Age: 19, Rank 79 -- A year ago, Chung came in at the No. 11 spot, and the only reason he wasn't higher was because he completely lacked good results on clay courts. However, he has proven to be a force on the clay courts as well after he qualified for the main draw in Houston and then beat Argentine Facundo Arguello, who is a clay specialist, in his first round match before falling in a tight match against Fernando Verdasco. A couple weeks later, he cruised to the title on the green clay of the Savannah Challenger. He has cooled off since May, but during the US Open Series, he could really start to make a name for himself among the more casual tennis fans. He has always played his best tennis on the hard courts, compiling a 94-35 record in all main draw matches on hard courts as a professional. If he is healthy throughout the swing, he could soon be in the top 50.

6. Thanasi Kokkinakis (AUS) Age: 19, Rank 72 -- The Australian is tied for the most grand slam victories of anyone on this list with four, and the tennis world stopped to watch all four of them, which is why most people would put him higher than sixth on their lists. There is right now, among teenagers, the main six guys, and after these six players, there is a significant drop off. That is to say that most people would have the same top six, but the only question is the order, so many will disagree with having Kokkinakis at the bottom of this group. His career record in all professional main draw matches in his career is 55-53, which doesn't compare well to the five players above him. He has some great individual wins in dramatic fashion, but he lacks the day-in-day-out victories that the other five have. What has been impressive about Kokkinakis' 2015 season is his perfect 15-0 record in qualifying and he won the title as a qualifier at the only Challenger event he played this year.

7. Taylor Fritz (USA) Age: 17, Rank 678 -- I had the chance to see Fritz play in January, and I was impressed, but not blown away by what I saw in his straight-set defeat of Stefan Kozlov. However, since then, his results are blowing away a lot of tennis fans, which has seen his rise to the No. 1 spot in the junior rankings. Then last month, he won his first tour-level match before he had ever even entered the main draw of a Challenger event. Since April, Fritz has reached the semifinals of the Italian Open and Junior Wimbledon, the final of Junior Roland Garros, and won the title at the Easter Bowl. The American has dominated his peers, but has also done well against some of his more veteran opponents with wins over Dudi Sela, Pablo Carreno Busta, and Dennis Novikov. His style of play is big showing that while he has already achieved great success, he still has so much more that he can keep improving to become an elite talent on the ATP.

8. Frances Tiafoe (USA) Age: 17, Rank 284 -- The American has the ability to end up being the best of any on this list. He is a perfect 3-0 in his career against those ranked ahead of him on this list with two wins over Fritz and a win over Rublev all on the junior circuit. 2015 has been a breakout season for Tiafoe, who registered a 30-8 record to start the season, which included his dominant stretch during the Roland Garros Wild Card Challenge, which he won. Tiafoe's best results in his short time as a professional have come on the clay courts, but everybody knows his best surface is hard, making him formidable wherever he goes. He has incredible movement and great hands to go along with a lethal forehand. There are some issues in his technique that might be too late to fix, but he does an excellent job protecting those weaknesses with his athleticism. Maybe when he starts playing more tour-level events, those weaknesses will get exposed. For now, it hasn't stopped him from skyrocketing more than 850 spots in the rankings already this year.

9. Elias Ymer (SWE) Age: 19, Rank 133 -- Over the years, a lot of great players have come out of Sweden such as Bjorn Borg, Stefan Edberg, and more recently Robin Soderling. The older Ymer brother is looking to add his name to that list. He is already the fifth highest-ranked teenager in the world and currently ranked No. 93 in the YTD rankings. Although a large part of the tennis world already know who he is, he hasn't had one big result that has grabbed everyone's attention yet, which has allowed him to quietly improve without having to face too much pressure. This year, he has already collected wins over Benoit Paire, Hyeon Chung, Igor Sijsling, Jurgen Melzer, Daniel Gimeno-Traver, and Nick Kyrgios. Then last month, he won a Challenger title in Caltanissetta, Italy despite inheriting a very challenging draw with Guido Pella, Albert Ramos, and Bjorn Fratangelo in the last three rounds. It's just a matter of time before he has his big breakthrough moment, because he certainly has the talent and athleticism to do damage on the ATP.

10. Roman Safiullin (RUS) Age: 17, Rank 393 -- This is a tricky one. Six months ago, Safiullin sat comfortably at the No. 3 position on my list ahead of Chung, Donaldson, Zverev, and even Rublev after having debuted on my lists at the No. 15 spot a year ago. However, since the last list came out six months ago, Safiullin hasn't played a single match of competitive tennis, and there has been no update on his condition. The talent and ability are certainly there, and I wasn't the only one saying that he had a ton of promise. However, he is missing out on a crucial time to develop his game and sharpen his tools against the best in the world. Right now it is hard to know what to expect out of the Russian, but if he can get healthy, there is no reason he won't be a force on the professional tour like he was as a junior.

11. Omar Jasika (AUS) Age: 18, Rank 283 -- In each of my first two lists, Jasika just missed out on making the top 20, but what he has done in the last six months is enough to move him all the way up to No. 11 on the list. Since the last list came out, Jasika has gone 15-2 in futures with two titles and one loss in a final. His most recent futures title came in Canada, where he defeated 2014 NCAA men's singles Marcos Giron in the semifinals and then in the final, defeated Eric Quigley, who is a five-time all-American from Kentucky. He hasn't had a ton of success on the Challenger Tour, but in Le Gosier, he reached the main draw as a qualifier before beating Chung in a tight three-set match. The last time he played a juniors event was at the 2014 US Open, where he defeated Donaldson and Duck Hee Lee en route to the final, where he defeated Quentin Halys. Earlier in 2014, he defeated Rublev, Seong Chan Hong, and Jaume Munar all in the same event.

12. Duck Hee Lee (KOR) Age: 17, Rank 290 -- Just a week ago, Lee was the second highest ranked player that hadn't hit their 18th birthday yet, trailing only Andrey Rublev. However, he probably isn't quite as strong as his ranking suggests. The Korean has built his ranking with almost exclusively futures-level results, and while it does require a great amount of success at the futures level to crack the top 300, ranking doesn't tell the whole story. He is playing futures events in countries in east Asia that aren't known for producing particularly strong fields at those events. Even as a junior, the events where he had most success were in China, Japan, and Korea, while in all the Grade A events, he never did better than the quarterfinals. He has proven that he is among the best of the east Asian players, but it's hard to know how good he truly is since he isn't getting out to face players from other parts of the world. It doesn't help his case that in what little Asian teenagers have clashed against players from other parts of the world, the Asians have not fared too well as a group.

13. Yoshihito Nishioka (JPN) Age: 19, Rank 145 -- The Japanese No. 5 has dropped on this list since taking the No. 8 spot six months ago. He reached the quarterfinals of Delray Beach as a qualifier right after the list came out, but the Japanese hasn't done much since then, losing seven of his next nine matches. He has done well enough since then to earn the No. 13 spot this time around however. He qualified for Roland Garros and reached the semifinals of Heilbron. He then defeated four top 200 players during the grass swing, so there are enough good results to show that he is still progressing. He is only 5-foot-7, which isn't much of a factor on the junior tour, but there does seem to be a limit for how much a player that size can progress on the ATP. He certainly could be a player like David Ferrer or Kei Nishikori that breaks the mold of players 6-foot-2 or taller on tour. However, it is more typical that players his size peak at an early age like Donald Young, Michael Russell, or Diego Schwartzman.

14. Mikael Ymer (SWE) Age: 16, Rank 766 -- The younger Ymer brother is making his debut on this list shortly after reaching the junior Wimbledon final. There is currently nobody on the ATP that is ranked higher than Ymer that is younger than him. Shortly before reaching the final at Wimbledon, the Swede won a title in Belgium, defeating Nathan Ponwith and Ryan Storrie along the way. Then in the final, he defeated the third member of the trio of Chilean teen stars, Marcelo Tomas Barrios Vera. He also has wins on the junior circuit against Roman Safiullin, Yunseong Chung, and both of the Corentins from France. As a professional, he already has a futures title and a total of 14 victories. I don't expect Mikael to be as successful as his older brother, but they certainly have the chance to be two of the most successful brothers on the singles side that the ATP has seen in recent memory.

15. Tommy Paul (USA) Age: 18, Rank 454 -- There are a total of six players from the United States on this the third edition of this list and a total of eight different Americans that have been on the last two lists. All eight of them are still teenagers and there is another group of prominent American teenagers like Nathan Ponwith, Michael Mmoh, Collin Altamirano, and William Blumberg. So choosing which of that group will make this list is the most difficult part. After just missing out on the top 20 the last two times, Paul has earned his No. 15 ranking on the third try. He defeated two of those American peers en route to the Junior Roland Garros title, defeating Mmoh in the semifinals and Fritz in the final. Also, he has had a lot of success on European clay as a professional, which has been a rarity for Americans. He won futures titles in Spain and Italy and reached the semifinals at another futures event in Italy. Overall, he is 24-8 in futures events and has two main draw wins on the Challenger Tour.

16. Reilly Opelka (USA) Age: 17, Rank 1109 -- There's more than one way to win on the ATP World Tour, and every way of doing it is legitimate. Opelka seems to have already found his way. Many would call it serve-botting, which isn't entirely wrong since he is 6-foot-10 and has the best serve of any teenager in the world. However, he also has a very powerful forehand and better-than-expected movement for a giant. All of this was on display when Opelka defeated Mikael Ymer for the Junior Wimbledon title. He is now the No. 4-ranked junior in the world after defeating Fritz, Denolly, and Blumberg on his way to the final at Wimbledon. He also defeated Denolly and Stefanos Tsitsipas earlier in the grass swing before falling in the semifinals to Mmoh. However, he isn't a grass specialist. At Roland Garros, he defeated Mikael Ymer and Orlando Luz, who was the favorite of many to win the tournament. Success hasn't come as quickly for Opelka as a professional, but he has reached the quarterfinals of four different futures events in the United States. With his height and serve though, results aren't too important. His game is still developing and when it all comes together, he is going to wreck draws on the ATP World Tour.

17. Stefan Kozlov (USA) Age: 17, Rank 358 -- Sometimes it's easy to forget that Kozlov is still just 17 years old, because his name was popping up in tennis circles more than three years ago. Over time, however, the hype surrounding the American that was born in Macedonia has died down. The hype reached a peak last September, when at 16 years old he reached the final of the Challenger event in Sacramento with wins over four established professionals. He has backed up that result since going pro at the end of 2014, which is why he is in the top 500 of the YTD rankings. He has also improved his serve as he continues to grow physically. Still, No. 17 is the lowest that he has shown up on this list, and that drop is  the result of a number of things. First, everyone around him has improved in this era where teenagers aren't asking permission to be great. Also, while his first serve has significantly more pop that before, he still lacks a true second-serve kick. Lleyton Hewitt is evidence that you can't dominate on the ATP anymore without a good second serve. In fact, there are a lot of similarities between the Australian legend and the American prodigy beyond just the serve. Both are very solid with the two-handed backhand and are great counter-punchers, not just retrievers. Hewitt seems to be committed to helping the next generation of Australians, but it would be interesting to see Hewitt take Kozlov under his wing at some point.

18. Miomir Kecmanovic (SRB) Age: 15, Rank 1876 -- The last wave of Serbian teenagers, which were Miki Jakovic, Pedja Krstin, Nikola Milojevic, and Laslo Djere, have not lived up to the expectations so far, but that's not an issue for Serbian tennis fans, who have a menu of options when it comes to young teenagers to put their hope in. Kecmanovic is the latest to be picked off the Serbian menu. He is the youngest player ranked in the top 50 of the junior rankings, coming in at No. 24. In fact, the next youngest player in the ITF juniors top 50 is Casper Ruud, who is eight months older than the Serb. Kecmanovic already has two futures victories, including one this week before getting blasted by his countryman Jankovic. Back in December, Kecmanovic lost a narrow lost a tight battle with Andrey Rublev 6-7(2), 2-6, but did have a pair of impressive wins earlier in that month over Denolly and Ruud. Kecmanovic doesn't have the great movement or backhand that characterize many Serbs, but he has excellent technique, which gives him a solid foundation to develop upon as he continues to grow physically.

19. Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE) Age: 16, 1022 -- The Greek just missed out on the list last time, and he really hasn't done much in the last six months of note, but as time goes by, what he did last year looks better and better. At the Orange Bowl last year, Tsitsipas went on a run to the final that I certainly didn't fully appreciate at the time. In the opening round, he defeated Ulises Blanch, who is another one of the American teenagers to keep an eye on and is ranked No. 31 among juniors. After that, he survived another long three-setter against Bjorn Thompson before he really started to dominate. In the third round, he defeated Tommy Paul 7-5, 7-6(4). Then in the quarterfinals, he defeated Talor Fritz 6-3, 6-4, before eliminated Andrey Rublev with a 6-4, 7-5 victory in the semifinals. His giant-slaying run came to an end when he ran out of steam in a 6-2, 3-6, 2-6 loss to Stefan Kozlov. He hasn't been able to quite capture that same level of magic since then, but he remains in the top 20 of the junior rankings at just 16 years old and he also has a total of nine main draw victories on the futures level.


20. Felix Auger Aliassime (CAN) Age: 14, Rank 1237 -- I was tempted to close my eyes and pick at random for the 20th spot. Cutting this list to just 20 players was much harder this time around than it was even just a year ago. However, this list would have no credibility if Canadian sensaiton Felix Auger Aliassime didn't show up on this list somewhere. Earlier this year, he became the youngest player to ever qualify for the main draw of a Challenger event, defeating Chris Guccione to qualify at Drummondville at just 14 years old. He eventually pulled out of the event before playing in the main draw, maintaining his perfect record as a professional. To this day, he remains perfect as a professional, and he is back at it this week. He won both of his qualifying matches in Granby in straight sets to get another main draw appearance on the Challenger Tour. Then on Tuesday, he became the youngest player in tennis history to win a main draw match on the Challenger Tour. But he wasn't done there. He did it again today, upsetting the No. 205 player in the world Darian King 7-5, 6-3 to reach the quarterfinals of the $100K event. He is scheduled to play Yoshihito Nishioka on Friday, and you can expect all of Canada to be tuned in to see the two teenagers square off. If FAA pulls off the upset tomorrow, then he certainly deserves a much better spot on this list than No. 20. For now, however, he is only 14 years old and isn't done growing, making it impossible to know just how good he is going to be. Media is already identifying him as tennis' next star after Nick Kyrgios, which seems a little premature since Kyrgios has barely turned 20 years old, but these results he has this week are certainly worthy of turning heads.

4 comments:

  1. Very impressive work, thank you. I know there is will always be differences of opinion, but very enlightening to see this list, I enjoyed reading it.

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  2. Re Tiafoe technique issues, what specifically?
    Also, I question the idea that it's ever too late to make swing changes. Especially for a seventeen year old who is working with Hose Higueras, not just any old coach by any means.
    Re Nishioka, not buying the height thing. His timing is exquisite and retrieving skills quite solid. He beat Aliassime who stands at 6, 2'. Third set wasn't close.

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  3. IMO the size of Tiafoe's backswing on his forehand side, combined with an extreme grip, will ultimately allow top players to attack his FH return and attack the deuce side in groundstroke rallies. It won't get exposed as much in juniors or challengers, but top 50 players will break down that weakness. Odd motion on his serve as well.

    I don't think it's impossible to make drastic technique changes at age 17 or 18, but it is certainly difficult, especially if you're playing a full tournament schedule. It's easiest to make technique adjustments before puberty, and the older they get, the harder it gets. Could he fix the forehand? If he takes 6 months off from tournaments, he could try, but there's no guarantee it would take with him.

    Plenty of top players have extreme grips/odd technique--most obviously Nadal--and still excel because of superior timing, feel, and athleticism, something that Tiafoe clearly has. How much it holds him back, we will have to see.

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