Next Gen returns for round two in Milan

The Next Gen Finals are held in Milan – and, indeed, the second-largest court at the Rome tournament is called the “Next Gen Arena”.

So it made sense to have a press conference Tuesday in Rome to preview the second edition of the event, which returns basically with the same format.

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On the realistic side, the photo with the press release did not feature the far-and-away leader in the road to Milan, Alexander Zverev.

The 21-year-old did leave an opening in 2017, saying around this time of the year that he hadn’t ruled out trying to play both events. The Next-Gen Finals take place the week before the ATP Tour Finals in London.

This year, the Madrid Open champion, the world No. 3 right behind Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, will have ideas of perhaps winning in London. So there will be no fake news in that regard.

Zverev currently has more than triple the number of points earned by the next on the list, Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas.

Tsitsipas will be the marquee name, along with Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, 19. Shapovalov, who made his Milan debut last year, vaulted into third place in the race to Milan with his semifinal effort in Madrid last week and is now in the top-30 in the regular ATP Tour rankings.

He’s just four points behind Tsitsipas, with four fewer tournaments on his resumé.

A year ago, Tsitsipas slotted into 10th spot in the Milan race, just missing the cut.

2017 champion Chung graduated

Hyeong Chung, the 2017 champion, also attended the press conference, even if he had pulled out of the Rome tournament. He turns 22 on Saturday, and so no longer is eligible for the event.

Karen Khachanov, Daniil Medvedev, Jared Donaldson and Borna Coric also have aged out.

The Next Gen of the Next Gen is probably not quite as advanced as that inaugural crop, in terms of the level they’re playing at the moment.

While Tsitsipas Shapovalov, Andrey Rublev and Frances Tiafoe are now established at the ATP Tour level, the rest of the field isn’t quite there yet.

Taylor Fritz, currently ranked No. 68, has made a couple of good runs at the ATP level this year – notably a fourth round at Indian Wells. But he hasn’t quite turned the corner – at least, not yet. 

Alex de Minaur is at a career high. But despite his great effort in the Australian Open warmup events to start the season, he’s still outside the top 100. In two clay-court Challengers in Portugal the last two weeks, de Minaur lost to Casper Ruud of Norway and Alejandro Davidovich Fokina of Spain – two young players around his age, but ranked much lower.

Another Aussie, 21-year-old Marc Polmans, has moved his ranking up at the lower levels. He went 19-1 during a series of four Futures events in Australia over the winter, and his only match above the Challenger level this season was a first-round qualifying loss at the Australian Open.

Auger-Aliassime, at the top of the alphabetical list, is the only 17-year-old in the top-60 in the Milan race. But he currently sits at No. 27, a long way back even if he is arguably far more talented than many of the players ahead of him.

But it’s early, yet.

Innovative rules remain

An interesting number the tournament put out was that despite the “shortened” format – first to four games, up to five “mini sets”, the average match was just three minutes shorter than the ATP Tour average in the regular best-of-three format.

The range was more limited, though. In part, that’s because the tournament is played on an indoor fast surface. The ATP Tour year-long average also includes a significant number of clay-court events.

For the Next-Gen, match times ranged from 60 minutes to two hours, six minutes.

ATP Tour, matches ranged from 39 minutes to three hours, 12 minutes.

On the downside, the pre-match warmup will be shortened even more.

In 2017, it had been five minutes from the time of the second player walk-on. That’s already significantly shorter than most warmups during the ATP Tour season, where the umpires are rather generous with the three- and two-minute warnings, and the time limits are often swayed by the length of the player introductions.

In 2018, they will shorten that to four minutes. That’s ranging into a territory where the warmup is so brief, the players will still be a little cold when they start the matches. And that can mean more muscle pulls.

Towel racks on court

Finally, someone has addressed the issue of the ballkids handling sweaty towels, offering personal service to the players between points.

There will be towel racks at the back of the court. And the players will be told to use them “to remove the onus on ball kids to handle towels.”

Given that will take a few seconds longer, either the players will go to the “rack” less often. Or they will complain about running out of time although the Next-Gen play at a far less pokey pace than some of the grownups.

There was no word about the opening ceremony, and whether the ladies hired to … spice up the proceedings will be back.

You’d think … not. But it’s in Italy, so you never know.

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