Next Gen returns for round two in Milan

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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.

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.

In a battle of teenagers, the younger prevails

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MELBOURNE, Australia – One of the finest junior matches in recent memory came at Wimbledon in 2016, when 17-year-olds Denis Shapovalov and Stefanos Tsitsipas battled in the semifinals.

Two one-handed backhands. Both serve-volleying, chip-charging and using the entire court like a couple of savvy veterans.

Shapovalov, younger by eight months, won that one and defeated Aussie Alex de Minaur to win the title.

A year and a half later, the two met for the first time as pros.

And Shapovalov proved to still be a little ahead of the curve.

The 18-year-old handled the occasion – and the swirly, difficult winds – with more aplomb in a 6-1, 6-3, 7-6 (5) victory that puts him in the second round against No. 15 seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga.

“We’re going to play so many times in the future, I’m going to win some, I’m going to lose some. I think he’s developed quite a lot as well. I just managed to play better today,” said Shapovalov, who was stronger on every level and hit 33 winners to Tsitsipas’s 11.

“Bringing back the match in juniors, it was a hell of a match, I think we’ve both improved quite a bit from back then. But just today I was able to play better than he did.”

Slice return proved effective

Shapovalov added a slice backand return in the offseason. And he used it well on Monday. It was a necessary response to the opponents already having picked up on his tendancy to hit full-out topspin backhands on most returns, and trying to rush him out wide – especially on the deuce side.

“It’s definitely one area I’ve focused on in the offseason along with coming to the net more, stuff like this. I feel it’s a variety that I’ve added to my game that’s definitely helped me these few matches. Hopefully I can keep improving it, and have a good slice like Roger (Federer) one day,” Shapovalov said.

“It’s a combination of getting more returns in and staying inside the points. Sometimes when I go for the topspin it takes me too much out of the court positioning, With the slice I feel I can recover faster, and get in the point.”

Tsitsipas was clearly tight to start the match. He qualified for the main draw at both the French Open and Wimbledon last year, but lost in the first round. It was the first Australian Open for both, but Shapovalov had more experience.

“I went a little bit deeper in the Grand Slam in New York. I was bringing back a couple of old memories playing the few Grand Slams that I have,” he said. “But definitely I felt from the beginning I would be a bit more comfortable, and that’s what happened. He was a little more tight to start, and I just used that advantage.”

Tough conditions

By the third set, Tsitsipas appeared to be struggling with the conditions even though it was not a hot day at all. The swirly wind was definitely strength-sapping. Shapovalov is more compact and muscular; Tsitsipas, who hasn’t finished filling out his long, lanky body (he’s built something like Alexander Zverev), was more affected.

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Tsitsipas was doubled over by the end of the match, but it was all over but the shouting anyway. (Stephanie Myles/Tennis.Life)

By the very end, he appeared to be starting to cramp – first in the leg, and then in the stomach area. No doubt nerves played a part.

“I remember staying on one side and I felt like the wind was against me, I felt like I was forcing all my shots. So then I thought, the following game, when I went to the other side, I would be with the wind. But I got to the other side, and it felt even heavier,” Shapovalov said, laughing. “It was really swirly for both guys. We had a couple of weird points. It was tricky, but it’s part of the game, just something we had to deal with.”

Tsonga next – again

Shapovalov finished up before knowing the identity of his next opponent, whose match was played late night.

It turned out to be Tsonga, the player he defeated in the second round of the US Open on his way to the round of 16.
“I had really good feelings playing him last year, an unbelievable match from my side. It would be an honour to play him again. Another matchup that I would like, and I’m excited for the match,” he said.

First Wimby for teens Rublev and Tsitsipas

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WIMBLEDON – The two career moments took place within moments of each other, on two courts in the field at the Bank of England Sports Grounds that were kitty-corner to each other. 

And if the moment was identical, the reactions were wildly different.

Greece’s Stefanos Tsitsipas, still just 18, was the first to make his first career Wimbledon main draw. Just a year ago, he was playing the junior event.

For more than three hours, he had maintained his youthful composure. After a 6-3, 3-6, 6-3, 3-6, 7-5 win over Joris de Loore of the Netherlands, the teenager leaped into the air several times and had a look of pure joy on his face,  

As Tsitsipas celebrated, 19-year-old Andrey Rublev of Russia was serving for the match against 35-year-old Paul-Henri Mathieu of France just a few feet away.

He closed out a 6-4, 1-6, 7-6 (11), 6-4 victory that put him into the main draw in his third career attempt to qualify.

Rublev’s angst-riddled court drama already is a well-oiled machine. But he had almost no reaction after this career moment. He clenched his first, made the sign of the cross, looked up to the sky, and went up to shake Mathieu’s hand.

Here’s how it looked, at it happened.

Slow and steady for Tsitsipas

With a one-handed backhand, an all-court game and matinee-idol looks, Tsitsipas stayed in the junior ranks until his eligibility was used up. That’s fairly rare these days with the top tier of promising players.

He already had turned 18 when he played the US Open juniors last September. Tsitsipas lost to eventual champion Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime, two years younger, in the semifinals there. He lost to another Canadian, Denis Shapovalov, a year younger, in a junior Wimbledon final a year ago.

It was one of the finest junior matches in recent years – chock-full of one-handed backhands, chip and charges, net-rushes and good sportsmanship.

He has often be overshadowed by more precocious players. But with his ATP Tour ranking at No. 190 coming into this week, Tsitsipas is on a steady, studied path.  

His first full year in the professional ranks hasn’t resulted in a big rankings leap. But he has been gaining in experience as he fills out his lanko 6-foot-4 frame.

New in the top 100

Rublev, 6-foot-2, listed at just 150 pounds has an extraordinary-looking face. It can go from baleful, to despairing, to brilliantly sunny in the blink of an eye.

His path has been different than that of Tsitsipas.

A year older and a regular junior doubles partner of top-20 player Alexander Zverev, Rublev just broke into the top 100 for the first time last week. He reached the quarter-finals on grass in Halle, Germany.

This is his third try at the Wimbledon qualifying. A year ago, he lost in straight sets to the hero of the week, Brit Marcus Willis, in the second round.

Rublev became the No. 1 junior in the world after the 2014 US Open. He won the junior French Open that spring. And he decided to forego his last year of junior eligibility and hit the pro circuit full-time.

Tsitsipas became No. 1 just before last year’s French Open juniors.

On their two courts Thursday, the dynamics were very different.

Tsitsipas’ opponent, de Loore, is 24 and has been a professional for six years. But only in the last 12 months has he been ranked high enough to try to qualify at majors. He has now tried each at each one once; this was his closest effort yet, against the most beatable opponent he has faced.

But he will have other opportunities.

Adieu for Mathieu

Across the way, there was a poignancy in Rublev’s victory over Mathieu. The Frenchman said goodbye at his home Grand Slam in Paris earlier this month. And on that day, he said that he just wanted to play Wimbledon one more time.

He was denied at the final stage, by a kid who will be playing Wimbledon for the first time. There’s a certain symmetry to that. As a door closes for an older man, while a window opens for the kid.

Ranked No. 138 now, after dealing with several major injuries through the latter stages of his career, Mathieu has four career ATP Tour titles and earned his first career ranking when Rublev was less than a year old. 

Twice, he has reached the fourth round at Wimbledon. This was only his second time even travelling to Roehampton for the qualifying in a Wimbledon history that stretches back to 2002.

It felt, by the way they greeted each other at the net, that Rublev sensed what the moment meant for Mathieu.

Tsitsipas

One man was saying hello, the other was saying goodbye.

But in the end, it turns out that you arrive, and you leave, the very same way – with a big backpack on your back,  your tournament credential swinging in the breeze, alone with your thoughts.