For the Next-Gen Finals to truly be what they were designed to be, they ideally would feature all of the best 21-and-under players in the world.
But two of the marquee players are not there.
For the second straight season, the best of the bunch has understandably opted for the ATP Tour Finals next week.
Alexander Zverev came to Milan last year, for the inaugural edition, and played an exhibition to give the new exhibition a boost. But that seems to not have been in the plans this year.
And arguably the most entertaining and popular of the rest, Canadian Denis Shapovalov, begged off after a fall season during which he essentially played every single week.
That the 19-year-old was on fumes was fairly evident in those final weeks.
Shapovalov, incredibly, still has two years of eligibility left. But you know he’s hoping to be in the same boat as Zverev is sooner, rather than later.
Tsitsipas the biggest star
One player who had a monster season on the ATP Tour is in Milan. But as with Shapovalov, you could sense over the last few weeks – after he won his first career ATP Tour title in Stockholm, that Stefanos Tsitsipas also is a little wrung out.
Hopefully he will be able to muster a final reserve of energy and quickly adjust to the radically different match experience and scoring system.
On the plus side, there was no sign of the “models” who joined the young fellows on stage for last year’s draw ceremony. That didn’t go over too well, and the ATP later apologized.
Rather, they gave us … this!
Hurkacz, Munar and .. Caruana
The final group of eight features some appealing talent – notably Americans Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe.
Tiafoe’s irrepressible personality is already evident in the leadup to the event. His smile is contagious, and his game style is a crowd-pleaser.
The rest are not nearly as well-known. So the fans in Milan and watching at home will get to discover them, much the way they did a year ago.
Spain’s Jaume Munar has the full sport of the Rafael Nadal Academy behind him. And even though he arrived on the ATP Tour with everyone assuming he would be a clay-court player, he has proven more than adept on the other surfaces.
When we watched him play another Next-Gen player, Canadian Félix Auger-Aliassime, in the French Open qualifying, he was even serve-volleying on clay.
As for Hubert Hurkacz, he’s tall – 6-foot-5 – and reached his career best ranking of No. 79 last week before dropping six spots with the new rankings Monday.
He qualified for the last three Slams this season, losing to Marin Cilic in the second round both in Paris and at the US Open. In New York, he got just two games in three sets against the Croat.
Hurkacz retired due to “fatigue”, down in the first set of his second-round match at the Eckental Challenger last week.
He has faced the other three players in his pool group a total of once – a 6-2, 6-4 loss to Tiafoe in Washington, D.C. this summer. He has two losses on clay to Munar in the juniors.
Group A: Stefanos Tsitsipas, Jaume Munar, Frances Tiafoe, Hubert Kurkacz
Group B: Alex de Minaur, Andrey Rublev, Taylor Fritz, Liam Caruana
It’s hard to pick the stronger one. But you’d have to go with the superior top-level experience of Tsitsipas and Tiafoe in Group A.
Caruana, 20, is ranked No. 622 on the ATP Tour (down from a career high of No. 375 back in February). He won three matches in an all-Italian playoff for the local wild card – the final in five (short-version) sets.
If the experience of Quinzi a year ago is any indicator, he’ll arrive game, but a little short on legs after the hard work involved getting here.
Caruana peaked at No. 22 in the junior rankings, fully 18 years old with a January birthday (and therefore one of the oldest kids playing at the ITF level). He never did particularly well at the junior majors, but he did play most of the other players once each. He suffered a 6-4, 6-4 loss to Tsitsipas in the third round of the 2016 Australian Open juniors. a 6-1, 6-3 loss to de Minaur on clay in 2015, a three-set loss to Rublev on clay in 2014 and losses in doubles to both Fritz and Tiafoe on separate occasions.
In other words, he doesn’t come in with the same credentials as Quinzi did. So he’ll have to play above his level to surprise.
NOTE: Southern California native Tracy Austin notes that Caruana, while Italian, is very much a SoCal kid. She writes that he and Fritz grew up 20 minutes apart (Fritz in Rancho Santa Fe and Caruana in La Jolla, outside San Diego) and played many times in the juniors. She adds that Caruana moved to Texas as a young teenager.
The day session on Tuesday features Tsitsipas vs. Munar, then Fritz vs Rublev.
The night session kicks off with Tiafoe vs. Hurkacz, followed by de Minaur vs. Caruana.
The ATP has put out a couple of videos explaining the unique rules attached to this event.
One features the players.
The other features the neat graphics they’ve come up with for this year’s edition.
As well, the automatic Hawkeye line-calling system used last year will be expanded to adjudicate a host of other on-court situations.
Next-Gen 2017: where are they now?
Last year’s final featured Hyeon Chung vs. Andrey Rublev
’17 ranking: 54
Current ranking: 25
’17 ranking: 51
Current ranking: 27
’17 ranking: 37
Current ranking: 68
’17 ranking: 306
Current ranking: 149
’17 ranking: 48
Current ranking: 12
’17 ranking: 45
Current ranking: 11
’17 ranking: 65
Current ranking: 16
’17 ranking: 55
Current ranking: 109
Notable that three of the Group B players (none of whom made the 2017 final), are now in the top 16. Shapovalov and Chung have improved their rankings as well (Chung, even with much time missed due to injury).
Jared Donaldson hasn’t played since the Rogers Cup in Toronto due to knee tendonitis, which affected him long before that. Rublev missed three months, after Monte Carlo and through Wimbledon, with back issues.
(Photos from Peter Staples/ATP – full draw gallery here)