To anyone craving some fresh blood on the tennis tour, look no further than the last couple of days at Indian Wells where the teenagers have officially spoken.
A 16-year-old Amanda Anisimova claimed her first WTA match win in her opening round against Pauline Parmentier before upsetting Russian No. 23 seed Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova to reach the third round.
The US Open junior champion received a wildcard into the tournament and is the youngest player in the Indian Wells women’s draw.
On the men’s side, Canada’s 17-year-old Felix Auger-Aliassime claimed his first tour-level victory in front of a full house on Stadium 2 to dispatch his countryman Vasek Pospisil 6-2, 7-6 (4) on Friday. His round two is another all-Canadian affair as he takes on former top-five player Milos Raonic.
“I told my coach earlier this week, like, ‘Wow, it’s crazy. Last year, two years ago, never would have thought I’d be here talking to you guys, second round of the Masters’. I was still playing juniors. This transition went pretty fast for me, so it’s quite unbelievable to be here so early. But as a kid, those are the moments you dream of and those are the stages you want to play on, yeah,” the Montreal teen told reporters after the win.
But those two aren’t the only young guns to make statements this week. The list is quite extensive and also includes the following:
Shapovalov is still very young but his shock run to the semi-finals at the Masters 1000 in Canada last year, followed by his fourth round showing at the US Open have thrust him into the spotlight. He’s not getting too carried away though.
“I don’t see myself a favourite in any match. I’m still really young to the tour and there’s so many players I haven’t played,” said Shapovalov on Thursday.
“They’ve been around way longer than me, they’re a lot more experienced than me. So I wouldn’t say I’m the favourite but I definitely do go out in these matches with the confidence and belief in myself that I can beat any of these guys.”
THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT
They’re young but uber-competitive, respectful but well aware of their own qualities to make them just the right amount of arrogant. And most of them draw inspiration from one another and tend to have each others’ backs.
This is what Shapovalov said about his friend and fellow Canadian Auger-Aliassime on Thursday.
“It’s awesome with his run. Before the tournament I had a quick chat with him, told him ‘it’s something you’re going to have to go through’,” Shapovalov recounted.
“Obviously he’s had some tough draws and some tough weeks but I told him to keep grinding and eventually if you pull out a couple of these matches he’s going to get his confidence.
“His game is here, he’s more than good to beat any of these guys so he deserves to be in the top-100 and I’m just trying to make sure that he knows it as well. We’re brothers and I wish the best for him.”
He said that after telling us that they hung out at his place, played ping pong, and “of course I beat him”, noted Shapovalov.
Some of them try to pretend they’re stoic and cool about their milestone victories, others are wide-eyed and cannot hide their enthusiasm.
“I mean I watched her on TV playing semi-finals at Wimbledon never imagining I will be playing here at Indian Wells. So I’m just going to enjoy the moment. I mean I get to play the person who was in semi-finals of a Slam, that is amazing!” a beaming Zhuk told me ahead of her second round against Magdalena Rybarikova, the No. 18 seed here.
VETERANS FEELING THE HEAT
The men’s tour is led by a 36-year-old Roger Federer and a 31-year-old Rafael Nadal but that’s not to say the older generation is not feeling threatened by the younger guys.
World No. 8 Juan Martin del Potro said the many injuries suffered by top guys like Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Raonic, Nadal and others – including himself – are partly due to the power of these younger players.
“The young players are coming so strong, they serve so fast, they hit the ball event faster than me and it’s not easy to play with them at this age. But we are trying to stay in the first positions but our body is feeling the changes,” said Del Potro on Wednesday.
“The game is changing a lot. You can see the new injuries are coming because the game is changing and it’s not normal to have Djokovic, Nishikori, Raonic, me, Murray, everybody injured… Rafa. And that means something is changing with the sport of tennis.”
Svetlana Kuznetsova admits her return to tennis at Indian Wells after having wrist surgery last November may have been a bit premature but the Russian has no regrets following her opening round loss to Aryna Sabalenka on Friday.
Kuznetsova, a finalist in the California desert last year as well as in 2007 and 2008, played her first match since Beijing last October on Friday morning and fell 6-4, 6-3 to her Belarusian opponent in one hour and 13 minutes.
The two-time Grand Slam champion confessed her doctor advised her to come back at a later date but she was keen to get back on the court, despite still feeling some pain in her left wrist.
“I still have pain. And the doctor said it should pass. Of course the easy thing is to say I’ll go home until it passes but I don’t look for easy things,” Kuznetsova told Sport360 after her defeat on Friday.
“He said I should start later. A little bit later. Perhaps it’s too early but it’s okay, you need to try to dig in.”
The 32-year-old had never undergone surgery before and is still figuring out how to deal with the aftermath.
“Because I never faced a surgery so I never knew when I should come back, how it will be… it’s really a mental thing with the backhands and stuff like that but I’m doing much better compared to the first days I was here because the first days were horrible,” she said.
“Sabalenka played great, she had nothing to lose, I had chances, I had two times 0-30 and 15-40 on her serve in the first set. So I had my chances but still this lack of confidence and matches it means a lot and the more matches I play the sooner I’ll get in.
“So it’s okay to accept the losses, it’s a step forward in getting back in match shape.”
Kuznetsova explained that if her recovery goes well, there would be no need to make any adjustments to the way she hits her backhand and that it is merely a matter of time before she is pain-free.
While most people returning from injuries would cut themselves some slack and play with less pressure, it is not that simple for someone like Kuznetsova.
“It’s difficult. It’s a lot of requests I ask myself. I want to play good, otherwise I don’t want to play and it all starts like that. But I’m working on my mind and I feel better. I feel much better mentally and trying not to put pressure and trying to enjoy the match. But of course it’s difficult, I struggle a lot the first matches because it’s a comeback and I expect to do well,” she explained.
Sabalenka went two for two on Friday, returning to Stadium 6 for a doubles victory alongside Victoria Azarenka over Sloane Stephens and Eugenie Bouchard.
He is only 19 years old but is already the most successful male Greek tennis player in the Open Era.
Ranked a career-high No. 71 this week, Stefanos Tsitsipas is enjoying a steady rise this season, thanks to quarter-final appearances in both Doha and Dubai in the last two months, and now notching just his second ever Masters 1000 main draw match win to reach the Indian Wells second round.
He takes on Austria’s fifth-seeded Dominic Thiem for a chance to make the third round at this level for the first time.
The 191cm Next Gen star was a world No. 1 junior before making the transition onto the pro circuit. This is his first year attempting a full ATP schedule.
Boasting a one-handed backhand not commonly found in young up-and-comers these days, Tsitsipas speaks fast but with clear thoughts and great articulation in conversation.
Born to a Greek father, Apostolos, who is his coach, and a Russian mother, former tennis player Julia Apostoli, Tsitsipas is from a family where sport runs deep. His maternal grandfather, Sergei Salnikov, was an Olympic gold medal-winning footballer for the Soviet Union and has coached FC Spartak Moscow.
Asked how he feels his Greek culture and background has impacted him as a tennis player, Tsitsipas gives an interesting answer.
“I would say the Greek mentality, which I reversed,” he tells Sport360.
“I would say Greek people are a bit lazy and easygoing, which is good and on the other side it’s bad being lazy. It’s a culture with a lot of history and people tend to expect things, they are not so hard-working like other nations.
“Although I checked a couple of months ago on Wikipedia and we are the second-most working population in the world, working with the most hours in the world, which I didn’t expect. Number one is Mexico, and number two is Greece.”
I point out that it’s probably because a lot of time is wasted during the day and he agreed.
He is a fan of team sports and supports AEK Athens FC in football, and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA.
“Greece is a culture that is not so much tennis-orientated, mostly football and basketball and these kind of sports. And I tried to copy the mentality of that, of the team competition I would say and bring it to tennis, something like this, I really cannot explain it,” he continued.
“There is a small influence from the country you come from but it’s also yourself, when you travel you see many things, you get more experienced, and most importantly you need to be very balanced with yourself and be very disciplined when you’re doing something. Discipline is number one for me.”
Tsitsipas is coming up on tour at a time where several young players are making some serious strides in the game. A 20-year-old Alexander Zverev is already a top-five player while someone like the 21-year-old Chung Hyeon, who won the ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan last November, is already a Grand Slam semi-finalist.
Tsitsipas is the second-youngest player in the top-100 – behind Canada’s Denis Shapovalov, and is one of only two teenagers in that ranking bracket.
He has kept an eye on the accomplishments of his young peers but is happy to take his own time to reach his goals.
“Of course I’m patient. As we say in Greece, things have their own time, they will come at the right time. I try to stay humble, stay hungry, do the right things, work correctly, do the right things off and on the court and I believe the result is something that is just a word,” says Tsitsipas.
“It’s going to come anyway at some time, if you stay focused on what you’re doing the results will come. The Next Gen players have proven that to us.
“To be very honest I’m really happy to be part of this Next Gen thing because it pushes me every time to do even better.”
Last year the Next Gen Finals, featuring eight of the best 21-and-under players on tour, took place for the first time in Milan. Tsitsipas was an alternate there in 2017 and looks like a shoo-in for this year’s edition if he keeps playing this way.
His best ATP result so far has been a semi-final in Antwerp last October where he claimed his first top-10 victory over Belgium’s David Goffin.
Tsitsipas’ two quarter-finals in the Middle East this season included wins over veterans like Richard Gasquet and Philipp Kohlschreiber.
“I love the Middle East actually. It’s one of the cultures I really respect and I believe it’s very close to the Greek culture, it’s very historical. I respect it a lot. And I like the people here a lot,” he told me in Dubai last month.
Tsitsipas has a chance to avenge his defeat to Thiem from Doha last January when they face off at Indian Wells this weekend.
Thiem, who also hits a one-handed backhand, had good things to say about his Greek opponent.
“I played him in Doha and I was quite impressed actually. I had never seen him before and had never practiced with him before. But I think he definitely has potential for top-20,” Thiem said on Thursday.
“For more I think it’s also a little bit of luck and nobody can say it.
“But I think it’s also nice to have somebody from Greece, I think it’s going to be the first real top player from that country. One-handed backhand… I think he’s going to be good.”
Tsitsipas lives in Athens and is coached by his father, but also spends time at the Mouratoglou Academy in France and has benefited from its Champ Seed foundation.
“The foundation helped me very much in a way,” Tsitspas told me in Paris last year after making his Grand Slam main draw debut at Roland Garros as a qualifier.
“They provided me with free practice, free fitness coach, free food, free accommodation, it’s great. The people involved in this Champ Seed they are doing a great job for the players.”
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While he didn’t have many reference points to follow in Greece as a tennis player growing up, Tsitsipas still found a way to get inspired.
“I grew up with Konstantinos Economidis (Greek former ATP player with a career-high ranking of 112), he used to do well when he played, that’s the period when I was starting to play more serious,” Tsitsipas said at the French Open last year.
“He also gave me a lot of motivation to pass him, to do better than him. He’s a great personality and a great person. He travelled with me last year he came to Roland Garros and Australia.
“Everything he achieved in this sport was all by himself without a coach and that’s really something unusual in sport to see.”