Down the Line: Alexander Zverev's rapid rise brings up questions over ATP's 'NextGen' concept

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Future of tennis? ATP launched their NextGen campaign last year.

“I’m ‘NextGen’ but the rankings say it for themselves,” said Alexander Zverev after claiming his fourth title of the season on Sunday in Washington, to rise to No. 4 in the ATP Race to London and solidify his position at No. 8 in the world rankings.

The 20-year-old is at the helm of the ATP’s ‘NextGen’ campaign, which involves players aged 21 and under, who are ranked in the top 200.

The top seven (plus a wildcard) in the so-called Race to Milan standings, will compete in the newly-introduced ATP NextGen Finals tournament in November. It’s an attempt to boost the popularity of the upcoming generation of tennis stars, that would carry the baton from the sport’s current household names.

It’s a good idea in theory, except there’s a glitch.

Zverev is so far ahead of his NextGen peers that he has more than three times the number of points than the No. 2 player in the Race to Milan (Karen Khachanov), and has more points than all four players ranked No. 2 through No. 5 (Khachanov, Andrey Rublev, Daniil Medvedev and Borna Coric) combined.

The young German is, simply put, in another league, and is actually a strong contender for the ATP World Tour Finals, that features the top eight in the year-to-date rankings.

Only two players have won more titles than Zverev this season – Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer – and he’s the only one outside those two to have claimed a Masters 1000 trophy in 2017.

If the NextGen concept is about the future generation of stars, and Zverev is currently the fourth-best player on tour in 2017, it’s understandable that he feels he doesn’t fit the bill.

“I think I showed I’m not an ‘in the future’ kind of guy. I’m right now,” said Zverev on Sunday.

He is indeed.

Race to Milan standings as of August 7, 2017

Tennis writer Tumaini Carayol noted the gulf in number of points between Zverev and his NextGen peers and said the “hash-tag no longer fits”. Nick Kyrgios, the world No. 24, shared Carayol’s views and added: “It never did.”

The NextGen idea is a good one, but it’s becoming apparent that the criteria used to group these young players together needs to be looked at.

Right now, it’s looking like it’s Zverev, and a chasing pack, whose members undoubtedly feel there’s a misbalance in the Race.

Thanasi Kokkinakis, who would be a Milan contender had he not missed a major chunk of the season through injury, has his reservations regarding the concept.

“I think it’s good but I just think not everyone’s on the same path,” said the young Aussie.

“It’s tough to kind of promote everyone the same. Tennis is such an individual sport you’ve got to have your own way, doing everything by yourself a little bit.

“And then where do you draw the line? What’s NextGen, what age is NextGen and what’s current Gen? I don’t know, it’s a bit weird, but I guess that’s for the ATP to decide.”

Considering this is all still new for the ATP, it’s only natural that the system requires some tweaking, but it won’t be as easy as simply discarding someone from the equation based on his high ranking. What if that high-ranked player doesn’t end up making the ATP Finals in London and would want to remain being considered for the NextGen Finals in Milan?

Still, if you’re consistently beating top-10 players (Zverev has five top-10 wins this year) and are winning multiple titles, including Masters 1000 and ATP 500s, within the same season, you are no longer a next-generation player. You’re part of the current game’s elite.

It’s clear Zverev is not too interested in being dubbed a NextGen contender, so maybe the ATP can leave it up to the players to decide? That could also get messy.

The WTA experimented with an exhibition event for their young crop that preceded the Finals in Singapore in 2014 and 2015. The WTA Rising Stars tournament featured four players from the tour’s younger generation but they were chosen based on a fan vote, so it was more of a popularity contest.

The women’s tour scrapped the idea though last year as it didn’t gain much traction.

The NextGen Finals will, of course, be based on ranking (except for that one wildcard) and the ATP is using the tournament to test various new rules and scoring formats.

We’ll have to wait and see how the first edition is received but if Zverev qualifies for both London and Milan, it only makes sense that he skips the latter, because you’d want the NextGen Finals to be as competitive as possible.Him going there would change that.

Also, why would he go to an event that offers no ranking points a week before what could be his maiden ATP World Tour Finals?

I’m all for promoting the younger tennis players but it’s obvious Zverev’s case requires a closer examination of this project from the ATP.

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Alexander Zverev takes Washington title to distance himself further from 'NextGen' label

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'NowGen': Sascha Zverev.

Alexander Zverev issued a warning to top ATP rivals on Sunday after winning the Citi Open for his fourth title of the year – he’s not the next generation, he’s the now generation.

The 20-year-old German defeated South Africa’s Kevin Anderson 6-4, 6-4 to capture the $355,460 (Dh1.3m) top prize at the US Open tune-up event on the Washington hard courts.

World number eight Zverev dropped only nine points on his serve and never faced a break point in becoming the youngest player to win four ATP titles in a year, or take the Washington crown, since Argentina’s Juan Martin del Potro did it at 19 in 2008.

“I improved a lot in the last few months to get where I can win tournaments,” Zverev said. “The longer the tournament goes for me the better I’m able to play. Hopefully this can continue to be like that.”

Zverev won his first title last September in St. Petersburg and added trophies this year at Montpellier, Munich and Rome, where he downed Novak Djokovic in the final.

He also ousted number four Stan Wawrinka at Miami and pushed Rafael Nadal to five sets in the third round of the Australian Open.

“I’m ‘NextGen’ but the rankings say it for themselves,” Zverev said. “I think I showed I can play with the big guys this year. I think I showed I’m not an ‘in the future’ kind of guy. I’m right now.”

Only Wimbledon and Australian Open champion Roger Federer with five titles has won more ATP crowns this year than Zverev, and that’s only because the Swiss star handed the German his lone finals loss of 2017 at Halle in June.

“A lot of people are looking at him as the face of tennis and the next Grand Slam champion,” Anderson said of Zverev. “He seems to deal with it all pretty well. It will be interesting to see how the next little while progresses.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if he wins a few Grand Slams. He definitely seems to be on a path in that direction.”

Zverev, who will remain a career-best eighth in Monday’s rankings, made a Slam-best fourth-round Wimbledon run, losing in five sets to Milos Raonic.

“Winning those types of matches is the next level I need to reach,” Zverev said. “To get far in those events is my next goal.”

Zverev thanked new co-coach Juan Carlos Ferrero, the former world number one from Spain who worked with him at an event for the first time this week.

“What a way to start together and hopefully we have many more years to come and many more titles together,” Zverev said. “It’s amazing what we’ve already accomplished.”

Zverev took the only break of the first set in the third game when Anderson netted a forehand overhead smash. Zverev broke to open the second set and held from there, taking the title after 69 minutes when Anderson sent a backhand wide.

“The couple of times I had small openings he played really well,” Anderson said.

Anderson, in his first ATP final since winning the 2015 Winston Salem title, will jump from 45th to 33rd in Monday’s rankings, his best mark since standing 25th last August.

“I played some of my best tennis here,” Anderson said. “That has been really encouraging for me.”

In the Washington WTA final, Russia’s Ekaterina Makarova came back from a set down to defeat Germany’s Julia Goerges 3-6, 7-6 (2), 6-0.

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Rogers Cup preview: Nadal handed tough road to No1 ranking, Federer back to work in Montreal

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The North American hard-court swing begins in earnest on Monday with the ATP stopping by Montreal for the Masters 1000-level Rogers Cup.

Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are the top two seeds in Canada for the first time since 2009 and headline a field which is missing four top-six players: No1 Andy Murray (hip injury), No4 Stan Wawrinka (out for rest of 2017 due to knee surgery), fifth-ranked title holder Novak Djokovic (out for rest of 2017 with elbow injury) and Wimbledon runner-up Marin Cilic (leg injury).

The US Open is four weeks away and players will be looking to end Federer and Nadal’s duopoly of the Grand Slam titles this season.

The draw ceremony took place on Friday, with Nadal, who could overtake Murray as world No1 after the tournament, handed a tricky path.

PROJECTED QUARTER-FINALS (BY SEED)

Rafael Nadal (ESP) [1] v Milos Raonic (CAN) [6]

Alexander Zverev (GER) [4] v Jo-Wilfried Tsonga (FRA) [8]

Grigor Dimitrov (BUL) [7] v Dominic Thiem (AUT) [3]

Kei Nishikori (JPN) [5] v Roger Federer (SUI) [2]

FIRST ROUNDS TO WATCH

Juan Martin del Potro (ARG) v John Isner (USA) [14]

Viktor Troicki (SRB) v Nick Kyrgios (AUS) [16]

Pablo Carreno Busta (ESP) v Karen Khachanov (RUS)

Steve Johnson (USA) v Gael Monfils (FRA)

MAIN STORYLINES

No1 spot on the line

Nadal can return to the top of the world rankings, replacing Murray at the summit, if he reaches the semi-finals in Montreal. The Spaniard is a three-time champion in Canada and is playing there for the first time in two years.

Nadal has spent 141 weeks at No1 across three stints but hasn’t occupied the top spot since July 2014. He has been given a tricky draw which could see him face off with Borna Coric in his opener in round two, and John Isner or Juan Martin del Potro in round three.

Federer is back

Three weeks after capturing a record eighth Wimbledon trophy, Federer returns to action looking to extend his 12-match winning streak. The Swiss can only gain points from now until the end of the season, having missed the last six months of 2016 through injury.

He can’t become world No1 in Canada but has a chance to do so in the following weeks. Federer won 31 of the 33 matches he contested in 2017 and the main question moving forward will be: How much longer can he keep this up?

Who will step up: Thiem or Zverev?

Young and restless: Thiem and Zverev.

The two standouts from the younger generation, Dominic Thiem (23) and Alexander Zverev (20) have an opportunity in front of them heading into this final quarter of the season. They are currently No3 and No6 in the Race to London respectively and are No7 and No8 in the world rankings.

With Djokovic and Wawrinka out of action until 2018, Murray still struggling with a hip injury, and Cilic also out with a leg problem, Thiem and Zverev can focus on upping the pressure on Nadal and Federer in the next few months. It will be interesting to see which one of them ends 2017 ahead in the rankings.

At the moment, it looks like Zverev has a better chance of moving higher.

Can Del Potro catch fire?

Since reaching the semi-finals in his first tournament of the season in Delray Beach last February, Juan Martin del Potro hasn’t made it to that stage at an event since, and has been held back by difficult draws.

Del Potro has a history of doing well on the US hard courts but his current ranking of No32 means tough draws can continue to haunt him. In Montreal, he opens against 14th-seeded Isner, who is on an eight-match winning streak.

Nadal could await in the third round. The Argentine is 1-7 against top-10 opposition this season and will need to start pulling off ‘upsets’ is he plans on finding his way back into the game’s elite.

Curious case of Kyrgios

Nick Kyrgios returned to action in Washington, after pulling out of his Wimbledon opener with a hip issue, only to retire from his first round against Tennys Sandgren with a shoulder injury.

After having a strong few weeks earlier this year, Kyrgios has stagnated, due to physical problems as well as mental. The loss of his grandfather in the spring has greatly affected him, and he told fans in Washington the other day “I used to be good, man. My girlfriend dumped me and now I can’t play”.

Can he get his body in shape, and his head back in the game? That’s always the million-dollar question when it comes to Kyrgios.

KEY STATS

On a streak: Isner.

On a streak: Isner.

3 – former Rogers Cup champions are in the draw – Nadal, Federer and Tsonga.

4 – of the five Masters 1000 tournaments played so far this season have been won by Nadal (Madrid, Monte Carlo) or Federer (Indian Wells, Miami). Alexander Zverev won Rome.

8 – consecutive wins for Isner coming into the tournament, having won titles in Newport and Atlanta last month.

11 – years since Federer last won the Masters 1000 title in Canada.

12 – straight match wins for Federer heading into Canada, having picked up titles in Halle and Wimbledon in his last two outings.

12 – of the last 13 Masters 1000 titles in Canada were won by a member of the ‘Big Four’ with Tsonga being the one exception thanks to his trophy run in 2014.

30 – Masters 1000 titles won by Nadal – a record he shares with Djokovic.

285 – points separating Murray from Nadal at the top of the rankings in the week leading up to Montreal.

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