It’s no secret that tennis has been experiencing somewhat of an ageing process in recent years and we need not look further than 33-year-olds Roger Federer and Serena Williams to realise how there is no longer such a thing as a the “wrong side of 30” in the sport at the moment.
There are 39 men aged 30 or over that started the Roland Garros main draw this year – a record for the most 30-somethings to feature in a main draw at a grand slam.
But amid the field of veterans and seasoned pros, are a small group of youngsters who are looking to stake a claim in Paris this fortnight. Of the 13 players aged 21 and under who were in the first round at the French Open, five made it through to round two on Monday – Nick Kyrgios (20), Thanasi Kokkinakis (19), Kyle Edmund (20), Borna Coric (18) and Dominic Thiem (20).
They are among the tiny few who have – to various degree – managed to grab attention and some success on the ‘big boys’ tour.
As the game keeps getting more and more physical and the top players continue to reach new heights in terms of athleticism, the younger guys are searching for ways to catch up, while knowing their bodies are still developing.
Kyrgios, who has made the biggest waves from that generation by making two grand slam quarter-finals in just seven appearances and beating the likes of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, admits that right now he can only aspire to be as athletic as the likes of Novak Djokovic, Nadal or Andy Murray.
“That’s why I do gym work, that’s why I train off the court, it’s to become as good physically as they are. They’re all tremendous athletes – especially Andy Murray, I think he’s unbelievable,” the 30th-ranked Kyrgios told reporters in Paris following his straight sets first round win over Denis Istomin.
“I’m still young, I’m still trying to build as much strength. Those guys, they train through grand slams, they do gym on their off days. But at the moment I can’t do that. I need to try to conserve as much energy as possible if I happen to go deep.”
Murray, the world No3, is a potential third-round opponent for Kyrgios, who concedes it’s been hard not looking ahead in the draw.
“I try not to think about it but it’s hard not to. On social media, every day, I see Kyrgios-Murray third round and I hadn’t even won a round yet. I’m trying to take it one match at a time,” said the Canberra-native, who also needs some time before mastering the art of dealing with the media.
At the Australian Open earlier this year, he told a veteran journalist his question was “silly” and on Monday when he was asked about whether he was getting noticed more walking around the Roland Garros grounds, he said: “Yes, I think more than previous years for sure, which is good as well. I guess that comes with success. It’s a fun tournament, it’s a grand slam. I just made that answer up, I’m sorry,” before signing off with a laugh.
Murray has somehow emerged as a mentor figure to some of these rising talents – particularly his fellow Brit Edmund and the Aussie pair Kokkinakis and Kyrgios.
He invited Edmund to train with him in the offseason in Miami in December and has played doubles and practiced with Kokkinakis in recent months.
“It’s good to have one of the big guys. I also get access to bigger courts,” joked Kokkinakis on Monday, after beating Nikoloz Basilashvili in round one.
“Everything Andy does is pretty good and pretty high level. Obviously moves great, returns really well, and his backhand is phenomenal. He’s a good guy as well. So it’s really good to have him… that I can talk to and kind of hit with him in tournaments.”
Like Kyrgios, Kokkinakis is a basketball-loving young Australian with Greek origins, exciting character and lots of talent. But unlike his friend, Kokkinakis has had a slightly slower rise in the rankings and Paris is just his third grand slam main draw appearance.
He broke into the top-100 earlier this month, thanks to capturing his first Challenger title in Bordeaux and one of his current challenges is figuring out his own game.
“I don’t know what my favourite surface is yet, still trying to work it out. I hope I can like every surface,” the world No84 said in Paris.
— Thanasi Kokkinakis (@TKokkinakis) May 25, 2015
Murray is happy to pass along some wisdom to the younger guys, and not just in the form of mocking their fashion choices (the Scot described Kokkinakis’ singlet as an “unforced error”).
The two-time grand slam champion rushed out of his post-match press conference on Monday to catch the end of Edmund’s five-set battle with Stephane Robert and was caught on camera screaming and cheering for his countryman, who registered his first career win at a major.
“I think for me I remember a lot of the guys that were nice to me when I was young on the tour, and it’s a good thing to do,” said Murray of his decision to take a few of the younger players under his wing.
“A lot of them are really nice guys with fun personalities. I think it’s good to try to help them if you can or to practice with them, and I enjoy it. I have a good time. They’re all very enthusiastic. It’s a great practice for me.
“I remember very well and I was very grateful to all of the players that were nice to me when I first came on the tour, because it can be tough. It’s not easy as a 17, 18-year-old coming into a locker room with older guys or people that you’ve watched on the TV and look up to.
“Some guys weren’t nice. And I remember that, too,” Murray added with a laugh. “I would rather try to be one of the guys that the youngsters look up to and say ‘yeah, he was nice to me when I was coming up’.”
Edmund, who won his first Challenger title in Hong Kong last January, is grateful for Murray’s support.
“He’s obviously just played his match, and he’s gone through all his recovery stuff and he doesn’t have to come out and watch me, but he has,” said Edmund, who is likely to break the top-100 following the conclusion of Roland Garros.
“It just shows that he really cares. I’m just very fortunate someone like that is keen to help me.
“I will take as much help as I can get from him. He texted me after the match saying ‘I’m really pleased for you. First five-setter. It’s a great achievement and stuff’. He’s still got lots more years to play, so I will continue to learn from him.”
Coric, who shocked Murray in Dubai last February, also enjoyed a successful Roland Garros debut, beating Sam Querrey in four sets. The Croatian teenager, who broke the top-50 for the first time this week, says seeing others from his generation do well on tour has spurred him on.
“It’s for sure motivation and kind of gives you more self-belief bec-ause you can see that someone else who’s your age can do it,” said Coric.
“They can win against the top 10, top 20 guys. So I think it’s just very good to have someone your age or maybe just a little bit older who’s doing very good.”
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