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.”
Ernests Gulbis’ time between making the semi-finals in Paris last year and now has been – in typical Gulbis fashion – a crazy ride.
The Latvian, who shocked Roger Federer in the French Open last eight in 2014 to post his best grand slam result to date and enter the world’s top-10, has won a mere 12 matches since then. That’s 12 matches in 23 events.
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The 26-year-old kicked off 2015 with five consecutive losses and is currently 3-12 this season.
He had a brief split – one month to be exact – from his coach Gunther Bresnik earlier this year – and at one point appeared to have teamed up with ex-world No4 Thomas Enqvist.
But Gulbis explains how his partnership with the Swede was only temporary and he realised he needed to get back to Bresnik, a coach he shares with Austrian world No31 Dominic Thiem.
“Actually the last couple matches on clay it’s been getting better and better. I had some close losses against David Goffin, Jiri Vesely in Rome and Madrid. I played decent. I lost to Goffin 7-5 in the third, and next week he played quarter-finals. So seems like I’ve been losing a lot of matches, but I lost to decent people.
“I met Enqvist in Marseilles for five minutes, and I was already in a mood that I might try something different. Then I just asked him to help me out the week before Monte Carlo and the weeks of Monte Carlo, and Barcelona. But it was never a commitment that now we’re going to keep on working,” explained Gulbis, who faces Nicolas Mahut in the second round on Wednesday.
“I was always a player who needed somebody who is incredibly strong in the technical part of the game. I don’t need to think about tactics, about all this stuff. I just walk on court and perform.
“But I need to get my base done, and this is unfortunately the thing what I’ve been missing this year.
“The off-season practice was a little bit screwed up because of shoulder problems, and because of that, everything just collapsed. Now it’s been a good three weeks of practice (with Bresnik).”
Under normal circumstances, Gulbis would be feeling pressure having to defend semi-final points in Paris. But considering the disastrous year he’s having, he says he’s happy just getting the first win under his belt.
“I think the less thoughts you put into it, the better,” Gulbis said referring to his losing streak earlier this year. “Over analysing it’s not good. My happiness really comes from success. I haven’t had success for a while. So my happiness level is not very high. And I didn’t have a lot of things outside the court which could give me happiness. I don’t want to use any words like depression. But I wish my level of happiness was higher.”
Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal eased closer to a French Open quarter-final showdown Tuesday while two-time champion Serena Williams blitzed her way into the second round.
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But there were opening defeats for women’s tour poster girl Eugenie Bouchard, the sixth seed, as well as men’s 10th-seeded Grigor Dimitrov.
Top seed Djokovic, bidding to win a first French Open and become just the eighth man to complete the career Grand Slam, defeated experienced Jarkko Nieminen 6-2, 7-5, 6-2.
The victory over the 33-year-old Finn, who was playing in his 50th major, was Djokovic’s 23rd consecutive win this year.
The 28-year-old Serb, seeded to meet nine-time champion Nadal in the last eight, will next face either Luxembourg’s Gilles Muller or Paolo Lorenzi of Italy.
They were level at two sets apiece when darkness caused an overnight suspension to their tie.
“I always feel a lot of emotion when I get back on this court,” said Australian Open champion Djokovic, the runner-up to Nadal last year and in 2012.
“This year I’m playing very well so far and I hope I will get the confidence I have had since the beginning of the year.”
Nadal opened his bid for a 10th title with a 6-3, 6-3, 6-4 win over world number 296 Quentin Halys.
Nadal, seeded a humble six this year – his lowest for a decade – needed just one hour and 50 minutes to see off the 18-year-old and record his 67th career win at Roland Garros.
The defending champion came into the tournament without a European claycourt title for the first time since 2005 and with many in the sport writing him off as a spent force.
But in a cheeky riposte to his critics, the 14-time major winner played with the number ‘9’ stitched into the heels of his tennis shoes to remind people of his astonishing record at the tournament where he has only ever lost once.
Halys, making his Grand Slam debut, was broken five times and made 52 unforced errors.
Nadal goes on to face compatriot Nicolas Almagro for a place in the last 32.
“I played well. I changed direction with my forehands down the line. After the first three games I was moving better,” said Nadal.
“I am here to play well and compete. That is my mentality and the goal is always the same.”
– Serena in a hurry –
Women’s top seed and world number one Serena Williams won 6-2, 6-3 in just 59 minutes against Czech qualifier Andrea Hlavackova.
The 2002 and 2013 champion, and 19-time major winner, next faces Anna-Lena Friedsam of Germany.
Williams has now won 58 of her 59 career first-round matches at the majors.
Only four of the 17 US women who started in the main draw made it to the second round.
“That’s kind of the way things go sometimes. I was a casualty once,” said Williams, whose only first round exit at a major came in Paris in 2012.
— TENNIS.com (@Tennis) May 26, 2015
Canadian sixth seed Bouchard, a semi-finalist in 2014, crashed out at the hands of France’s Kristina Mladenovic.
Bouchard went down 6-4, 6-4 to the world number 44, her eighth defeat in her last nine matches.
“Everyone has highs and lows in their career. This is a little bit of a low point for me,” said 21-year-old Bouchard who also has a huge number of points to defend at Wimbledon next month having reached the final in 2014.
Sixth seed Eugenie Bouchard has crashed out of the French Open, losing 6-4 6-4 to France’s Kristina Mladenovic pic.twitter.com/Gk7cmaF0UB
— PA Sport (@pasport) May 26, 2015
Also going out was Bulgarian 10th seed Dimitrov who suffered his second successive first-round exit in Paris, losing 7-6 (9/7), 6-2, 6-3 to Jack Sock of the United States.
Wimbledon champion and fourth seed Petra Kvitova needed two and a half hours to see off New Zealand’s world number 80 Marina Erakovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, getting broken six times and committing 47 unforced errors.
Serbian 25th seed Jelena Jankovic, a three-time semi-finalist, suffered her first opening-round loss in a decade when she went down 6-3, 6-4 to Bulgarian qualifier Sesil Karatantcheva.
Spain’s David Ferrer won his 300th claycourt match when he swept past Slovakia’s Lukas Lacko, 6-1, 6-3, 6-1.
Svetlana Kuznetsova, the 2009 champion, beat Dutchwoman Kiki Bertens 6-1, 4-6, 6-2 and will next face 2010 winner Francesca Schiavone of Italy.
Fifth seed and former world number one Caroline Wozniacki beat Italy’s Karin Knapp 6-3, 6-0.