The ABN AMRO Championships in Rotterdam offered up tennis in spades, ranging from a Major champion taking on a young home hopeful—Stan Wawrinka against Tallon Griekspoort—to world No7 and last year’s losing finalist David Goffin against the ever-popular French flair of Nicolas Mahut, to some of the brightest NextGen talents on the tour against oldies but goldies—Karen Khachanov versus Philipp Kohlschreiber, Daniil Medvedev against Gilles Muller.
Also in the equation was top-notch doubles in the shape of Major champions Feliciano and Marc Lopez, Oliver Marach and Mate Pavic, Jean-Julien Rojer and Horia Tecau, though Mahut and Pierre-Hugues Herbert were postponed after Mahut’s late promotion as lucky loser into the singles draw. All these doubles stars were plying their trade on outside courts throughout the day.
But back to those young rising stars.
Some of their number have already broken into the elite level: Alexander Zverev, just 20 years of age, ended 2017 in the top three after winning five titles, two of them Masters, and catapulted straight into the World Tour Finals instead of the NextGen equivalent in Milan.
The confident, urbane German, who impressed here as a teenage wild card in 2016, comfortably put paid to veteran David Ferrer in the first round here, and then talked of trying out new things:
“I was trying things out. I’m trying a little bit more variation in my game because that’s something I was working on in the past a little bit. Obviously I want to make my game a little bit more than just one dimensional. I think a lot of things worked, some didn’t, but that’s normal, and all in all, I’m happy with a first round like that.”
He is indeed developing at a prodigious rate, physically and mentally, and continues to add doubles to his bow to sharpen that ‘variation’.
Could 21-year-old Khachanov, who won his first title in 2016 and peaked at No29 last summer, bring his tall power to bear over the slight 34-year-old Kohlschreiber?
It certainly looked that way when he took a quick lead with some outstanding serving in the opening set. The young Russian dropped only five points on serve and offered not a break point in the 6-3 first set. He played hard to the one-handed German backhand, but that served only to groove that most flexible of strokes, and the Kohlschreiber slice began to play havoc on the low-bouncing centre court.
The two exchanged breaks, but it was Khachanov who needed a medical time-out early in the second set, and come the tie-break, Kohlschreiber slotted winners while Khachanov made a flurry of errors: It was level, 7-6(1).
In the event, this one would go all the way to the wire, another break apiece in the third and then edging to a tie-break. Khachanov got the early advantage, 2-0, but Kohlshcrieber pulled him back, and converted his first match point, 7-6(5), after a riveting two and a half hours.
Then it was the turn of Medvedev, who was proving to be one of the form young players this season. He came through qualifying to win his first title in Sydney, and that after a strong showing in the NextGen ATP Finals where he lost to eventual champion Hyeon Chung in the semis.
Another 6ft 6in Russian, Medvedev also qualified in Rotterdam, beating the 36-year-old Mahut—though the Frenchman came into the main draw when Benoit Paire withdrew a few hours before his allotted match with Goffin.
His 6ft 4in 34-year-old opponent Muller had taken some good scalps in Rotterdam before, including this year’s No2 and No4 seeds Grigor Dimitrov and Goffin respectively.
But again, it was the younger man who raced from the blocks, breaking twice to take a 5-1 lead. However, the wily Muller pulled back a break with some big left-handed serve-and-volley plays, and held for 4-5. He very nearly broke again in a long game of cat and mouse, riddled with frustrating errors from the Russian, but Medvedev finally survived a dozen or so deuces for the set, 6-4.
The veteran from Luxembourg was broken quickly in the second set, too, but survived a 10-minute fifth game to stay in touch. He then saved two more break points and went on to break to level, 4-4. Muller worked set point, but could not convert and Medvedev held with an ace, 5-5.
It would head to a tie-break, and that hung in the balance through three changes of end, with Medvedev passing up four match points before making a return winner on Muller’s serve, 7-6(9). It had taken exactly two hours.
Goffin is hardly a youngster on the tennis stage any more: 27 is around the average. But compared with Mahut, he is youthful. The Frenchman is still playing his old-fashioned, single-handed serve-and-volley tennis at 36, has four singles titles to his name—all on grass—and remains a prodigious doubles player, a former No1 and Major champion in that format.
His task against the light, nimble tennis of the Belgian, who surged through the end of 2017 and on into the final of the World Tour Finals, was formidable. Goffin had played a lot of tennis already this year, including Davis Cup and reaching the semis of Montpellier last week, but is fit and fast to the nth degree, and it showed in the hour it took him to race by Mahut, 6-1, 6-3.
Goffin dropped only one point on his first serve, and did not face a break point in breaking twice for the first set. The second was tougher, even though the Belgian served at 86 percent, but he still saved all three break points and broke Mahut twice.
The Belgian next faces another veteran, another 36-year-old, Feliciano Lopez—who warmed up after his doubles loss today with Roger Federer. It so happens that the Spaniard, as well as being an old friend of Federer, is a leftie—just like the top seed’s first opponent, Ruben Bemelmans.
It would be a few hours before the fate of two more youngsters was determined. Griekspoor, just 21 and playing with a wild card in his home tournament, would have plenty of support against the former champion Wawrinka, while the youthful Canadian, Felix Auger-Aliassime—just 17 and making his ATP main-draw debut—will surely capture many fans in the coming years. But the 2016 Junior US Open champion would have an uphill task against No38-ranked Filip Krajinovic. In his favour, however, the youngster scored a win over the Serbian in a Challenger on clay last year.
For now, though, the over-30s are holding their own: Kohlschrieber joins Lopez, Tomas Berdych, and Viktor Troicki in the second round.
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BIOGRAPHY: Unai Emery
BIOGRAPHY: Adam Lallana