For no sooner had a few cracks appeared in the glass ceiling established by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic as each in turn took extended periods away with injury during the last two and a half years, than they closed ranks again.
The last eight Majors have been won by the trio, taking them to the top of the Grand Slam leader-board: Federer with 20 titles, Nadal with 17, and Djokovic now joining the former record-holder Pete Sampras on 14.
As if that was not enough, they have—along with an Andy Murray residency of 41 weeks last year—held the No1 ranking exclusively since Federer rose to the top almost 15 years ago. During 2018, all three took turns at holding the No1 ranking.
They are also the most prolific Masters champions: Nadal 33, Djokovic 32, Federer 27. And each has won multiple Masters in the last two years, with Djokovic closing the circle of all nine with his Cincinnati win in August.
But scattered through that Masters honours board during those last two years are some new names and, more significantly, some young names. And in the next tier down, the ATP500 circuit, there have also been some fresh faces, with another handful of young players scoring debut titles at the end of the season.
We start at the top, though: The standard-bearer for the #NextGen army—those aged 21 and under at the year’s end—has been Alexander Zverev, who now has three Masters to his name, the first won just after turning 20 last year in Rome.
He went on to win the Montreal Masters and the Washington 500 a few months later, and this year, barely turned 21, he picked up the Madrid Masters title, before ending the year with his biggest title thus far at the World Tour Finals —beating both Federer and Djokovic in the process.
Zverev rose briefly to No3 in the rankings, and ended 2018 fourth to “the big three”, with four titles and 58 match-wins for the season, and having spent the entire year ranked inside the top five.
The German has been mature beyond his years since he burst from the blocks as a gangly 6ft6in teenager between 2015 and 2016, but already had a wise head on his shoulders. Yes, he told me in Rotterdam almost three years ago:
“[When I started working with Jez Green], I was a different body, probably 15kgs lighter than I am now… A lot of players also told me that for tall players, it takes more time to develop than for someone who is shorter… From building up the body, building the muscles, everything is just a bit harder. But in the end, it all pays off. You’ve got the advantage of being tall, and if you make your body as strong as someone who’s six foot, you can be a great tennis player.”
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that the physically demanding Majors have taken longer for the 21-year-old to master, but 2018 saw him reach his first quarter-final at Roland Garros, and his 58th match-win in London showed that he is beginning to match the rest in stamina and endurance. Watch out, 2019.
The big Russian, now 22 years old, seemed already to have grown into his 6ft 6ins as he transitioned from Challenger to main tour in 2016, when he impressed on the clay of Barcelona, and picked up his first title by the year end in Chengdu.
He consolidated well last year, making the fourth round at Roland Garros and the semis in Halle, but it was this year that the powerhouse Khachanov really began to make his mark—and throw his hat into the ring for big things in 2019.
No fewer than three titles were capped with his first ‘big one’, the Paris Masters, where he beat Zverev, Dominic Thiem and finally Djokovic. He also won in Moscow and Marseille, made the semis at the Toronto Masters, and ended the year on the cusp of the top 10 with a career-high No11—up from 48 at the start of the year.
Hot on the Khachanov heels, at No12, is the quietly-spoken but increasingly confident Borna Coric.
The Croat stood out as a teenager in 2016 with two finals, but then suffered knee surgery and a fight back to form. And this year saw the super-fit, focused Coric break out of his shell to twice beat Roger Federer, win his biggest title, the 500 in Halle, and make his first Masters final in Shanghai.
He almost beat Federer a third time in a stunning Indian Wells semi-final, and picked up a handful of other top-10 wins through the season. And if all that did not build a solid launch-pad for 2019, he joined forces with Marin Cilic to win the Davis Cup in Lille a week after turning 22.
Coric may lack some of the inches of his young colleagues, but he may be the most athletic and fast-improving of the group.
… for they are the kind of gifts that threaten many more match-wins in 2019.
This slender, 6ft 4ins addition to the upper ranks is still only 20 years old, and something of a novelty among his peers in wielding a powerful single-handed backhand.
Tsitsipas was still the No1 junior when he broke the top 200 of the senior tour, was ranked 91 at the start of this year, and ended it at No15. Little wonder he was voted by fellow players as the year’s Most Improved Player in the ATP Awards.
But it has been as much for his style and personality that the Greek has captured fans: He is expressive, creative and energetic, in both tennis and body language, whether in his breakout performance on the clay of Barcelona, as runner-up to Nadal, or in reaching the fourth round at Wimbledon.
He went on to reach the semis in Washington while still a teenager, and his first Masters final fell on his 20th birthday in Toronto—again losing to Nadal but after beating Thiem, Djokovic, Zverev and Kevin Anderson, top-10 players all.
He closed out the season as the youngest member of the top 20, at No15, after winning his first title in Stockholm, and going unbeaten at the #NextGen ATP Finals in Milan.
Russian, 6ft 6ins, and 22 years old: a familiar ring to the stats, and not far behind compatriot Khachanov in the ranks, either, at No16.
Indeed only 858 points separate Medvedev at No16 and Khachanov at No11, with young rivals Coric, 23-year-old Kyle Edmund, and Tsitsipas in between.
Medvedev won all three of his titles in 2018, beginning in Sydney via qualifying, and going big with a 500 in Tokyo, where he beat home favourite Kei Nishikori in the title match. In a strong close to the season, Medvedev also reached the semis in Basel and Moscow.
However, all these 22 year olds will have to watch their backs, because there are some fine teenagers ready to take the step up in the next year or so.
The first, 19-year-old Denis Shapovalov, cut an exhausted figure at the end of the season, but he has been pressing his case since last year when he burst into the semis of his home tournament, the Montreal Masters, beating Nadal and Juan Martin del Potro in the process.
Another single-hander, this time of the left-handed variety, his explosive, abandoned style of tennis captured the imagination, and combined with a great work-ethic and a love of the big stage, he has not disappointed, as his run via qualifying to the fourth round of the US Open last year proved.
This season, he has made the semis of Delray Beach, the Madrid Masters and the Tokyo 500. And at No27 in the ranks, he is currently the youngest in the year-end top 100, one of 11 #NextGen players.
Also 19 years old, Australian Alex de Minaur comes from a different mould than the others—a slight 6ft figure with fast feet and reactions, and variety aplenty. From a rank of 208 as he headed to the semis in Brisbane in January, he made the final in Sydney, went deep through a slew of Challengers, and made the third round at Wimbledon.
Only Zverev stopped him in Washington, and he rounded out 2018 with a final run at the #NextGen Finals—where he will still be eligible to play for two more years. No wonder, then, at No31 in the ranks, he picked up the ATP Newcomer of the Year Award.
Frenchman Ugo Humbert, 20, climbed 290 places from 374 last year to No84.
Christian Garin from Chile, age 22, also moved from outside 300 to break the top 100, up to No85.
Frances Tiafoe, age 20, won his first title in Delray Beach, having reached his first final on the clay of Estoril.
Kyle Edmund, though at 23 he is slightly older, won his first title in Antwerp this autumn, having started 2018 with a career-first Major semi-final in Australia.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
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