Swiss Indoors: David Goffin and Dominic Thiem lead young bloods and old hands
Both Dominic Thiem and David Goffin have risen to their highest rankings this autumn
The most famous 33-year-old in tennis, Roger Federer, may head the seeds at his home tournament in Basel this week, but he is not the oldest to have his name emboldened in the draw.
The No8 seed Ivo Karlovic, at the age of 35, is in the midst of one of the most impressive comebacks on the Tour, a rise from 130 precisely two years ago to a current 31. In theory, he could also meet Federer in the semis, though he will have competition from two more 33-year-olds in the top half, Jarkko Nieminen and Benjamin Becker—though Federer’s first opponent, Gilles Muller, is 31.
Three more over-30s feature in the bottom half of the draw, bolstered by three of the five 29-year-olds. But Basel is nicely counterbalanced by a slew of young players: indeed some of them very young indeed.
The two youngest players in the top 150, both age just 17, are No122 Borna Coric and 136 Alexander Zverev, and both have taken wild cards at the Swiss Indoors.
Coric reached his first quarter-final in Umag in August and Zverev the semi-finals in Hamburg in July, and each has won a Challenger title this season.
Each teenager is drawn against some of the more flamboyant young talents in Basel, Zverev against Grigor Dimitrov—at 23, still with a chance of becoming the youngest man to reach the ATP World Tour Finals since Juan Martin del Potro in 2008—and Coric against the slow-maturing 26-year-old Ernests Gulbis, who broke into the top-10 this summer after his first semi run at Roland Garros.
Just as for Dimitrov, however, 23 is proving to be a very rewarding age in an era when four men—Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray—have created a near impenetrable ceiling for those aspiring to the top.
Jerzy Janowicz, like Dimitrov, has reached the semis at Wimbledon, and both are lined up to play Federer in the top quarter of the draw. Also a Wimbledon semi-finalist and another contender for the World Tour Finals is No4 seed, Milos Raonic, who lines up against 24-year-old Steve Johnson.
Gastao Elias will open against a man a decade older, Becker, and Pierre-Hugues Herbert takes on 30-year-old Edouard Roger-Vasselin.
But one contest that has already begun to promise much would be played out for a fourth time this year between one more 23-year-old, David Goffin, and fast-rising Austrian, 21-year-old Dominic Thiem.
Both have risen to their highest rankings this autumn, but the 28-ranked Goffin, who has won two ATP and four Challenger titles this season, has beaten the 38-ranked Austrian in each of their previous meetings, most recently in the final of Kitzbuehel in August.
Goffin’s promise was clear when he broke the top 50 during 2012, the year he made a run through qualifying to the fourth round of Roland Garros—and won the first set against Federer before losing in four. But his progress took a knock after he required surgery to a broken wrist in 2013.
However since a first-round loss to Murray at Wimbledon this year, Goffin has put together a 39-2 run, winning two ATP titles and four Challenges. Intriguingly, his only two losses in that time came to fellow 23-year-olds Janowicz in Winston-Salem and Dimtrov at the US Open.
The Kitzbuehel title marked his first main-tour victory and made him the fifth champion born in the 90s, joining Raonic, Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic and Federico Delbonis—another young rising talent in the top half of the Basel draw.
How would he do against fellow Basel debutant Thiem, who had taken him to three sets in two of the previous meetings?
Well the first set saw them reach a tie-break separated by just three points and no break chances. But the Goffin serving—surprisingly effective for a slight man of under 6ft in height—was already proving its worth. Eight aces and just two points dropped on his first delivery, combined with some fast, nimble all-court offence, carried him through, 7-6.
Thiem, who uses that rare thing in a player so young, a single-handed backhand, fared less well in the second set as nerves and errors seemed to take a hold. He managed to score just one point against Goffin’s first serve and, although he managed one break of serve, Goffin broke twice to take the match in a swift 76 minutes, 6-3.
There is no doubt that Thiem is heading for greater things—surely by 23 he too will have a Grand Slam semi-final under his belt. He has, after all, made the fourth-round at the US Open this year, beating Gulbis and Feliciano Lopez along the way. He also beat world No4 Stan Wawrinka at the Madrid Masters, Gilles Simon at Indian Wells, and severely tested Murray in Rotterdam.
But for now, the elder and maturer Goffin continues to dominate their young rivalry. He will next take on the 29-year-old Ivan Dodig or the 33-year-old Swiss Marco Chiudinelli—and it would be dangerous to bet against the varied, flexible and entertaining tennis of the young Belgian.