Alexander Zverev, Karen Khachanov, Stefanos Tsitsipas and the tale of ATP Next Gen 2.0

Anuradha Santhanam
This new ATP Next Gen 2.0 is bigger, better, faster, younger and yet, more disciplined and dedicated than their predecessors

Every few years or so, one player €" or a small group of them €" come along and transform the game. The ATP's Next Gen did not exist as an entity when the last crop of 'greats' joined the scene €" a crop that to this day, remains active, playing, and at the top of their game.

In the past few years, a few young talents have come and perhaps not gone, but lost their way somewhat. Nick Kyrgios, once tipped for Grand Slam success, is even today in the news for his on-court conduct rather than his game.

While one might blame the player €" and his compatriots Bernard Tomic and Thanasi Kokkinakis for their wayward choices €" and they would not be wrong, it is also to be understood that there is in fact an inherent pressure endemic to the tennis system: constantly be on your toes, at the top of your game, or you're out. In fact, even if you are at the very top, this is definitely the case.

The last few years have, however, also birthed some talent that has sustained incredibly well and risen up the ranks rather quickly. Most recently, 22-year-old Karen Khachanov entered the finals of the ATP Paris Masters against a resurgent, almost unbeatable Novak Djokovic, and pulled off the seemingly impossible €" a straight sets win over the former and now current World No 1. That also gave Khachanov the biggest win of his career so far.

Kyrgios and Tomic were once part of a Next Gen waiting to hit the Top 10. Now, the Next Gen is perhaps a Next Gen 2.0 of that generation, but with more discipline, experience €" and perhaps talent than their previous counterparts.

Numerous think-pieces have been written, even as recently as last year, on why Kyrgios is one of tennis' rising stars. But with controversy after controversy for both young Australians, could that really be counted as success?

Elsewhere, however, Next Gen 2.0 has been successful precisely by being the antithesis of the 'angry young man' archetype. Not having aped the shots of their older counterparts, many of whom are idols for these young players, the 2.0-ers have instead appeared to imbibe a singular, silent work ethic, which is what has truly been the difference. Motivation, perhaps, has been the biggest differentiator, and something Alexander Zverev has himself spoken of on numerous occasions. He describes it as his own 'healthy obsession', and the strict, regimented work ethic is something that Khachanov has spoken of.

Case in point: Zverev. At just 21, he is the youngest player in the ATP Top 10 and delivering quick, consistent results on the court. As of 2018, he is also the youngest player to have won two consecutive Masters titles on different surfaces since the format was introduced to the game.

He is also the only active player other than the 'Big 4' of tennis to have to his name three or more Masters titles.

What is common €" and in this case, perhaps instrumental €" to the success of both Zverev and Khachanov is that the two spent a significant amount of time on the Challenger circuit early on in their careers. That career-building phase is perhaps the most crucial decider in whether a young talent will succeed at the top levels of tennis, and indeed, both Zverev and Khachanov started off playing tennis when they were between three and five years old.

Parenting: tennis style

Another factor that appears to be common between Zverev, Khachanov and the other big Next Gen name, Stefanos Tsitsipas, is their sporting background. Zverev in particular comes from strong sporting stock. Both his father, Alexander Zverev Sr, and his mother, Irina Zvereva, were internationally-ranked tennis players, as is older brother Mischa. In addition to a tennis sensibility, it is more than likely that the discipline needed to pursue a full-time sporting career was instilled in him first-hand.

Khachanov, too, has the advantage of a parent with a sporting background; the young ace's father played volleyball at the international level before eventually giving up his sporting career for medicine.

Stefanos Tsitsipas, who is all of 20 and will contest his first group stage match at the ATP Next Gen Finals, is built in a near-identical mold to Zverev. Both Tsitsipas' parents are accomplished tennis players, his mother a junior World No 1 player; both were also coaches, and his father has experience as a line judge. Tsitsipas' three siblings also all play tennis. With a full immersion into the sport, it is perhaps a given that the young Greek ace will have been schooled in every intricate aspect of the game from the earliest possible stage.

Tsitsipas, at 20 and only two years after he went pro, is up to a staggering No 15 in the ATP singles rankings €" a mammoth achievement for players much older and more experienced than himself. The young player has remained largely quiet off the court, however, which appears to have been crucial in helping him maintain a singular focus on his sport.

In fact, the only other teen in the top 30 ATP rankings also comes from a sporting €" and specifically, tennis background. Canada's Denis Shapovalov is the son of former tennis professional Tessa Shapovalov, who is now a full-time tennis coach who runs her own academy.

The exception

One player who bucks all of these rules, however, is 21-year-old Borna Coric. The Croatian ace, who counts Goran Ivanisevic as his idol, however, did crucially go through the junior Grand Slams, where he did exceptionally well; his transition to the senior circuit was both seamless and disciplined. A follow-through through the Challenger circuit saw the disciplined young then-teen truly play his way up the ranks €" and work to maintain it.

Today, Coric counts among his team compatriot and former World No 3 Ivan Ljubicic, whose guidance has no doubt been crucial in him maintaining his game. But Coric, who was spotted early on by talent scout and investor Clive Sherling, has had to work to earn the sustenance for his career. For him, it is perhaps that motivation that has kept him going.

Kyrgios, who is a descendent of the Royal family of Selangor, may not have had that motivation. In any case, it also appears that Kyrgios' heart may not have been in tennis at all; the young Australian has long been interested in basketball, foregoing tournaments to be available to play for the NBA All-Star in 2017.

This new ATP Next Gen 2.0 is bigger, better, faster, younger and yet, more disciplined and dedicated than their predecessors. Many of them today show flashes of the current Top 3 €" who were once young talents before the ATP Next Gen was even an entity. The rigorous dedication and discipline have long been key features of the games of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, and an instrumental tool in getting them to the top and sustaining that ranking. Yes, each of these young players has phenomenal talent and already their own characteristic game, not imitative necessarily of any of their predecessors, but with youth on their side,  they have imitated the most crucial aspect of their game €" perseverance, resolve and a single-minded commitment: getting to, and staying at the top.

Also See: ATP Next Gen Finals a testing ground for new rules, and a breeding ground for future stars

ATP Next Gen Finals: Interactive timeline of the meteoric rise of Alex De Minaur, Australia's next great hope

ATP Next Gen Finals: Interactive timeline of Jaume Munar's steep rise from being World No 343 just a year ago

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