There’s the Big Three but who could hold the potential to take over from them in the upcoming decade. Andrey Rublev and Taylor Fritz are two names in the reckoning and Samir Talwar has a look at these two rising stars of tennis.
The last decade and a half in tennis has primarily focused on the dominance of the ‘Big Three’, namely Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. There was a phase where Andy Murray was spoken of in the same breath, and certainly qualifies as the fourth best player of the era.
The ‘Big Three’ had their moments of being challenged and at times defeated by the likes of Andy Murray, Stanislas Wawrinka, Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic, Thomas Berdych, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, David Ferrer and others. However, the underlying theme has never really changed.
As we head towards the last major of 2019 at Flushing Meadows, we have to look back as far as the US Open of 2016 (won by Stanislas Wawrinka), for the last instance that a grand slam was not won by one of the Big Three.
In more recent times, the last three or so years specifically, the buzz word has been ‘Next Gen’- referring to the next generation of players expected to take over the mantle from the likes of Federer, Nadal and Djokovic. The focus has been furthered by the presence of the ATP Under 21 year end finals, currently held in Milan.
‘Next Gen’ continues to be an ever changing population, for obvious reasons and when we think of Next Gen, the names that first come to mind today are Alexander Zverev, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Denis Shapovalov, Felix Auger- Aliassime among others. Not too long ago (2017), this list comprised of the likes of Taylor Fritz, Andrey Rublev and more, who have as a result of injuries and indifferent form almost become part of a ‘Forgotten Next Gen’.
That being said, both Rublev and Fritz, born within a week of one another, are still only 21 years old and a return to consistent form and results would certainly entitle them as members of Next Gen. The last month has been noteworthy for both Fritz and Rublev.
Fritz surged into the top 100 of the rankings in 2016, making the quarter-finals at Acapulco, his first ever ATP 500 event. He followed it up with a strong showing at Stuttgart with a close three set loss to Roger Federer. He ended the year with a peak ranking of 53, and won the ATP Star of Tomorrow award for being the youngest player in the top 100, having just turned 19 years old.
2017 started off well with the young American defeating top ten ranked Marin Cilic at Indian Wells. But, an unfortunate slew of injuries thereafter saw him skip large sections of the season and an indifferent return to form saw him drop out of the top 100.
The last 12 months have been positive and consistent for Fritz with him transitioning from ATP Challenger titles to return to the ATP main draw, and encouraging performances on both clay and hard courts bode well for his rankings.
Fritz won his first singles title at the Eastbourne ATP 250 the week before Wimbledon last month and followed it with a finals appearance at the ATP 250 in Atlanta last week. He is currently playing at Los Cabos and has qualified for the final four defeating clay court specialist Fabio Fognini.
The American is currently ranked a career high number 28 in the world.
With a strong serve and solid groundstrokes, and the ability to hit sharp crosscourt shots on both wings, Fritz has a very good all round game that will assist him on most surfaces. A promising resurgence and it remains to be seen how well the young American performs in the next 18-24 months.
On the other hand, hard hitting Russian Andrey Rublev has been on the tour since 2015, right after finishing his junior career. Incidentally, Rublev beat Fritz in the finals of the inaugural ITF junior Masters in China that year.
The young Russian had a breakthrough year in 2017, winning his first ATP title at the Croatia Open, qualifying for the US Open quarter-finals defeating Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin and being a finalist at the Next Generation ATP finals in Milan, where he lost to Hyeon Chung.
Rublev reached a career-high ranking of 31, in early 2018 after qualifying for the final of the ATP 250 in Doha before losing to Gael Monfils. However, a back injury saw him out of action for most of 2018 and his return to the tour has been challenging. He is currently ranked number 70th.
The Russian, in recent weeks has increasingly looked like being back to his old self and had a promising last week on the clay at the Hamburg ATP 500, defeating clay court specialists Dominic Thiem and Pablo Carreno Busta, before losing an exciting final to Nikoloz Basilashvili in a decider. An offensive baseliner with a big forehand, and a consistent backhand, Rublev has a game very well suited to the hard courts. In addition, Rublev has a running forehand which when delployed can be particularly lethal.
As the season draws to its last third, the mix of challengers to the dominance of the Big Three definitely has both Rublev and Fritz back in contention. There is no doubt that both have what it takes to belong with the likes of Tsitsipas, Zverev, Thiem and others. Like most of the upcoming players who promise to be stars of tomorrow, fitness, maturity and sustenance remain among the most important attributes that will decipher what route their careers take.
Like everyone else, only time will tell if the likes of Rublev and Fritz will be one among the crowd or be able to step it up and leave an impact like some of their predecessors have done. What is good news for them and for tennis is that they have the skills and have already shown that they know what it takes to return from setbacks and adversity.