Miami Shows The Incomplete Promise Of The Next Gen.
The 2021 ATP Masters in Miami was a golden opportunity for more than 99 percent of the professional tennis ranks. Miami is one of the only times in the last fifteen years that a major ATP tournament would not be contested by any of the “Big Three” (formerly the Big Four before injuries derailed Andy Murray’s career). Neither Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, nor world no.1 Novak Djokovic opted to participate in the tournament, given both injuries and the continued difficulty and inconvenience of international travel during the COVID-19 pandemic. This opened up the possibility for the ATP’s burgeoning group of young players- the “Next Gen” so to speak.
Realizing that “the Big Three” are getting into the latter days of their careers (this year, all three of them will be thirty-five years of age or older), the ATP has attempted in recent years to raise the profile of up and comers as they begin to make their mark on the sport. This included the creation of the “Next Gen ATP Finals,” a year end event for the year’s top eight ranked under 21 players. However, to date the “Next Gen” have been largely unable to make breakthroughs in the major tournaments, either at the four Grand Slams or at the ATP Masters Series level. The 2021 Miami Open would present a golden opportunity for one of them to do so.
The tournament did in fact see some of the Next Gens achieve results worthy of the high hopes and expectations that the tennis world has for their futures. An example of this in the early rounds was the performance of Lorenzo Musetti. The Italian teenager, one of the few Next Gens to be carrying on the lost art of the one handed backhand, was coming off of the best ATP level result of his career. This was the ATP 500 series tournament in Acapulco.
At that event, Musetti recorded wins over current world no.9 Diego Schwartzman and former world no.3 Grigor Dimitrov, reaching the semifinals of the tournament as a teenager, only the third player in Acapulco’s history to do so after Rafael Nadal and Xavier Malisse. The key for Musetti to truly climb the ladder of the game will be establishing some consistency in his results, however.
In Miami, he went at least in a direction towards doing that, reaching the third round before falling to Marin Cilic. Making the semifinals or even the quarterfinals at Miami would have been a tremendous achievement for Musetti, even more so than his run at Acapulco would have been. However, many times promising young players immediately flame out in the next tournament after they achieve breakthrough results.
The fact that Musetti even won two matches after his result in Acapulco shows his improving physical and mental consistency. And losing to Marin Cilic, a former Grand Slam champion and world no. 3 is nothing to be ashamed of. Musetti and those of us (this author included) should take heart from this result and look forward to his continued rise up the ATP rankings in the future.
However, it was another Italian Next Gen who would make a much stronger breakthrough statement during the Miami Open, and that would be Jannik Sinner. Sinner hails from the unique Italian region of South Tyrol, which is located in the Alps on the border with Austria. This region has historically been populated with German speakers, hence Sinner’s last name being non-stereotypically Italian.
Anyone who reads this author should know of my preference for the aesthetics of the one handed backhand in tennis. But if one had to pick a player with a two-handed backhand to watch, it would be Sinner’s. Sinner’s two hander produces more topspin than any currently on the tour, however it has a smooth, simple motion. It is reminiscent of David Nalbandian, who had (in this author’s opinion) the most aesthetically pleasing two handed backhand of the Aughts.
Sinner spent the COVID-abbreviated 2020 ATP campaign steadily climbing the ranks of the game. At the start of this year, he won his first Grand Slam match at the Australian Open. Almost nine months later, at Roland Garros, he became the youngest male player (at nineteen) to reach the quarterfinals of that event since Novak Djokovic in 2006. He ended the year ranked at no. 37.
Sinner was the beneficiary of a relatively weak draw in the Miami Open, never facing a top 10 opponent. However, he did take full advantage of this fact, making his way to the final to face Hubert Hurkacz. Hurkacz is one of the older players who can be considered in the Next Gen, having recently turned twenty four years old in February.
Hurkacz has not been as heralded as the likes of Sinner, Andrei Rublev, and others of the Next Gen. However, he overcame both of them in the semis and finals, defeating first Rublev and then Sinner to take home the title. This gave him a place in tennis history as the first Polish man to win a Masters 1000 title in the history of the ATP.
For a long time, Polish men have lagged behind the tennis women of their nation, who have produced top ranked players such as Agnieszka Radwanska and Iga Swiatek. The only Polish man to reach a Masters Series final previously was Jerzy Janowicz, who reached the final of the Paris Masters series in 2012, only to fall to David Ferrer.
The Next Gen still have a long way to go before proving themselves to be the dominant force in men’s tennis. They still need to overcome the obstacle that is the “Big Three”- particularly at a Grand Slam, but at the Masters Series 100 level as well. The 2021 Miami Open showed the promise of the ATP Next Gen, but at the same time it was a reminder of just how much developing so many of them still have to do.