While I, like many others, will be watching the Australian tennis season for the likes of Djokovic, Federer and Murray, I’ll also be having a closer look at some of those lesser-known fringe players looking for a breakout year to enter the top 20 or even 10.
With the Top 10 having an average age of almost 27 (26.9), only one player under the age of 25 and injuries starting to strike, it can only be a few more years before we are looking toward the next group of players coming through to take over the top spots as these players move on.
If we look at the next 10 players, this average drops to 25.8 with four players under the age of 25.
While we are used to seeing the top four dominate, they have recently been having trouble with these youngsters, the most successful being Juan Martin Del Potro, the only other man to win a grand slam since Marat Safin’s 2005 Australian Open victory.
Following his US Open win, Del Potro reached a career high of fourth, before injury struck and he dropped as low as 485 early in 2011.
Since then he has fought back and gotten back to winning form, climbing back to seventh in the world and making the quarter-finals of the ATP Finals in 2012.
Just outside of the Top 10 is Milos Raonic, ranked at 13.
2012 was a big season for Raonic, making four tournament finals, winning two of these in Memphis and Chennai.
Along with this he made at least the final in five other tournaments. His best grand slam result for the year was the round of 16 at the US Open where he was beaten by eventual winner Andy Murray.
Another man who has climbed through the rankings is Marin Cilic who also won two tournaments in 2012, at Umag and the prestigious Queen’s in London, to climb back to 15th in the world at the end of 2012.
Cilic’s best grand slam was also the US Open, but he suffered a similar fate to Raonic, meeting Andy Murray in the quarter-final.
The last youngsters in the Top 20 are 18th and 19th ranked Alexandr Dolgopolov and Kei Nishikori who have climbed through the rankings in the last three years to now be regulars in third and fourth rounds of tournaments and both winning their second career titles this year, both on hard courts.
After these players there are a mixture of relatively unknown guys who have made themselves known during the last few years, the most successful of these recently would have to be Jerzy Janowicz.
At 22 years of age, the Polish giant has managed to climb almost 200 ranking places in the last 12 months, claiming some major scalps along the way.
Despite only playing in two of this year’s grand slams, making the round of 32 at Wimbledon, Janowicz finally got his chance at the Paris Masters 1000 tournament where he came through two rounds of qualifying and took out five Top 20 players, including Andy Murray, before he was eventually beaten in the final by world number five, David Ferrer.
This is a huge leap for Jerzy, who started the year playing qualifiers and challengers, as this now means he will not only gain automatic entry to the upcoming Australian Open, but with a ranking of 26 should also be seeded, giving him a slightly easier draw in the earlier rounds.
Just in the Top 30 is Martin Klizan who is another man who had a breakthrough season, winning his first ATP title.
He also started the year struggling to break into the grand slams, but he managed to make the second round of Wimbledon and Roland Garros. It was after this that he became a real force winning San-Marino in August and going on to make the round of 16 at the US Open, taking out Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in the process.
He was beaten here by Marin Cilic, starting what could possibly be the next great rivalry as Cilic again beat him in consecutive tournaments in October.
Other notable youngsters who made impressions this year include David Goffin (46 in the world), Bernard Tomic (52) and Ryan Harrison (69). Goffin made his big breakthrough at Roland Garros where he came through three rounds of qualifying and managed to reach the round of 16 where he met Roger Federer.
He finished the year solidly to end the year inside the Top 50.
Tomic, who has a career high ranking of 27, had a very inconsistent 2012.
Tomic started the year in strong fashion, making the final of the Brisbane International and winning the Kooyong Classic exhibition tournament. He followed this with a strong performance at the Australian Open reaching the round of 16 where he was beaten by Roger Federer.
Starting the year just outside the Top 40, Tomic slowly climbed through the ranks, reaching 29 leading into Wimbledon where he looked to back up a strong performance in 2011.
Tomic’s first round opponent, coming off a strong French Open was David Goffin.
The Belgian cleaned up Tomic in four sets, causing Tomic to drop back down into the mid 40’s in the rankings since he could not defend the points he won in the previous year. This was the start of a form slump for Tomic.
He never climbed any higher than 39 for the rest of the year and finished with three successive first round losses, leaving him outside the Top 50.
The last man on my list, 20-year-old Ryan Harrison, had a solid but unlucky 2012.
Floating around the 60s and 70s in the world rankings, he put in solid performances but was unlucky to draw Top 20 opponents in all of the grand slams, three of which were Top 10 players (Murray, Djokovic and Del Potro).
After a resilient last two years though, Harrison looks like he will be a strong player in the coming years with more match practice under his belt.
These players in their early twenties are just a few of the players we can look forward to seeing taking over the mantle in the coming years.
I would also like to throw young Australians Ben Mitchell and Nick Kyrgios into this list of guys as I would love to see them carry on their junior success as Tomic has done.
If recent years have been any indication though, the excitement levels don’t look like dropping at all as this next generation take the lead.