My generation of tennis fans was already incredibly lucky to grow up watching two of the best tennis players of all time, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer, in their prime years.
As the ATP’s next generation of players begin to make major strides in the rankings and as the tour’s elder statesmen begin to drop off, here are the top five men’s players under 22.
1. Alexander Zverev
Already the fourth-ranked player in the world and with wins over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, Zverev has long been touted as the next big thing in men’s tennis. The German became known to much of the tennis public when he was gifted a wildcard into the ATP 500 clay court event in Hamburg in 2014, where he reached the semi-finals and was defeated by David Ferrer.
Zverev possesses a strong serve and backhand and his movement around the court for a man of his size – he’s 198 centimetres tall – is very good. His most glaring weakness is his forehand, which let him down last year in big matches. His performance at grand slam level is also concerning; he has failed to reach the fourth round of a major, and over the last 12 months he has suffered losses to Hyeon Chung, Borna Coric, Fernando Verdasco and Milos Raonic.
However, the 20-year-old German has all the tools to be an elite player for a long time, and by all accounts his work ethic matches his talent.
2. Hyeon Chung
Labeled as the next Novak Djokovic, Chung has made major strides over the last 12 months. Since winning the inaugural Next Generation ATP Finals after defeating Andrey Rublev in the final, Chung has made significant improvements to his forehand, which was previously a glaring weakness but is now consistently a damaging shot.
His speed and defence is already among the best in world tennis, with his open-stance defensive backhand already a signature shot – as is the case for Novak Djokovic. Chung defeated Alexander Zverev in five sets at this year’s Australian Open, dropping just five points in the final set, as well as Novak Djokovic in three tight sets before unfortunately having to retire against Roger Federer in the semi-final. His is certainly the most impressive tournament performance from any player on this list.
The area Chung needs to focus on in his development is his serve, which is regularly south of 180 kilometres per hour and rarely in excess of 200. Aside from his serve, there is no glaring weakness in the Chung game: mentally he is strong, his groundstrokes are already elite and his movement is as good as you will see.
3. Denis Shapovalov
Shapovalov came under heavy public scrutiny when he unintentionally hit a chair umpire in the eye with a ball. The Canadian intended to hit the ball into the stands out of scoreboard frustration, but many people attribute this incident, which took place in a crucial Davis Cup rubber, as a key factor in his tennis maturation.
He made his first major breakthrough at tour level was at a Masters 1000 event in Canada prior to last year’s US Open. As a wildcard Shapovalov reached the semi-finals, defeating Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal en route to a tight loss to Alexander Zverev. At Flushing Meadows he defeated eighth seed Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in straight sets before falling in the round of 16 to semi-finalist Pablo Carreno Busta.
Shapovalov is an energetic player whose game, like so many other young players, is built around his serve and forehand. The left-hander’s serve is difficult for opponents to read and his one-handed backhand, although often error-prone, is also a dynamic shot. He moves very well, and although there are some technical issues with his volleying, he is eager to finish points off at the net.
4. Alex de Minaur
The 18-year-old Aussie sensation first excited Davis Cup captain Lleyton Hewitt as a junior at Wimbledon in 2016, where he lost in the final to Canadian Denis Shapovalov. De Minaur’s fighting qualities and his speed and agility initially stood out to Hewitt, who has since become his mentor.
De Minaur earned his first win at ATP tour level in Sydney last year, and he won his first grand slam match at last year’s Australian Open, winning a five-set battle with Gerard Melzer. But it was just recently that the Sydney native captured the attention of the Australian public. De Minaur made the semi-final in Brisbane and the final in Sydney before admirably falling to Tomas Berdych in the first round of the Australian Open.
Boasting a marginally improved serve and a more aggressive mentality, particularly on the forehand wing, De Minaur at times looked like a world beater as he defeated the likes of Milos Raonic, Steve Johnson and Feliciano Lopez. The question with De Minaur is how his body will hold up given his physically demanding style of play. If he can remain injury free, De Minaur has all the tools to have success at the highest level: quickness, high IQ, humility, work ethic and a desire to learn from more experienced players.
5. Andrey Rublev
Rublev is perhaps the most accurate depiction of how the modern tennis player is built: good height and length, solid mover, good serve and a big forehand. He relies heavily on his ability to control the court with his forehand, particularly when he hits it in his backhand corner – much like Rafael Nadal.
The 20-year-old Russian made the quarter-finals at the US Open in 2017, defeating Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin in straight sets before managing just five games to eventual champion Nadal. Rublev also had wins over Jack Sock and Thomas Berdych late last year and, as mentioned earlier, was runner up in the Next Generation ATP Finals, falling to Hyeon Chung.
Although Rublev can be more error prone and erratic than the likes of Chung or De Minaur, his forehand is a genuine weapon, and as his game matures and as he better understands his style, he could be a dangerous prospect for opponents.
Two other Russians – Daniil Medvedev and Karen Khachanov – were unlucky to miss out on this list. Medvedev recently won the Sydney title and Khachanov, possessing a big game, has troubled some really good players in recent times.
American’s Jared Donaldson and Frances Tiafoe have also impressed, particularly Donaldson, whose maturity and ability to compete is a standout for a player so young.