Why you should care
Because tomorrow’s tennis superstars have arrived.
It’s here! No, the thousands of Lacoste-clad commuters streaming through Queens this morning are not, in fact, searching for their bus to the Hamptons. The U.S. Open starts today, the first of 14 days of world-class tennis coming to you live from the Billy Jean King National Tennis Center.
In anticipation of America’s biggest tennis tournament, we’ve keyed in on several young stars to watch over the next two weeks. Yesterday, we highlighted four rising stars from the women’s side. Today, the men’s tour gets the spotlight. And with Saturday’s announcement that Andy Murray was withdrawing from tournament play due to a hip injury — joining missing players Novak Djokovic (bad elbow) and Stan Wawrinka (knee surgery) — that leaves only Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer in the ATP Top 5, and a wide-open field for any of these young guns to stake their claim. To help prepare for the U.S. Open, OZY spoke with John McEnroe, winner of seven major singles titles and one of the greatest American U.S. men’s players ever. McEnroe will be anchoring ESPN’s exclusive coverage of the tournament through September 10.
Could Alexander Zverev be the sport’s next superstar?
The youngest player in the ATP Top 50, Zverev has impressed throughout four years on the professional tour. Currently No. 6 in the world, the 20-year-old is the highest-ranked prospect of the four men mentioned here — and for good reason. He has a career record of 108–62 but has shot up the rankings this year with a 46–14 mark, including five titles.
Plenty of young players manage big victories while struggling with consistency, but Zverev has navigated the professional ladder like a veteran. After beginning 2016 ranked No. 84, he climbed to No. 20 by year’s end and has continued his steady rise since. That poise under immense scrutiny might be genetic: The 6′6″ Zverev, who goes by “Sascha,” is the youngest son of Irina and Alexander Zverev Sr., a former Russian tennis star, and the younger brother of ATP tour veteran Mischa Zverev. Although the Williams sisters have made sibling dominance feel par for the course lately, multiple family members cracking the top ranks of tennis is incredibly rare — especially on the men’s side. German-born, the Zverev clan now lives and trains in Monte Carlo. Under Alexander Sr.’s guidance, the family boasts Mischa, a Top 30 player, and burgeoning superstar Alexander Jr.
“I’ve been saying for the last few years that Zverev could be the best player in the world,” McEnroe tells OZY. “He’s that good.” The one thing missing from Zverev’s early résumé is a major win. Brad Gilbert, another former professional and current ESPN commentator, believes that this trip to New York could change that. “He’s never made it past the round of 16 [at the U.S. Open],” says Gilbert. “But Zverev is ready to win a major. If [Roger Federer] is healthy, he’s my first choice, and I would say Zverev is my second favorite to win the tournament.”
Will the “Bad Boy” of tennis clean up his act?
Another young player with top-notch physical tools is the unpredictable Aussie Nick Kyrgios — a 22-year-old pro with a booming serve and great finesse. There are those who have been predicting that Kyrgios would blossom into tennis’ next great star, but issues with fitness, behavior — on and off the court — and questions of his drive have been a drag on Kyrgios’ rise to the top. “He has the attributes — the physical and the game — to be the best player in the world,” says McEnroe. “Now, can he put it together to dedicate himself in terms of the level of fitness required these days and the mental aspect of where you need to be to give a sustained effort day in and day out? That’s what separates the good from the great.”
Currently ranked No. 18 in the world, the 6’4″ Kyrgios has only three titles to his name — none of them majors. He has shown flashes of brilliance, like beating Nadal en route to the 2014 Wimbledon quarterfinals and beating Federer and Djokovic in other tournaments along the way. Last week at the Cincinnati Masters, Kyrgios again defeated Nadal, in straight sets, before dropping the finals to No. 9 Grigor Dimitrov. But there’s also been controversy swirling around his success: accusations of tanking matches, as was the case at Wimbledon in 2015, vile insults hurled at opponents and constant tabloid fodder from nights spent clubbing.
Is Jack Sock America’s best hope at a Grand Slam champ?
When scrolling through the ATP World Rankings, it takes a while for the first American name to appear. Currently, John Isner — the 6′10″ heat-seeking server — registers at No. 14, but it’s been over a decade since the last great American men’s tennis stars, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, took center court. Hell, even the former Chosen One, Andy Roddick, hasn’t won a Grand Slam since 2003.
A few spots behind Isner lurks 24-year-old Jack Sock. The former U.S. Open Junior champion has steadily climbed the rankings, winning three titles (two in 2017) and remaining in the ATP Top 20 since March of this year. Sock, a Nebraska native who now lives and trains in Kansas City, grew up idolizing Roddick. He moves well across the baseline and is said to have good control on both offense and defense. He regularly played doubles with Canadian Vasek Pospisil, winning the Wimbledon Grand Slam, but he has put off doubles competition to focus on his singles game.
“The door is wide open,” says McEnroe when asked to assess the state of young American men’s tennis. “I think there will be four or five Americans in the Top 20 very soon. If any of them can take the next step to winning Majors, we’ll see.”
Will the top French prospect pull off a stunner?
Entering the U.S. Open, Lucas Pouille finds himself in a similar situation to Sock. No. 12 Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, 32, is clearly the king of French tennis and has been for several years, but Pouille is closing in. In recent months, Pouille has even climbed ahead of former Top 10 player Gaël Monfils, a 30-year-old Frenchman who has enjoyed a decade-long roller-coaster through the ATP rankings.
Pouille has won three career titles, including two this year, and holds a record of 25–15 in 2017. He was a quarterfinalist at both the U.S. Open and Wimbledon last year and made the third round of the French this past June. After racking up five wins against Top 10 players — including Nadal and Dominic Thiem — last year, Pouille was named the ATP Most Improved Player of the Year. He’s not being mentioned as a favorite to reach the men’s finals on September 10, but Pouille is certainly being talked about as a promising young star who could shake up the Grand Slam landscape.