written by Fabio Valente
Left-handed players, serve-and-volley defenders, big servers, one-handed backhands, tall and short players: we can easily use these categories to summarize some of the most common features of tennis, to compare athletes and spot their different peculiarities. Rafa Nadal and Gilles Muller as the highest-ranked left-handed players, Feliciano Lopez and Australian Open’s hero Mischa Zverev as serve and volley specialists, John Isner, Milos Raonic, Ivo Karlovic as some of the best big servers (and tall players) of the tour, Roger Federer, Stan Wawrinka, Richard Gasquet and Grigor Dimitrov as the most spectacular old-style backhand possessors of the ATP circuit. We all agree about their talent, but who will replace them in the near future? Will we still have the chance to witness some serve and volley action around the world? Will new big servers rule our sport? Will the old-style one-handed backhand keep shining through the years?
Looking at the so-called nextgen talents, the best ranked ones are Alexander Zverev (21st, 19 yo), Karen Khachanov (48th, 20 yo) and Daniil Medvedev (60th, 20 yo) but no one of them has a specific kind of play which belongs to one of the categories we talked about before. They all take great advantage from their serves, generating an amazing power with their flat forehands and two-handed, reliable but common backhands. If we aim to discover peculiar and unique kinds of players among the rising ones, we have to go down the rankings to find the name of Reilly Opelka. The 19 year old american, ranked 177 in the world, cannot be forget when talking about big servers: thanks to an astonishing 2.11 mt high body, the native of St. Joseph, MI, has been able to build his game around a majestic, unreturnable serve following the path of players like Isner, Karlovic, Anderson. Opelka, who had his best season last year when he gained his first ATP win and climbed up more than 800 places in the rankings, looks to continue his impressive run, aiming to a place in the top 100 before the end of this year.
We often heard about the lack of competitive left-handed tennis players during the last few years, with just Nadal leading this small group of athletes. The trend might stop soon as a Canadian player named Denis Shapovalov is quickly raising his level and becoming an interesting one to follow, in spite of being just 17 years old. Denis has already won his first ATP match (last year, in Toronto, vs Nick Kyrgios) and has already made his Davis Cup debut for Canada, winning vs Garin in straight sets last September. As now, this blonde, polite boy is the highest ranked left-handed player among the rising under 21 talents, sitting in 251st place in the ATP rankings. Even though he has been the protagonist of an embarrassing event in his last Davis Cup match vs GBR, when he was defaulted after hitting the chair umpire with a ball, Denis is ready to take home many great wins this year, thanks to his efficient, left-sided playing style.
By many considered as one of the greatest talents of his generation, Greek Stefanos Tsitsipas will try to replace old-style one-handed backhand players like Federer, Wawrinka, Gasquet, Dimitrov while running towards the top of the ATP rankings. The 18 year old and former number one of the ITF junior rankings, has already started to impress in the Challenger circuit since last year, gaining important wins vs higher-ranked and more experienced opponents and proving as true all the voices about him. Tsitsipas, who plays a naturally beautiful one-handed backhand, builds his game around a powerful serve and a flat, effective forehand. He also possesses a peculiar attacking game which often leads him to win points at the net, thanks to his very good volley skills. Having no specific weakness, the future of this Greek boy – and of the one-handed backhand, of course – could not look any brighter.