For the first time in a while, men’s tennis is confronted with potential flux. With Federer now in his 30s and the likes of Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray in their mid- to late-twenties, the time seems ripe for the next tennis prodigy to burst onto the world stage.
Of all the young players on the circuit right now, I think Grigor Dimitrov is the most likely to make the jump to the next level. He is currently the youngest man in the top 20, and the results this year have been pretty impressive. Added to that, he has a very capable coach in Roger Rasheed, who has also coached the likes of Lleyton Hewitt, Gael Monfils, and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga and seems to have done his game a world of good.
I first saw Dimitrov play at the start of the 2012 season in the Hopman Cup in Perth, Australia. Even back then, he looked like quite a handful. Some of his shots were absolutely stunning, and his single-handed backhand was a real thing of beauty. His decision-making, however, was often questionable.
Two years later, the Bulgarian hasn’t really lived up to expectations. His results throughout 2012 and 2013 were inconsistent, with prolonged periods of sluggishness punctuated by the occasional moment of sheer brilliance. Before 2014, Dimitrov had made it past the second round of a Grand Slam only once. But in this year’s Australian Open, he finally displayed the fight and grit to first take out Canadian Milos Raonic in a grueling four-set match in the third round, and then played some brilliant tennis to push Nadal to the brink in the quarterfinals.
That solid performance was followed by a title at the ATP World Tour 500 event at Acapulco, where he first beat a struggling Andy Murray in the semifinals and then defeated the big-serving Kevin Anderson from South Africa in the final to lift his first title of the year. He showed that he’s finally developing the temperament to win matches against the top players.
Dimitrov is not the only man who’s been resurgent this season — Ernests Gulbis has been in impressive form as well. The Latvian won in Marseilles, to add to his semifinals performance at the ABN Amro World Tennis Championships in Rotterdam and quarterfinals performance last week in Indian Wells. His good showing so far this year has propelled him to a career-high World No. 18, but for a man of his talent and ability, success surely needs to be measured by performances in the majors.
Another contender for future World No. 1, Jerzy Janowicz, has disappointed since his breakthrough performance at Wimbledon last year; however, with a strong serve and offensive ground game, he has the potential to become the next big thing, provided he can become more consistent.
Other potential players capable of taking the next big step include the Australian enigma, Bernard Tomic, who promised so much as a multiple Junior Grand Slam winner, but whose game recently seems to be weighed down by multiple off-court issues. Two Canadians — Milos Raonic, one of the biggest servers on tour, and Vasek Pospisil, one of the revelations of 2013 — may also rise to prominence.
All things said, greatness in a sport is oftentimes determined by the intangibles, so it will be interesting to see who dominates tennis after the Golden Era.