Tennis fans are always watching the younger players in the game wondering whom is going to be the next one to ascend to the top? Which man will step up and really challenge and outrank the likes of Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal? In recent months there has been a lot of press coverage and talk about two young men, 24 year Japanese, 10th ranked Kei Nishikori and 23 year old Bulgarian, 12th ranked Grigor Dimitrov. Lately both men have showed improvement in their games and challenged the top four. Each a won a clay court title leading up to the French Open, Dimitrov won Bucharest and Nishikori won Barcelona. So it is with great anticipation of big things that fans watched their performance at the French Open. Sadly there wasn’t much to watch as both men lost in the first round in straight sets. Dimitrov lost to the big serving Croat Ivo Karlovic because he did not have the variety in his game to handle Ivo’s big serve and groundstrokes. Nishikori lost to Slovak Republic’s Martin Klizan because of a hip injury, Kei has had a history of injuries in his career and needs to learn how to manage his body better. Both these losses show that the younger generation has a ways to go before they can become the type of players who will outplay and outrank the current top four.
Kei Nishikori is the first Japanese man to be ranked inside the top ten. Nishikori is an offensive baseline player known for speed and a strong forehand who uses both to wear down and out-think his opponents. After making his tour debut in 2006 he has steadily improved and risen in the rankings. However, injuries have been a constant problem for Kei. He missed most of the 2009 season with an elbow injury requiring surgery and every year since he has had medical problems that have either caused him to miss or retire from tournaments. This year he pulled out of his semi-final in Miami against Novak Djokovic due a groin injury and then was forced to retire in the Madrid final against Rafael Nadal due to a hip injury he suffered after being up a set and a break. It is this hip injury that caused him problems in Paris, where he admitted that he was not a hundred percent healthy. In his match against Klizan he could not move or serve causing him to loss in straight sets. After the match Kei stated, “I’m actually happy to finish the match. I was really disappointed that my performance was ‑‑ I mean, not very bad, but it wasn’t a perfect match for me. And I didn’t have much practice. So I knew this is going to be happen.” Most people wonder if he knew it was going to happen why did he bother playing? While injuries are unavoidable Kei needs to learn to manage his body better. Perhaps it is an issue of conditioning or how he trains but he is injured far too frequently. As a player it is hard to remain at the top of the game if you are always injured.
Grigor Dimitrov joined the tour in 2008 with an excellent baseline game and strong backhand he can challenge players on any surface. His clean movement and crisp way of hitting the ball has earned him the nickname “baby Federer” since it is so similar to Roger’s style. Last year Dimitrov proved he could handle Novak and Rafa on clay; beating Novak in Madrid and pushing Rafa to three sets in Rome. This year people expected big things from him especially after his win in Bucharest. That’s why it was such a shock when he lost in the first round to Ivo Karlovic. At 6’11” with an incredible serve, Ivo presents a challenge for players. To play him successfully players must adapt to the high bounce of Ivo’s shots which are generally out of range of his opponents usual strike zones. Although the likes of Federer and Nadal find it hard to break Ivo they can win points on his serve and thus win tie breaks, which is why both men have winning records against Ivo. After the match Grigor admitted he couldn’t find a way to adapt to Ivo’s ball stating “Today he was all over the court-just hitting his shots, you know, penetrating every volley, low slice, serving really good. He always serves good. Whatever I was trying to do was just not going my way. I mean, at the end of the day I don’t want to get myself too down for that. It’s just a loss.” True it is just a loss but Grigor is going to face many players who force him to play out of his comfort zone. Grigor must develop the variety in his game to defeat a player like Ivo or he will not make it to the later rounds to challenge the top guys or become a top ranked guy himself.
Both Grigor Dimitrov and Kei Nishikori have the games and the drive to remain permanent fixtures at the top of the game but they are not there yet. Kei needs to spend less time getting treatment for injury and more time on the court. Grigor needs a wider range of strategy and shots in his game so he can defeat a player that takes him out of his comfort zone. If their first round exits at Roland Garros show us anything it’s that they are not quite at the level they need to be at to be the next big guys in the game, but I have confidence they will get there. In the meantime I will enjoy watching them develop.