WASHINGTON, November 6, 2018 (by Michael Dickens)
The second Next Gen ATP Finals begins today in Milan with no clear-cut favorite, but with eight very eager competitors – all under 21-years-old – and none of them named Novak Djokovic or Roger Federer, who are ready to step up and compete. These talented up-and-comers are confident and ready for prime time, and the tennis world is ready to welcome them.
Sunday evening’s draw ceremony split this year’s eight contenders into two groups of four each. Group A features Stefanos Tsitsipas of Greece, Frances Tiafoe of the United States, Hubert Hurkacz of Poland and Jaume Munar of Spain. Group B includes Alex de Minaur of Australia, Taylor Fritz of the United States, Andrey Rublev of Russia and wild card Liam Caruana of host-country Italy.
Within each group, players will play three round-robin matches. The top two players in each group will advance to the knockout semifinals.
The fifth-seeded Rublev is the only repeat from last year’s inaugural event in the 2018 lineup. Defending champion Hyeon Chung of South Korea is injured and not competing at this year’s event. Also, Alexander Zverev, who finished in first place in the Race to Milan with 4,950 points, well ahead of second-place Tsitsipas’ 2,175, opted to compete in next week’s Nitto ATP Finals in London, instead, and Denis Shapovalov of Canada, who finished third (1,450) in the points race, withdrew last week due to exhaustion.
The 15th-ranked Tsitsipas, who began the season at No. 91, is the highest-ranked player in this year’s Next Gen ATP Finals field. He leads the ATP World Tour with 68 tour-level matches played this season. He lifted his first ATP World Tour trophy last month in Stockholm and, earlier this season, he defeated four Top 10 opponents – Dominic Thiem, Djokovic, Zverev and Kevin Anderson – en route to reaching the final at Toronto.
Last year, Tsitsipas, 20, was an alternate at Milan. This year, he’s considered by many as the player to beat. “I’m really satisfied,” he said. “I think I belong here.”
Another who definitely belongs in Milan is Tiafoe, who comes in with both confidence and experience. The 20-year-old Tiafoe not only won his first ATP World Tour title earlier this season, in Delray Beach, Fla., but also played on the U.S. Davis Cup team in the recent World Group semifinals, where he lost a deciding five-set, fifth-rubber match to Borna Coric of Croatia. Tiafoe, who is currently ranked 40th after reaching a career-best No. 38 earlier this year, is seen as the main threat to Tsitsipas in Group A.
“I think our group is much better than Group B,” joked Group A leader Tsitsipas after the groups were revealed Sunday night.
Meanwhile, although de Minaur is the youngest in the field at age 19, he’s seen as the top competitor in Group B. He reached two ATP World Tour finals – at Sydney and Washington – and won his first ATP Challenger title, on grass at the Nature Valley Open in Nottingham. He also represented Australia in Davis Cup competition.
“It’s been a great year,” said de Minaur, who started 2018 ranked No. 208 and reached a career-high No. 31 in the ATP Rankings this year. He improved his ranking 18 times this season and arrives in Milan with a 24-21 win-loss record. “I’ve played some unbelievable tennis.”
De Minaur will be pushed in Group B by Taylor Fritz, 20, of the United States, who elevated his game this year and broke into the Top 50 of the ATP Rankings by the end of October. Fritz reached the semifinals in Houston and Chengdu and reached the quarterfinals in three other tour-level events. Earlier this year, he won an ATP Challenger Tour event in Newport Beach, Calif.
“The confidence you get from winning a tournament is huge, especially for me,” said Fritz. “I think confidence is everything. I think it’s something that’s very underrated in tennis.”
Next Gen ATP Finals notes
• Among the innovations that were unveiled at last year’s inaugural Next Gen ATP Finals were: electronic line calling, player communication with their coaches in-match via headsets, shorter sets played to four games (tie-breaks at three-all) and no-ad scoring. This year, officials plan to stick with what worked in 2017, plus two new additions: Warm-ups will be reduced from five to four minutes, and players will be instructed to use towel racks, which will be placed at the back of both baselines, instead of relying on ball kids to retrieve their towels.
“We’ve always said this event could lead to change on tour and to change in the sport,” said Ross Hutchins, Next Gen ATP Finals tournament director, as quoted by the ATP World Tour website. “I think for us to have legitimate research, analytics, buy-in from tennis stakeholders, and for us at the ATP to understand what feels right, we needed more than one year of continuity of the same new innovations rules. Therefore, we decided to add additional changes after the success of the opening year, with legitimate and innovative new potential rule changes that have exciting possibilities for the sport.”
• Today’s order of play – Day Session at 2 p.m.: #1 Stefanos Tsitsipas vs. # 7 Jaume Munar followed by #4 Taylor Fritz vs. #5 Andrew Rublev. Night session at 7:30 p.m.: #3 Frances Tiafoe vs. #6 Hubert Hurkacz followed by #2 Alex de Minaur vs. #8/WC Liam Caruana.