Men’s tennis is in a weird spot at the moment. The game’s two greatest ever players, Rafa and Roger, have bodies that are showing clear signs of their wear and tear. The number one player, Novak Djokovic might’ve peaked, and certainly hasn’t been the same player since May. Stan Wawrinka is always lurking, but not always surfacing. Andy Murray is, well… Andy Murray.
Now more than ever, the ATP is desperate for an injection of youth – not just to take it to the big guns, but eventually usurp them, which made the results this past Sunday unusually important for events at the time of the year, as two of the sport’s hotter prospects, Lucas Pouille and Alexander Zverev, took their first titles in Metz and St. Petersburg respectively.
A quarterfinalist at Wimbledon and the US, the 22-year-old Pouille certainly came into his final with more expectation than Zverev, the Frenchman facing another of the sport’s younger lights in Austrian Dominic Thiem. After beating both the aforementioned Federer and Nadal over the past six months, the Pouille has established himself as something of a big-game player, and lived up to that reputation in his 7-6, 6-2 victory. Going up against Thiem, Pouille was never going to be the dominant force from the baseline, and the Austrian shotmaker certainly lived up to his reputation – the difference for Pouille was that he made his shots hard to hit back. Heavy, deep, rallying balls that forced Thiem to try and paint the lines, a serve that constantly pulled Thiem out of position to set up dominant baseline positions for Pouille, and a nose for the net that, once he was on the attack, allowed him to stay there. It was smart tennis, and a wholly deserving victory.
Up to a career best number 16, Pouille might be the most dangerous man outside the top-ten on tour right now. While he lacks any singular weapon that is a force against everybody, he has a game for all comers, from shotmakers like Thiem to grinders like Nadal and David Ferrer, another of the Frenchman’s scalps. He’s certainly fun to watch, and could be one more second-week-run-at-a-slam-away from cracking the top 10.
Zverev’s triumph wasn’t so clear cut. His 6-2, 3-6, 7-5 victory had a dominance ratio (% of return points won divided by % of serve points lost) of only 0.98, per tennis abstract, and that’s a pretty good indicator of a match that Wawrinka lost as much as Zverev won. Like Pouille, Zverev was going up against a shotmaker – one who just happens to currently be the best in the game – in Wawrinka and never was able to dictate from the back of the court.
Down a break in the third, it certainly looked like Wawrinka had it in the bag, but a particularly bad service game at 3-0 allowed Zverev back in it, and the former’s level never recovered, while the latter remained steady. If there’s any big takeaway from this win for Zverev, it’s probably that – he showed remarkable comfort rallying from deep behind the baseline, which given his relatively flat groundstrokes is very difficult to do, and it eventually paid dividends when his opponent wore down. Offensively, Zverev has work to do, but he did have success with an old-school serve-and-volley game that would’ve brought a smile to even Tony Roche’s face. Comparatively speaking, at 19 he’s a better version of Bernard Tomic, both in his foundational game and his lack of dick-headedness.
For both Pouille and Zverev, the obvious question now is: how high can these two players go? There’s no doubting they have top 10 talent, and Sunday’s results just confirmed that. However, if you’re hoping to crown either the tennis superstar, maybe wait a bit longer. There’s a big leap between that watermark and the sort of grand slam stardom everyone is yearning to unearth, and both men have some ways to go just yet. Perhaps what will be most telling is how they back up these results in the coming months, ideally with a few more deep runs to close out the season. Time moves very fast on the ATP tour, and if Pouille and Zverev want to cement their spot as the sport’s future, they’ll have to keep excelling in the now.