Last week, I assessed the best 20-and-under players on the WTA Tour. It was no easy task because 15 in that age group were inside the top 100 and even more high-quality prospects were ranked below.
The opposite is true for the ATP. Bernard Tomic and Ryan Harrison are the only 20-and-under players in the top 100, and on the whole, few in that age group have even come close to the accomplishments of their WTA counterparts. The truth is that applying a 20-year-old cutoff to the men is wildly unfair because they take longer to gain traction, especially in this era of ATP tennis that puts a premium on physicality.
With that in mind, let’s raise the age limit to 22 for the men and rank the top 10 based on results, talent and potential. (One caveat: If I haven’t seen them play, I didn’t put them on the list.) They may seem far off from major success right now, but as longtime tennis writer Tom Tebbutt so wisely pointed out to me, “Well, someone’s got to win the Slams when everyone retires.” Quite true. Then again, that’s not exactly a ringing endorsement for the ATP’s Generation Next, which includes way more question marks than sure bets.
1. Milos Raonic
Current ranking: 13
Notable result: Youngest player in the top 20 and youngest with four titles
Raonic burst on the scene in 2011 when he made the fourth round at the Australian Open as a qualifier. Though he’s yet to improve on that result at a Grand Slam tournament, his consistency through the year has made him the top prospect of the younger set. The 6-foot-5 Raonic’s game revolves around his booming first serve, and he’s at his best when his mindset is to get to the net to finish points. He clearly likes to work hard and he’s a fierce competitor. Raonic can round out his play by improving his return game, by far his biggest weakness. It’s hard to shake the feeling that as long as he stays healthy, it’s just a matter of time before Raonic wins a hard-court Slam.
2. Bernard Tomic
Current ranking: 49
Notable result: In 2011, the then-18-year-old became the youngest Wimbledon quarterfinalist since Boris Becker won the title as a 17-year-old in 1986
It’s dicey to rank so high a player who has earned the unfortunate nickname of “Tomic the Tank Engine.” But as poor as Tomic’s results can be throughout the year — and they can be very poor — he still provides glimpses of what he’s capable of, particularly in January when he plays on home soil. His awkward game seems to cause just about everyone problems, and there’s still more power to be unlocked in that lanky, 6-5 frame. We started to see it in Australia this year when he unleashed a new, beefed-up serve and began ripping forehands. As a result, he won his first ATP title, the Sydney International, and played Roger Federer tougher at the Australian Open than he had a year earlier. All we can do is sit, wait and hope that Tomic matures sooner rather than later. He has to be willing to put in the work and sacrifice to bring his best for more than just a few weeks out of the year.
3. Grigor Dimitrov
Current ranking: 29
Notable result: Made first ATP final at this year’s Brisbane International
One of my favorite comments abut Dimitrov’s stylish game came from his Indian Wells doubles partner, Freddie Nielsen. Asked what it was like to practice with Dimitrov, Nielson joked that the Bulgarian would hit stinging forehands and then attempt a trick shot out of nowhere to end the rally. We see that in Dimitrov’s regular appearances in the ATP’s Hot Shot feature, as he’s already pulled off some crazy ones in his young career.
But is there substance under the style? Dimitrov (who turns 22 in two weeks) has begun to make more of a splash on tour. He’s been much more consistent off the ground this season, in the wake of leaving the Mouratoglou Academy for Magnus Norman’s academy in Sweden. But his nerves got the better of him when he looked poised to grab a set off Novak Djokovic at Indian Wells and Andy Murray in Miami, throwing in a slew of double faults. Physically, he has to get stronger to be able to compete in the best-of-five format at majors. Finally, as beautiful as his one-handed backhand is, I’ve never been convinced of its efficacy. That shot absolutely has to improve.
4. Jerzy Janowicz
Current ranking: 24
Notable result: Made the final of the 2012 Paris Masters as a qualifier by beating five top-20 players, including Andy Murray and Janko Tipsarevic
Is this guy for real? That’s the question I’ve struggled with since the 6-8 Janowicz landed smack dab in the middle of the radar screen in Paris last year. Was his incredible run there a sign of things to come or a case of the Pole catching lightning in the bottle against a tired, weakened field at the end of the year? I don’t think you can fluke your way into a Masters final, but since then he hasn’t done much besides reach the third round of the Australian Open and the quarterfinals of the Open 13.
Janowicz has become a must-watch player simply because of his incredibly audacious drop-shot attempts, highlight-reel potential and tendency to throw a temper tantrum or two. It’ll be easier to assess Janowicz’s potential after this year, his first real season on the ATP’s top level. But his type of game has been the formula for success for players such as Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Juan Martin del Potro and Tomas Berdych: He serves and hits big, is a good mover for his height and has good touch.
5. Ricardas Berankis
Current ranking: 68
Notable result: Made the 2012 Farmers Classic final as a qualifier ranked No. 141, his first ATP final
It’s entirely possible that Berankis will go down as the “what if” player of his generation, as injuries have continually derailed his pro career. A U.S. Open junior champion and former junior No. 1, Bernakis missed four months in 2011 with a pelvis injury and three months in 2012 with a sports hernia that required surgery. But Berankis has always been a player to watch since he was the youngest player in the year-end top 100 in 2010. He’s slightly undersized at 5-9 and has to work harder to compete with the big hitters. But if Berankis can have an injury-free stretch, he could easily crack the top 40 now and continue up the rankings over the next few years.
6. Jack Sock
Country: United States
Current ranking: 116
Notable result: Made the third round of the 2012 U.S. Open as a 19-year-old
The Nebraskan’s upside is huge with his “Corn-Fed Tennis,” as The New York Times’ Ben Rothenberg likes to call it. Sock’s game isn’t complicated; he serves big and hits big, and possesses good hands at the net as well. My biggest question with Sock is whether he’s willing to put in the hard work to get stronger and fitter. I don’t get the sense that the hunger for pro success has set in quite yet. As of now, he appears happy to be able to make a living playing tennis. That attitude (and it’s important to remember that he’s still very young) won’t be enough to elevate him beyond talented journeyman. If he can engage and really take ownership of his career, there’s no reason to bet against him. He’s already made the third round of a Slam, upset Milos Raonic in Memphis and was a few points from beating eventual champion John Isner in Houston.
7. Ryan Harrison
Country: United States
Current ranking: 81
Notable result: Made three semifinals in 2012 (San Jose, Eastbourne, Newport) and back-to-back semis in 2011 (Atlanta, Los Angeles)
Remember that scene in Moneyball when the old-school scouts are sitting around the table talking about players who just have that “it” factor? That’s Harrison. Physically gifted from a young age and full of competitive fire, Harrison just walks and talks like a winner. Then you look at his results and realize the sizable gap between how good Harrison is perceived to be and how good he’s actually been.
Harrison has never been past the second round of a Slam in 11 appearances or made an ATP final. He peaked at No. 43 last July but slipped to No. 100 in April before winning last week’s Savannah Challenger. He’s a strong and speedy player who has tremendous defensive instincts, but he needs to serve more consistently and tighten up his forehand and backhand. Aside from his strokes, the common refrain with Harrison is his inexplicable desire to entrench himself six feet behind the baseline and play defense. But Harrison is still very young (he turns 21 next week) and he’s already proved he can withstand the physical grind on tour.
8. David Goffin
Current ranking: 61
Notable result: In his Grand Slam debut, made the fourth round of the 2012 French Open as a lucky loser ranked No. 109
Walk past Goffin at a tournament and you’d be excused if you confused him with a ball boy. The skinny, baby-faced Belgian was a hit a the French Open last year when he professed his Federer worship and then actually took a set off the Swiss great in the fourth round. He was an absolute joy to watch on the red clay, and he followed up that result by beating Tomic in the first round of Wimbledon and making the third round.
But is Goffin — who is listed at 5-11 and 150 pounds — simply too undersized to make it big? After a breakthrough 2012, he didn’t win back-to-back matches this year until the Sony Open in March. He is 7-12 for the year after a second-round loss at the Portugal Open this week. Unable to rely on power, Goffin is going to have to put his body through a lot of strain to grind out victories.
9. Nick Kyrgios
Current ranking: 289
Notable result: 2013 Australian Open boys’ champion; won his first ATP Challenger, in Sydney, at 17
Kyrgios advanced to the semifinals of his first career Challenger, in Adelaide in February, and followed that up by winning Sydney just a few weeks later. History says if you win an ATP Challenger before turning 18, you’re probably going to be a pretty darn good tennis player. According to Jeff Sackmann, the number cruncher behind The Heavy Topspin blog, only 16 men have won a Challenger before they turned 18. That list includes five future major champions (Del Potro, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin) and six other top-10 players (Richard Gasquet, Berdych, Nicolas Almagro, Mario Ancic, Mikhail Youzhny and Nicolas Kiefer).
Tomic is also on that list of precocious Challenger winners. With Kyrgios joining Tomic, 19-year-old Luke Saville and 17-year-old Thanasi Kokkinakis, the Aussies have a lot to look forward to in a few years.
10. Christian Harrison
Country: United States
Current ranking: 378
Notable result: Beat former NCAA champion Steve Johnson at this week’s Tallahassee Challenger
I’m devoting the 10th spot to a young prospect with a very limited pro résumé, just as I did in selecting Taylor Townsend here for the women’s post. Other teens such as Canada’s Filip Peliwo and Australia’s Saville had more illustrious junior careers than Christian Harrison, but I’ve never been comfortable using junior results to predict success on the ATP Tour. Sometimes it just takes one performance to show everyone you have the guts and ability to go toe-to-toe with the big boys, and Harrison produced that kind of effort at Indian Wells in March. Harrison showed just how aggressive he’s capable of playing against a top pro when he pushed Ernests Gulbis in the first round of qualifying before losing 6-7 (5), 6-2, 6-4. He’s not as big and strong as his brother, but he doesn’t try to play like Ryan, either, opting for a more aggressive style that had Gulbis on the ropes.