What separates the very best from the rest? Something unique, something special? Something which you can eyeball or put a finger on. Pete Sampras had his serve and lithe movement, Andre Agassi with his hawk-like eyesight and return, Marat Safin could blast the ball equally hard from both the forehand and backhand wing, Marcelo Rios with his feathery touch, Roger Federer with just about everything, Rafael Nadal with his once in a 100 years type of a forehand, and Novak Djokovic with never seen before flexibility. Almost all former or current No. 1 players had one trait which transcended the sport or had some standout quality in their game that differentiated them from their peers. Let us analyze a few players who have the potential to reach the summit of men’s tennis: including Dominic Thiem, Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Andrey Rublev, and Daniil Medvedev
The Future Elites of Men’s Tennis
The prince of clay, now the reigning US Open champion possesses ferocious groundstrokes laced with enormous topspin and mph. In addition, he is an incredible athlete who can turn defense to offense from nearly impossible situations. Yes, he might very well reach the top but staying there might require him to have a plan B at times. He can have really bad days as evidenced by losses to 163rd ranked Emil Ruusuvori or to 87th ranked Thomas Fabbiano, for example. In his own words,” I’m a player or I’m a person who needs to practice a lot; otherwise, I don’t play well.” Unless Thiem is consistently in top physical condition, his lack of an alternative style of play will come back to bite him if he has plans to stay at the top.
Tsitsipas won the ATP Finals in his first appearance at the tender age of 21 displaying great maturity and convincingly beating Federer on his way to the finals. Tsitsipas is a big banger who can hang with just about anybody on tour. He also possesses a variety in his game and attacks the net when given the opportunity. However, he has a very poor return game, winning only 20% of his return games throughout his career. He wins a healthy 85% of service games though but unless he learns to start grinding it out on defense with the elite and not just rely on offense, the top spot will just elude him.
Zverev is an established force on the tour finishing in the top 10 for the past 4 years now. He hits big off the serve, forehand. and backhand. He proved that he has the mental strength to go deep at the slams with a final and a semi at the US Open and French Open respectively this year, after failing to pass the quarterfinal stage ever since he turned pro. His movement isn’t too graceful nor dynamic but his superior height and solid groundstrokes will always make him a threat everywhere. There is nothing in Zverev’s game that we haven’t seen before on the ATP Tour, and there have been rare unextraordinary pros who have become No. 1 before–e.g. Yevgeny Kafelnikov. Expect him to win multiple Slams purely by virtue of his power and height. He would be the tallest No. 1 if he gets there. Zverev is a combined 3-13 against Tsitsipas and Thiem, and has lost his last two matches against Medvedev. He is likely to end up just behind Medvedev and Thiem once the sun begins to set on the careers of Nadal and Djokovic.
Rublev is the owner of a blistering forehand, a shot which was in no small part responsible for his tour-leading five titles in 2020. He holds serve 79 % of the time and wins enough return games to give him a chance in most matches he plays. The tour has seen players with gigantic forehands before, such as Fernando Gonzalez, James Blake, and Robin Soderling players who have also had stellar seasons but tennis is a sport where athletic ability, fitness, and defense have taken such precedence that a big forehand alone won’t cut it for long. If he can maintain the form he showed this year and remains in good health there is a good chance that in a few years he might be No.1.
And finally, the one person amongst all those mentioned in this article who has the best chance not only of reaching the top but staying there is Daniil Medvedev. He moves great, doesn’t miss, serves huge, and can adopt a different style of game to either throw the opponent off or neutralize them. Whether it be serving and volleying on a break point, or coming to the net off a return, the guy can do it all. He isn’t flashy like a lot of his peers but gets the job done. You cannot hit through him or dare to play cat and mouse with him. His height and flexibility allow him to stretch out for a lot of shots others would need a step or two to get to especially off the backhand. Medvedev is the future of tennis. Expect him to win many Slams and reach pole position very soon.
Main Photo from Getty.