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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 19 September 2018

Who will be the next first-time major winner in men's tennis? Assessing the contenders

Ahead of the final grand slam tournament of 2017 at the US Open, The National Sport pick the players they believe will be the next first time major winner.

Alexander Zverev won his second Masters 1000 title last week in Montreal, thrashing Roger Federer in the final. Paul Chiasson / AP Photo
Alexander Zverev won his second Masters 1000 title last week in Montreal, thrashing Roger Federer in the final. Paul Chiasson / AP Photo

Sooner or later, the ATP will enter a brave, new world - one that does not feature Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, the two players who have defined the most recent era of men's tennis.

Since Federer first won Wimbledon in 2003, he and Nadal have claimed 34 of the 57 grand slam titles on offer. This year alone, despite being in the perceived latter stages of their respective careers, they have continued their stranglehold on the big trophies, with Federer winning titles at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, and Nadal winning his 10th French Open crown. Nadal was the losing finalist in Melbourne.

If we throw Novak Djokovic's 12 major titles in the mix, as well as Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka's three apiece, it means 52 of the 57 major tournaments over the past 14 years have been won by five players. Marin Cilic at the 2014 US Open was the only player to disrupt the status quo in recent years. Before the Croatian, it was Juan Martin del Potro, also in New York, back in 2009.

With all four men in their 30s, it poses the ongoing question of who is going to be the next player to break through and claim one of tennis's grand prizes? The National Sport's desk put a few names forward.

Jon Turner, assistant editor: Alexander Zverev

In the days before the 2016 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, a number of players were fulfilling media obligations including Novak Djokovic, Philipp Kohlschreiber and Viktor Troicki. At various times, each player was asked about future world No 1s and grand slam winners. Who did they see as the next player to emerge and take over the mantel? They all said the same name - Alexander Zverev.

He has it all, they said: the talent, the tools and the temperament. At the time, Zverev was 18 years old and ranked No 56 in the world. In the two and a half years since, the German is nestled inside the world's top 10 at No 7 and has won five titles in 2017, including two Masters 1000 events.

He has the game to rival the very best, as he showed in his dismantling of Federer in the Montreal Masters final, but it is much more than that which sets him apart from the rest of the young pretenders. Zverev has an on-court composure and maturity that belies his age, while retaining the sort of fearlessness only the youth are blessed with. And it is this mental fortitude that will carry him to becoming the next major champion not named Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Murray or Wawrinka.

How soon can he do it? Well, with Murray, Djokovic and Wawrinka all missing from the US Open, how about now? Zverev should be regarded as one of the favourites for the final major of 2017. He is in scintillating form, plays his best stuff on hard courts, and has all the weapons - both physical and mental - to triumph in New York.

Even if Zverev is not victorious in New York, we won't have to wait long until he's lifting one of the four big prizes in tennis.

Also read:

Graham Caygill: Zverev and Shapovalov have given next generation hope

Chitrabhanu Kadalayil, assistant editor: Dominic Thiem

When Dominic Thiem was recently asked how it felt for him and Alexander Zverev to be called the next great players, he said: “We still have to win a lot of matches and win a lot of titles to deserve to be called like that, to be the next big things in tennis.”

This is coming from a player who is into his sixth year on the ATP Tour, has won eight titles and is world No 8 - decent career stats for someone just days away from celebrating his 24th birthday.

But they aren’t good enough for Thiem.

Indeed, what is special about Thiem is his drive. He has an unwavering focus and dedication to the game, and on the practice courts he is an absolute beast - as the video below illustrates.

Stories of fording rivers and carrying tree trunks on his back are myth, but his fitness regime is nevertheless intense from all accounts. Training partner Philipp Kohlschreiber once said he practised for 12 hours on a Sunday: "I feel like when Rocky gets ready for battle.”

The results are for all to see.

While 2017 is not his most successful year - he has won just the one title yet and dropped a spot in the rankings table – it has been a season of breakthroughs. He focused on the bigger tournaments, making his first ATP Masters 1000 semi-finals and final in Madrid. He became only the second player to record clay-court victories over Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka.

Thiem also proved his run to the French Open semi-finals last year was no fluke, when he made it to the last four again in 2017. That his conquerors Djokovic and Nadal were eventual champions is instructive, and there is little doubt Thiem is inching closer than ever to that Musketeers’ Trophy.

His game is still a work in progress, though. Reliant on a heavy topspin and a whipping backhand, it is suited to clay. But he has spoken of his ambition to improve on the faster surfaces, and the adaptation has been swift on the hard courts of North America, where he has tended to move closer to the baseline and has serve-and-volleyed more.

Rest assured his game will be a finished product in 2018 as he mounts a serious challenge for the majors.

Also read:

Federer determined to play until he is 40 as he eyes new era of supremacy

Graham Caygill, sports editor: Nick Kyrgios

Talent has never been the issue with Kyrgios. When he has his mind focused and he is playing well he can be borderline unplayable, hitting winners from all across the court.

If it was just about talent then Kyrgios would probably in the top five at least, with a couple of majors already under his belt.

As it is, the well documented mood swings, temper tantrums and general misbehaviour have made him one of the sport's most frustrating characters.

Also read:

ATP gives controversial Kyrgios psychologist or ban ultimatum

The world No 18 has more often than not made the headlines for the wrong reasons, but this year has been largely more encouraging and the dramas have become less and less, because, fingers crossed, at the age of 22, he is finally maturing.

It is easy to jump on the bandwagon of Kyrgios being a potential surprise at the US Open, given his run to the final at the Cincinnati Masters last week, where he beat Rafael Nadal in the quarter-finals.

But, his promise in 2017 goes back to Miami in April when he put on a terrific display against Roger Federer.

Though he lost 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, he held his own against an in-form Federer and reminded everyone of what he is capable of when he is focused on the job in hand.

He undoubtedly has the X-Factor quality. Consistency and an ability to maintain his best form over a long period are the main question marks as to whether he can be the next new grand slam winner.

He has not been beyond the quarter-finals of a major before, and only once in the past majors has he made beyond the first week, and then it was only the fourth round in Wimbledon last year.

Kyrgios is good enough to win the big titles and the only person who can really prevent him from living up to his potential is himself.

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