By Erik Gudris
With the early talk at this yearâ€™s BNP Paribas Open focusing on the â€œbig threeâ€ of Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic, itâ€™s easy to forget about the next generation of tennis stars who arenâ€™t that far away from potentially from being part of the top ten or even the top three, depending on how their games progress in the next few years. And already in 2011, we have three young men in the ATP Tour who have received a lot of attention and hype, some of it deserved and some of it not, each one being an ambassador for their countryâ€™s future Grand Slam hopes. Two from nations with a long history of tennis success that could be in peril of a long drought and one from a nation known more for sports victories on a slicker surface than grass.
Possibly the biggest star so far this year, even with the combined accomplishments of the â€œbig threeâ€ is Milos Raonic. After coming through qualifying to reach the fourth round of the Australian Open followed by a title in San Jose and then reaching the finals in Memphis, Raonic comes into Indian Wells as a must-see player for fans whoâ€™ve only seen him on T.V. Raonic took on Marsel Ilhan of Turkey on Friday Â and though the Canadian only served 46% first serves in the match, the â€œMaple Leaf Missileâ€ managed a few rocket serves, including one at 148 mph that stunned the crowd. What impressed me most about Raonic was his movement and his backhand, especially when he hits down the line as a way to end the point outright. It was a shot he wasnâ€™t afraid to go for and I thought about how I would like to see him go toe to toe with Djokovic in a baseline rally. Raonic pulled out a 6-2, 7-6 win but admitted he wasnâ€™t playing his best tennis today. â€œI didnâ€™t serve that well today, but I feel compared to Memphis and San Jose Iâ€™m playing another level from the baseline. I feel like it just gives me a lot more comfort that Iâ€™m improving that aspect and hopefully the serve will be back tomorrow for the doubles.â€
The warm reception Raonic got at the start of the match proves the Canadian has become something of an adopted American for U.S. fans to cheer for. Not that they havenâ€™t stopped cheering for Ryan Harrison of Shreveport, Louisiana who increased his own phenom status with a run to the second round of the U.S. Open last year, a run that was halted by a loss to Sergiy Stakhovsky in a five set match that Harrison had control of and that Harrison says still fuels him to improve his game. Harrison, unlike Raonic, has had a rough start to the year and his three set come from behind win over Franceâ€™s Jeremy Chardy 6-7, 7-6, 6-3 today showed that Harrison may have a potential winning all-court game, but unlike Raonic, Harrison is still on a steep learning curve, especially on big points or when serving out a match like today when Harrison was up 5-0 in the third set but allowed Chardy three more games than was necessary. When asked what his strengths and weaknesses are in his game, Harrison cited his variety of shots as both. â€Sometimes I get to a point where I do get confused and I donâ€™t know what to do in any given point. An experienced tour player will have something that they know what they want to do. You see Fed, heâ€™s gonna hit that serve and look for a forehand. Everyone has their thing and Iâ€™m still trying to figure out what my thing is on big points.â€
Someone who definitely appears to be figuring a lot of things out is Bernard Tomic, the 18 year old from Australia who managed his own three set victory over Indiaâ€™s Rohan Bopanna 6-7, 7-6, 6-4. Tomic, since winning two junior Grand Slam titles has earned both praise and scorn for his almost too casual playing style and his own perceived arrogance with regards to working his way up the ranks in qualifying at big events or even playing in Challengers. Watching Tomic for the first time live today, I never felt Tomic was ever emotionally invested for most of the match. After losing the first set, Tomic spent most of the time during points talking to himself and focusing more on studying close marks on the lines than running for shots that he could have reached if he put in enough effort. Somehow Tomic picked up his play enough to win the second set tiebreak 7-1 and then held onto to a break of serve in the third set to win the match. A lot of people compare Tomicâ€™s defensive style of play to Andy Murrayâ€™s game, but I donâ€™t think itâ€™s anywhere near that level yet. Iâ€™m not ready to write off Tomic just yet, but he definitely needs an attitude adjustment soon.
Itâ€™s easy to get on Tomicâ€™s case for his on-court attitude as both Raonic and Harrison today displayed flashes of anger either at calls or their own missed shots that one could chalk to youth rather than experience. Plus with each of these young men being called â€œthe next great championâ€ by their own tennis federations and their nationâ€™s media, how they handle that part of the sport could be just as important as what they do on-court.
Raonic is two years older than Harrison and Tomic and whoâ€™s to argue that in the next two years the young American and Australian wonâ€™t have their own breakout moment at a big event. And by then there could even be another young player weâ€™ve barely heard of that will be the talk of the tour. But at least for this week at Indian Wells, all three of the â€œphenomenals.â€ are focused on being in the second round just as the â€œbig threeâ€ will be this weekend.