A Fab Five

Saturday, January 22, 2011 /by

Tomic

by Pete Bodo

Long after this Australian Open is over, after the Rafa Slam issue is settled and the Roger Resurgent theme has run it's course, long-view fans may come to think of it has the tournament that pre-figured a changing of the guard in men's tennis. For while a quartet of high quality players has created a log jam near the top. And Federer and Nadal have locked Grand Slam gates to keep the rabble out for a mind-boggling number of events spanning half-a-decade (since 2005, only three players not named Rafa or Roger have won a major—Marat Safin, Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin del Potro).

This can't go on forever, folks. Well, maybe not...

Seriously, though, lately there have been signs of fissures in the wall of exclusion. Had he not been injured a year ago and forced to miss 2010, who knows how big a factor Delpo might have been? This is a guy who had a fair shot at denying Roger his long-awaited French Open, and has posed to Rafa many questions that the career-slammer hasn't answered convincingly. Djokovic and Andy Murray have been the most consistent (and most consistently frustrated) challengers to the sovereignty of Rafa and Roger, but new co-conspirators have emerged. Count among them, most prominently, Tomas Berdych, Marin Cilic, and Robin Soderling; you'll notice that those three men all are still very much in the hunt Down Under as we approach the halfway mark.

But a new wave is also forming, down in the ranks where age (or, more precisely, youth) can be as much of a handicap as an asset. In this first week, the spotlight has found a quintent of players of noteworthy promise, and while one of them was blown to oblivion in the first round and two of them were laid low yesterday, two have survived to fight again, on the cusp of that Slam-within-a-Slam second week. The fallen were Bernard Tomic, who received a valuable lesson (gratis, no less) from Nadal, and Richard Berankis, who was picked apart by the last guy any jacked-up 20 year-old should have to face to prove himself, David Ferrer—the most level-headed and rock solid of veterans of late-stage tournament play.

The survivors were Canada's Milos Raonic and Ukraine's Alexandr Dolgopolov, who chopped down former finalist Jo-Wilfried Tsonga to punch his ticket to the fourth round in Melbourne.

The fifth member of this Fab Five is ump-shoving, serve-cracking, backhand junkie Grigor Dimitrov, who was crushed in the first round by Stan Wawrinka, who's been doing a lot of crushing this week. No shame in that for Dimitrov. So let's just list these kids in order of present ranking, and make a few comments about each:

Alexandr Dolgolopov, 22, No. 46: Granted, Dolgo is a hoary 22, but when I learned about some of his personal struggles last year at the U.S. Open (for a refresher, check here), I developed a better understanding of his situation. So I decided to place him in this Fab Five group despite his age. Sure, those two years of seasoning that he enjoys on the other members makes his present superiority in the rankings deceptive, but this kid has talent to burn and it's a special kind of talent. He may be the most electrifying player I've ever seen when he's feeling it. Should he go on a tear, I think he's capable of winning any tournament, including any of the majors.

Dolgolopov's blood lines are impressive: His mother, Elena, was a gymnast who earned gold and silver medals in European championships. His father was one of the pioneers of Russian tennis, playing on the ATP tour back when just earning the chance to do so was a remarkable feat.

Dolgopolov will play Robin Soderling next, and while I picked the big Swede to win this tournament, there will be a compelling David vs. Goliath subtext in this one, and I would certainly not dismiss Dolgo's chances. There's a point at which speed, both foot speed and pace of shot, can negate any strength or size advantage.

Richard Berankis, 20, No. 95:  A Lithuanian, this kid has some refreshingly different qualities (perhaps the spirit of Vitas Gerulaitis does live!), like a passion for spear fishing in a peer group that skews more toward video games. The No. 1 junior in the world in 2007, Berankis developed his game at the IMG NIck Bollettieri Tennis Academy. He's got a fairly seamless, smooth and clean baseline game, reminiscent of the young Novak Djokovic.

Berankis is coming on fast. In 2010 he fought his way through qualifying and won a match at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open (where, in the second round, he almost knocked off No. 15 Jurgen Melzer). Granted, Berankis benefited from a retirement in his second-rounder in Oz (David Nalbandian quit, complaining of dizzy spells, after Berankis crushed him in a 6-1 first set), so getting just five games off Ferrer in the third round had to be disappointing, but it's all part of the learning experience. The thing with Ferrer is that he's exactly the kind of guy you need to be able to beat if you want to be a player with a capital "P." Berankis isn't ready or able to do that yet; I'm not sure any of these guys, other than maybe Dolgolopov, is.

Note: Berankis beat Dimitrov in the semis of the Helsinki Challenger, site of the notorious ump-shoving incident that's caused the otherwise personable Dimitrov plenty of grief.

Grigor Dimitrov, 19, No. 105: He's tall, lean, and sometimes bellicose looking, with dark locks and a furrowed brow. Despite that, he's most frequently compared to that sunny-dispositioned warrior, Roger Federer. He's the new "Baby Federer," now that the original Baby Fed, Richard Gasquet, has grown up to become flashy but unreliable competitor, who doesn't appear to have the sand or desire to stop screwing around before the game passes him by.

Dimitrov, a Bulgarian, seems to be made of different, more leathery stuff. His tool box is loaded, and his whiplash one-handed backhand is the attribute that comes closest to validating the comparison to Federer. Dimitrov has been coached by Peter Lundgren, although the ATP website currently identifies former Aussie top-tenner and serve-and-volley nut Peter McNamara as his mentor. Lundgren let it be known that, in his eyes, Dimitrov has more up-side than Federer did at a comparable age.

Can you say "hyperbole?" But the talent is undeniable and obvious.

MilosMilos Raonic, 20, No. 152: We are in the midst of one of the more memorable career breakouts now that Raonic has beaten No. 10 seed Mikhail Youzhny in Melbourne. Youzhny is a seasoned veteran with a knack for bringing his A-game to majors, so Raonic's win is easily the equal of Dolgopolov's triumph over Tsonga.

Check out Steve Tignor's excellent post for the scoop on Raonic. For my part, most of you know that I worship at the altar of power, so that drives Raonic's stock sky-high in my eyes.

This kid already has a win over Nadal...well, sort of. In Toronto last year, Raonic and Jaroslav Pospicil took out Nadal and—get this—Novak Djokovic in the first round of the doubles. If you check out Raonic's results for 2010, you'll see that he's beaten a number of solid players, guys like Florent Serra, Marsel Ilhan, Sergiy Satkhovsky and Santiago Giraldo, so this hot streak he's on isn't entirely out of the blue.

Next up for the only other fourth-round survivor among the Fab Five? The schoolmaster, David Ferrer.

Bernard Tomic, 18, No. 199: You can hardly blame the Aussies for generating so much hype around Tomic; he's been touted as a surefire Top 10 (and maybe better) for years now. He trails his intriguing peer group in the rankings, but he's the youngest of the lot at a time when a year or 18 months represents a significant chunk of life and learning.

Tomic had two quality wins in Melbourne (Jeremy Chardy and Feliciano Lopez), but neither of those players was the kind who could expose and work on Tomic's greatest shortcoming, mediocre movement. The spanking Nadal gave him will be worthy of video review by Tomic, not for self-bashing purposes, but as a barometer for what he needs to do better.

Many have remarked that Tomic reminds them somewhat of Andy Murray, but I'm not sure being another Murray—without the retrieving ability and transition (defense to offense) game—is a particularly valuable ambition. Creativity-wise, though, Tomic is a great, and rare, talent. And creativity of his kind can compensate for many, many shortcomings—tennis has a rich history of both male and female players who were able to consistently plant their feet and dictate, finding ways to avoid having to run. But nobody would recommend that as a developmental template.

***

Only one member of this group (Dimitrov) was dismissed from Melbourne before the third round, and the man who ushered him out (Wawrinka) has revealed himself as a man on a mission. Two players in this group are still in contention. As generational stories go, this is a good one—and perhaps the most significant theme of the first week of the Australian Open.

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