Millennials' Ball

Tuesday, September 02, 2014 /by
Krunic, Thiem, Bouchard, Kyrgios, and Bencic are all under 22 and have shaken up this U.S. Open. (AP Photos; others by Anita Aguilar)
Krunic, Thiem, Bouchard, Kyrgios, and Bencic are all under 22 and have shaken up this U.S. Open. (AP Photos; others by Anita Aguilar)

NEW YORK—You never know what the millennial generation is going to get up to next. They helped elect President Obama and looked ready to save the planet, but somehow got distracted by their Instagram feeds along the way. This morning they seem to have sunk to a new low, at least according to this Salon headline: “Millennials are intellectually underpowered because they’ve been told their whole life how wonderful they are.”

Millennials, born between 1982 and 2004, have been with us for a while in tennis. Even old-timers like Serena Williams and Roger Federer, both 33, nearly qualify. But this year’s U.S. Open has had a distinctly Next Generation flavor—call it Prime Millennial. Taking selfies with fans has been added to the list of players’ post-match duties, and last night Victoria Azarenka admitted that, while she appeared to be ultra-focused under her hoodie as she waited to walk into Ashe Stadium, she was actually busy composing a tweet about Milos Raonic's sleeve in her head. 

Players born in the 90s haven’t had an easy road to the top so far, but they’ve begun to make their marks: Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic, both 23, joined the ATP’s Top 10 this year, as did 20-year-old Genie Bouchard on the women’s side. At the Open, though, those three have felt closer to the game’s old guard than the new. 

Over Labor Day weekend, CBS handled the daytime telecasts from Flushing Meadows. The network, naturally, chose the game’s established stars—Djokovic, Federer, Williams, Murray, Sharapova—for its afternoon slots. The upside of this was that it left the tournament free to showcase its relatively unknown youth brigade in high-profile evening sessions. Bouchard, Dimitrov, and Raonic were joined by 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios of Australia, 17-year-old Belinda Bencic of Switzerland, 20-year-old Dominic Thiem of Austria, and 21-year-old Aleksandra Krunic of Serbia.

Now that most of the prime millennials have been sent back to their smart phones, here’s a guide to the game’s new new generation, and a guess as to how they’ll do when they grow up. 

One thing we can say for them already is that they have no problem with the big stage. Once upon a time, players like Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, Kevin Curren, and Lindsay Davenport were intimidated by the atmosphere at Flushing Meadows—even Roger Federer, when he first came there, didn’t think he stood a chance of winning in New York. And few sentient beings have ever expressed much love for Ashe Stadium. But the kids relish their chance to play in it, especially at night. Here are their reviews:

Wunderbar!”—Bencic

“It’s an honor.”—Kyrgios

“I love playing at night.”—Thiem

“I’ve never felt anything like it.”—Bouchard

Even Aleksandra Krunic, who said she was “lost” out there in her warm-up, rose to the occasion in Ashe. In the end, she didn’t want to leave.

*****

Nick Kyrgios

Age: 19

Country: Australia

Open result: Third round

Best Shot: Serve. A lifelong basketball head, he has a live arm and that unteachable spring in his step. This allows the Aussie to hold conversations with fans during his matches, knowing that he can always step to the line and win a point with one swing.

Biggest Issue: Injury possibilities. Kyrgios leaps and swings violently as often as he can.

Influences: Gael Monfils

Catchphrase: “I’m stoked.” 

Those were his first words to a British TV interviewer after he saved nine match points to beat Richard Gasquet at Wimbledon 10-8 in the fifth set.

Sample Tweet:

Reason to Watch: He’s exactly what we always say tennis needs: A star.

Projected Ranking: Top 5

*****

Genie Bouchard

Age: 20

Country: Canada

Open result: Fourth round

Best Shot: Backhand. It’s especially versatile for a two-hander.

Biggest Issue: On an off day, she doesn’t have the raw power to hit her way out of trouble.

Influences: Oprah, Bieber

Catchphrase: “Cool.”

As in: “It was cool. Yeah, my first time on Ashe. Definitely special. I felt really cool that they played ‘Genie in a Bottle’ during the warm-up...So I felt, I don’t know, I just felt pretty cool.”

Sample Tweet:

Reason to Watch: Bouchard may be overexposed at the moment, but she can teach rec players a thing or two about keeping calm and problem solving on court.

Projected Ranking: Top 3

*****

Dominic Thiem

Age: 20

Country: Austria

Open Result: Fourth round (still in tournament)

Best Shot: Forehand. Like Nadal and Federer, he has the racquet-head speed to swing as hard as he wants and still bring the ball into the court safely with topspin.

Biggest Issue: Backhand. He has a nice once-hander, but as Grigor Dimitrov has shown, it can take time to make it less vulnerable to attack at the pro level.

Influences: Ernests Gulbis. So far, knock on wood, the mentorship seems to be helping both of them.

Catchphrases: “Mega,” “Noble,” and “Bamos!” Thiem, in fact, writes in a language all his own on his Facebook page.

As in this post, written after his last match: “First second week of a Grand Slam in my first year on tour. Just noble....Hit some really good passing shots. And returned mega. Thanks for all your support, I appreciate that very very much. Bamos!”

Sample Tweet: 

Reason to Watch: Thiem strips the modern power-baseline game down to its essentials, but he does it with streamlined style.

Projected Ranking: Top 5

*****

Belinda Bencic

Age: 17

Country: Switzerland

Open Result: Quarterfinals

Best Shot: There’s something Seles-esque about the way she turns on her two-handed backhand.

Biggest Issue: She’s young, obviously, but she has shown a tendency to get negative when things go badly.

Influences: Martina Hingis. Bencic works with Hingis’ mother, Melanie Molitor.

Catchphrases: “Mega”

As in, Ashe stadium is “mega-cool.”

Sample Tweet: In a possible sign of maturity beyond her years, Bencic's tweets are protected.

Reason to Watch: Get in on the ground floor—she’s 17 and improving noticeably every month. 

Projected Ranking: Top 3

*****

Aleksandra Krunic

Age: 21

Country: Serbia

Open Result: Fourth Round

Best Shot: Backhand—the down-the-line drive and the drop shot are equally surprising and effective.

Biggest Issue: Size. She’s 5’5”, 117 pounds. 

Influences: Jelena Jankovic. Krunic says she gets advice from her Fed Cup teammate.

Catchphrases: I haven’t come across any yet, but Krunic is almost too thoughtful to resort to one. She seems to enjoy watching and assessing herself, and learning about her own tendencies as she goes. Below is my favorite quote, among many good ones; this one is about growing up with a rich sponsor who gave her everything.

“You know, when you have everything, it’s a big plus, but it can also be a big minus. When you have everything, you don’t know what you actually need. I used to not fight for some things myself.”

Mick Jagger has nothing on this kid.

Sample Tweet:

Reason to Watch: Most players today know one speed: fast. Krunic mixes change-ups, curves, and fastballs like a good pitcher in baseball.

Projected Ranking: Top 40

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