As the third edition of the Next Gen ATP Finals commenced on Tuesday in Milan, Italy, no one could claim that the two round-robin groups are not exceedingly well represented. Eight of the leading 21-and-under competitors in the world are competing a tournament featuring different rules than tennis' norm, which could become more prevalent in the coming years if the established guard of the game embraces the experimentation. That, of course, is a big if. Matches are settled in best-of-five, first-to-four-game sets, with tie-breaks occurring at 3-3 rather than 6-6 and No-Ad scoring. There are other innovations in the conducting of matches this year, although the “no let” rule used in 2017 and 2018 has been cast aside.
For Serbia's Miomir Kecmanovic, appearing in Milan for the first time is a groundbreaking development in his career. On Tuesday he defeated Norway’s Casper Ruud in his opening round-robin match, 4-3 (5), 4-3 (5), 4-2. He is joined in Group A by the polished Australian Alex de Minaur and Spain’s Alejandro Davidovich Fokina; on Group B are the charismatic American Frances Tiafoe, Ugo Humbert of France, Sweden’s Mikael Ymer and the surging 18-year-old Italian wild card Jannik Sinner.
Kecmanovic finished 2018 at No. 132 in the world, but this year reached a career-high of No. 47 on September 9. He now stands at No. 60. The 20-year-old spoke with me by phone on Monday from Milan, and expressed his clear sense of fulfillment in being among this elite group of participants.
Did he make the Next Gen Finals a goal this year?
“Maybe not at the start of the year because it seemed a little far away from where I was at that time," Kecmanovic says, "but the more I started climbing and playing good, it started to become something I thought was possible. I was really pushing for it and hoping I could get in.”
Kecmanovic earned his place through the reliability of his results, a dedication to his craft—and some good fortune along the way. His pedigree as a player has been well recognized by fellow players ever since he established himself by claiming the prestigious Boys’ 18 Orange Bowl titles back to back in 2015 and 2016, finishing the latter of those seasons as the world’s top-ranked junior ahead of none other than Stefanos Tsitsipas. The following year he finished just outside the Top 200 in the ATP Rankings.
And then, in 2018, he had relied largely on some fine showings at Challenger events, including a title in China, to raise his status in the game. But not until this year did he make his main-draw debut at all four Grand Slam tournaments—reaching the second round of the last three majors, after qualifying at the Australian Open—and he did remarkably well elsewhere on the ATP Tour.
“It was my goal to stay there on the ATP Tour which is a lot different from Challengers," Kecmanovic says. "I was really happy that I was able to win at that level and especially to do well at the Grand Slams. These were the first time I played there and I experienced my first five-setter [defeating Denis Kudla] in the first round of Roland Garros]. I am proud I was able to do well right away at the Slams.”
Elaborating on that point, Kecmanovic added, “It takes some players time to win their first Grand Slam match. I was excited when I qualified for the Australian Open and just the whole experience there helped me a lot. At the other Grand Slam tournaments I got straight into the main draw and thought I could win some matches. It gave me experience and a belief that I can be there and play at that level now and in the future, too.”
But while he gained some ground at the majors and found a comfort zone at those venues, perhaps his most pivotal moment of the entire 2019 campaign was when he reached the quarterfinals of the Masters 1000 event at Indian Wells as a lucky loser. That was when he leapfrogged in the rankings into the Top 100. And it allowed him to start playing more ATP tournaments that once would have been out of his reach.
“Indian Wells completely turned the year around for me,” he says. “It was a crazy two weeks, especially with me losing in the last round of qualies, and then getting in as a lucky loser and winning three matches to make the quarterfinals. I was so happy to get that opportunity. It pushed me forward and into many ATP tournaments after that. I just got pretty lucky there. I broke into the top 100 and was happy I did. It was at that time that I started thinking about maybe qualifying for the Next Gen ATP Finals.”
Kecmanovic does not point to one aspect of his game as the chief reason why he has moved to another level of the game this season, having currently established himself as one of five Serbians among the Top 100. He simply believes it is the steady application of his skills that has helped him progress significantly. He finished 2019 with a laudable 22-20 match record. Never before had he won so many matches on the ATP Tour.
“I have been consistent throughout the whole year and that is what has pushed me forward," he says. "I have been improving all year and getting more confident. I am happy I have been able to sustain it. It takes a lot of energy but I was able to keep the momentum and put myself in a strong position going into next year.”
It has not hurt him in the least—or any of the other top Serbian players like world No. 35 Dusan Lajovic, No. 38 Laslo Djere, or No. 40 Filip Krajinovic—that they have a man from their nation currently seeking a sixth year-end No. 1 world ranking. Ask Kecmanovic about his views on Novak Djokovic, and he could not be more laudatory.
“Novak is somebody that I can call a friend,” he says. “We have a lot of good athletes back home and we have this certain mentality that separates us that we want to succeed no matter what in tennis. We have each other pushing us all the time. We grow together and stay strong. We all look up to Novak and he is always pushing us to make us better so we can possibly try to get up to that level. We talk sometimes and practice whenever we get a chance. He is definitely trying to help us with some of his experiences.”
Asked to clarify the largest lessons he has learned from Djokovic, he says, “I have learned a lot but I think it is mainly the way he gets ready for practice, the focus he has, the speed and everything. I am trying to work on those things.”
Does Kecmanovic believe his tennis has been influenced by watching Djokovic?
“I definitely try to resemble him and try to get the movement on the court to be a little faster like he is," he says. "I also try to find good balance between staying aggressive and defending. Maybe something good can happen for me because of this.”
Many positive things have happened since he started training at IMG Academy when he was 13. He readily recalls Nick Bollettieri encouraging him not long after he landed at the facility.
"He is a good influence on me," Kecmanovic says, "especially when I came there to the academy at first. He was giving me advise and watching me play. It was definitely good to hear and see from somebody who has been so successful and a man who has coached so many players. It was a huge help.”
What could help Kecmanovic this week in Milan is the fact that he has prepared so well for the tournament. He has adjusted his mentality with the rules that are a novelty to him and the other players.
Now, the other players will need to adjust to Kecmanovic.
“I have been here in Milan since last Wednesday and have been practicing this format," he says. "I think it is going to be fun. I had a lot of experience with different scoring when I played in World TeamTennis with five-game sets which are kind of similar. I think it is going to be good for me."