Nowadays, the thinking is that this sport has become too physically punishing for the kind of youthful breakthroughs we once grew accustomed to in the ‘70s, ‘80s and even into the ‘90s.
Bjorn Borg raised the Coupe des Mousquetaires on the red clay by the Bois de Boulogne in 1974, only days after his 18th birthday. Boris Becker was 17 when he captured the 1985 Wimbledon title, all freckles and court-diving flair. In 1990, a 19-year-old Pete Sampras served and volleyed his way past rival Andre Agassi in straight sets to become the US Open’s youngest-ever men’s singles champion.
Between ever-evolving racquet and string technology, advancements in sports science and the rise of the 6-foot-5 colossus, players aren’t peaking these days until their late 20s and into their 30s. World No. 1 Roger Federer is 36. Today, the average age of the Top 10 in the Emirates ATP Rankings is 27.8.
All that being said, there’s a fast-rising crop of young twentysomethings knocking on the door. Sascha Zverev, 20, has already infiltrated the Top 10. Nick Kyrgios (22), Hyeon Chung (21), Andrey Rublev (20), Karen Khachanov (21), Denis Shapovalov (18), Jared Donaldson (21) and Borna Coric (21) are all inside the Top 50. And a #NextGen surplus of young Americans — including 20-year-old Taylor Fritz —appear ready to make their move. Does that mean they’re a sure thing? No. But it’s a critical mass that might just be in the right place at the right time when the Slam-hoarding generation of Federer, Rafa Nadal, Novak Djokovic, et al. rides off into the sunset.
Wednesday’s Round-of-16 matchup between Coric and Fritz in Stadium 1 was the latest showcase of this youth movement, presenting tennis fans with what Fritz’s new coach, Paul Annacone, called a great opportunity to see how these emerging talents “handle the expectations, that perceived pressure.”
Annacone’s pupil, who grew up and still lives along the California coastline, has traditionally summoned some of his best ball on the hard courts of the Indian Wells Tennis Garden. It was here a year ago that the husband/father scored the biggest win of his career, a 4-6, 7-5, 6-4 upset of 6th seed Marin Cilic, his first-ever Top-10 win. To reach the fourth round this year, Fitz saved a match point against pal Reilly Opelka in the opening round to win 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-4, and in the third round overcame the effects of a nasty cold to turn back veteran Spaniard Fernando Verdasco, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6(1). He had furthered his status as a calm-and-cool performer by improving to 11-1 in decisive-set tiebreaks.
There was some clutch play again on Wednesday from the Californian, who saved a match point in the second set to force a third. But on a windblown afternoon against Coric, there would be no final-set magic this time around, as Fritz fell 6-2, 6-7(6), 6-4 in two hours, 11 minutes.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Coric. “I think in the first set I was playing great. I was playing aggressive. It was quite an easy first set. Then the wind came. It changed my momentum a lot. I felt like he was coming into the match, and I could not swing so freely anymore. I just felt like he’s much closer now. I was just trying to hold on.”
“But that’s the tennis. Those kinds of things happen,” he added. “I didn’t do anything wrong. I missed, but I was going for the right shots. I was aggressive…It was very tricky, but I’m just very happy with the win.”
Coric rolled through the 25-minute opening set with a pair of service breaks. But Fritz would come to life in the second. Until then, Coric hadn’t given up more than three games in a set through three rounds. With the Croat serving at 3-4, 15-40, Fritz capped a 28-shot rally with a crosscourt forehand winner for the break. Fritz had two set points on his racquet serving at 5-3, but couldn’t capitalize, and Coric would force a tiebreak.
The Croat jumped out 4-0 in the breaker and would have a match point on his racquet at 6-5. But Fritz fought it off with a 99 mph down-the-line forehand winner. Two points later, Coric muffed a drop volley and the match was headed into a third set.
Fritz would save two more match points serving at 4-5, 15-40 in the third, but Coric eventually converted his fifth and final break when the American double faulted.
“That was just a really tough one,” Fritz conceded. “It obviously sucks to compete so hard and come back the way I did in the second-set tiebreak and saved the match points just to double fault it away. It’s probably the biggest match I have played in my career as far as making the quarterfinals of a Masters, points and all that. It’s really tough to lose that match.”
Coric rose to a career-high No. 33 in 2015, but has since gone into a bit of a stall. He arrived in the desert at No. 49. His third trip to a Masters 1000 quarterfinal might be just the boost he needs. He now awaits the winner between 7th seed Kevin Anderson and 11th seed Pablo Carreno Busta. Joining him in the elite eight will be fellow young gun Chung, a 6-1, 6-3 winner over 30th seed Pablo Cuevas.