Every year in the ATP, there is a horde of young players entering the ranks of the world's best and trying to find their way.
The end of 2008 saw pee-wee class heroes like Juan Martin Del Potro, Marin Cilic and Gilles Simon bulldoze their way into the top of the rankings.
Not bad for rookies. But who will step up and be this year's party crashers?
Some of these youngsters have already began to break out of their cribs, while others are about to begin the exodus.
Let's meet the cast of nursery members:
1. Ernests Gulbis (Latvia) pictured above.
- Born: Aug. 30, 1988 in Riga, Latvia
- Height: 6'3", Weight: 170 lbs.
- Current ATP Rank: 45
- Career Vs. Top 25: 5-22
Gulbis, a 20-year old, has been knocking on the door since the early part of 2008, but is yet to make a major breakthrough. He has slowly, but consistently, climbed in the rankings. As a child, he trained at the same facility as Novak Djokovic, who is now one of his best friends.
He is a lanky player that has good court speed and despite having an impressive arsenal of shots, he struggles at times with his focus.
Defeating eighth-seed James Blake at the 2008 French Open in four sets. Although Gulbis has a poor career record against the top players, he has played well against Blake, winning both matches. He also has played well against Djokovic, winning once and playing a very solid match in a loss at Roland Garros.
Gulbis would fall 5-7, 6-7, 5-7.
Play in 2009
Gulbis is currently 4-4, with mixed results. He defeated Novak Djokovic in Brisbane to start off the season, but also dropped a match in straight sets to 425th ranked Ivan Dodig.
Look for Gulbis to finish in the area of 25-30 wins for the 2009 season and finish 25th in the ATP.
2. Kei Nishikori (Japan)
- Born: Dec. 29, 1989 in Shimane, Japan
- Height: 5'10", Weight: 150 lbs.
- Current ATP Rank: 56
- Career Vs. Top 25: 2-6
Nishikori has risen quickly into the ranks of the ATP. At the beginning of 2008, the diminutive Japanese speedster was ranked 286th in the world, but finished at 63rd. Some leap of faith.
He is also the only Japanese player currently ranked in the top 100. Despite having several quality victories, Nishikori is still an unknown in the ATP.
He won the Bermuda clay court tournament in 2008 for his first career ATP championship. He also defeated fourth ranked David Ferrer in the 2008 US Open in an insanely close marathon match. Both players won an even 155 points, but Nishikori was victorious in the fifth set.
Play in 2009
Nishikori bowed out early in two tournaments already, but also got in a nice straight sets win over Tomas Berdych in Brisbane. He is currently competing in the SAP Open in San Jose.
Nishikori will continue to play every tournament he possibly can in order to improve, and he will be rewarded with 30-35 victories. He should finish 31st in the final poll.
3. Fabio Fognini (Italy)
- Born: May 24, 1987 in Sanremo, Italy
- Height: 5'11", Weight: 165 lbs.
- Current ATP Rank: 92
- Career Vs. Top 25: 2-9
Fognini is a case of now-or-never. The 21-year old has shown signs of glimmer but has never been able to sustain it. He is still looking for his first career ATP title. He is a guy that plays with a lot of emotion but seems to let pressure influence his play.
Fognini demolished Andy Murray in Canada way back in 2007, 6-2, 6-2. I could guarantee he would not get the same result today, but it was a huge win for Fognini nonetheless (I won't mention that the next match he was flattened by a guy named Federer).
Play in 2009
He took a break at the end of the 2008 season, not playing at all after a tournament in October, and it's had a toll. He was pulverized by Nicolas Almagro in the Australian Open and then suffered a bad loss to Sebastian Decoud at Vina Del Mar.
Fognini must get his head on straight. He will be lucky to get 20 wins this season, and end up around 60th in the ATP.
4. Evgeny Korolev (Russia)
- Born: Feb. 14, 1988 in Moscow, Russia
- Height: 6'1", Weight: 180 lbs.
- Current ATP Rank: 112
- Career Vs. Top 25: 4-20
Korolev is in a jam at this stage of his career. He can win at minor events and he can beat every player he is supposed to beat, but he can't seem to be able to take the next step. He is consistently dumped in major events, playing top-seeded players immediately. He has the skills to compete at the highest level, just not the mindset yet.
Despite losing in straight sets at the 2007 Wimbledon, Korolev gave fellow countryman Nikolay Davydenko all he wanted in a first set match. Two of the three sets went to tiebreaks, and Korolev had chances in both. He also played tremendously at the following US Open, losing to Stanislas Wawrinka in five sets.
Play in 2009
Unlike the rest of the division members, Korolev has two quality wins in 2009 already. He defeated former world number one Carlos Moya in Melbourne and dismissed Jurgen Melzer in Zagreb a few weeks later.
Despite losing to Federer in three sets at the Australian Open, Korolev has obviously learned some tricks in the process.
Korolev will continue his grueling tournament schedule and if he keeps his level of play up, he could see 35 wins and a possible top-40 finish.
Honorable Mentions: Jonathan Eysseric, Pablo Cuevas, Adrian Mannarino, and Pavel Chekhov.
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