In the tennis world these days, once you turn 25, you are no longer considered “young” except in rare circumstances. You become “seasoned” between 25 and 30, with “old” following quickly from age 30 to 35.
Breaking through to win a major at a young age has become increasingly difficult in the past decade for several reasons.
Recently, the juggernaut at the top of the men’s game has allowed only the three top-ranked players the opportunity to win championships on the biggest stages in tennis.
For example, the last player not ranked in the top three in men’s tennis to win the U.S. Open was Juan Martin del Potro. The Argentine won at Flushing Meadows back in 2009—turning back Roger Federer in a five-set final. It was a major shock. Del Potro was just twenty years of age.
Without a doubt, the days of teenage wunderkinds winning tennis majors have past.
No player since Rafael Nadal has won a Grand Slam title as a teenager. In 2005, at age 19, Nadal won the French Open for the first time. Prior to that, Pete Sampras won the 1990 U.S. Open for the first time, also at age 19.
While new players keep surfacing, hoping to break the iron grip of the top three on the Grand Slam titles, it has not happened recently beyond del Potro's win.
Following are the best bets for this season's crop of “young” players not yet ranked in the top ten—hoping to find the right ingredients for success at the 2012 U.S. Open, which starts soon at Flushing Meadows.
The wave of young, hard-hitting Germans making an impact on professional tennis continues. Cedrik-Marcel Stebe is the newest face among them.
He turned professional in 2010, and reached a career-high ranking of No. 72 in February of 2012. His rise up the ranking ladder has been steady and fast.
Although most of his ranking points have come from Challenger and Futures events, the German is making some headway on the regular tour, especially after he made his way into the top-100-ranked players earlier in 2012.
After advancing to the second round at the Masters tournament in Miami in 2012, Stebe fell to No. 17 Richard Gasquet. He reached the round of 16 in Bucharest and in Halle, Germany.
At the 2012 French Open, Stebe won his first-round match. At Stuttgart, the German reached the quarterfinals, where he fell to Thomaz Bellucci.
The left-handed Stebe hits the ball hard and clean. He's an all-around player who favors no surface in particular. He also deserves high marks for learning quickly.
Stebe will hope to increase his ranking points even more at the U.S. Open starting at the end of the month.
Now age 22, Ricardas Berankis was the junior world No. 1 in 2007. Like many before him, the Lithuanian found the transition from juniors to the pro tour a strenuous one.
Not yet attuned to the rigors of professional tennis, Berankis also suffered injuries early on. His return to action at the recent tournament in Atlanta marked the Lithuanian's first appearance on tour since he suffered a right pelvis stress fracture several months ago.
Prior to qualifying for Atlanta, Berankis had not played in a regular tour level event since his loss to Marinko Matosevic in the first round of the Citi Open in Washington, D.C. in August, 2011. Sidelined with numerous injuries, Berankis strengthened his game-gaining solid results on the ATP Challenger circuit while he healed completely.
The Lithuanian advanced all the way to the finals in Atlanta where he lost to Sam Querrey. On his way through, Berankis defeated Frenchman Nicolas Mahut 6-4, 6-4 in the quarterfinals.
Berankis moved up 38 ranking points after reaching the final in Atlanta—to No. 103.
After reaching the round of 16 in Washington, D.C. the following week, his ranking rose to No. 88—his highest to date.
Berankis will be hoping to take his game another step forward and his ranking several steps higher at the upcoming U.S. Open.
As far as the USTA was concerned, no one had more promise or engendered more expectation than Donald Young emerging from the juniors in 2007.
Young had won the junior title at the Australian Open in 2005 and the junior title at Wimbledon in 2007, had reached the third round of the junior French Open in 2006 and the semifinals of the junior U.S. Open in 2006. Young was the youngest junior ever to be ranked No. 1, at age 16 in 2005.
Even though he turned pro in 2004, mainly Young played Challenger and Futures events, trying to improve his game and his ranking as a pro.
In 2007 Young was awarded a wild card into his first U.S. Open, where he won his first match over Australian Chris Guccione. His second-round opponent, Richard Gasquet, became ill and had to withdraw, sending Young into the third round where he lost to Feliciano Lopez. Overall, it was a good beginning.
In 2011, Young once again advanced at the U.S. Open—this time to the fourth round where he lost to Andy Murray. That lifted his ranking from No. 84 to No. 57.
After the U.S. Open, Young continued his run, advancing to the finals in Bangkok where he again lost to Murray. In Shanghai Young made it as far as the round of 32 before losing to Stanislas Wawrinka. His ranking climbed to No. 39.
His ranking rose as high as No. 38 in February of 2012. But after that summit in 2012, Young has seldom advanced beyond the first round in tournaments. That is the main reason for his ranking sinking to its current low at No. 84.
Young is hoping to repeat and even better his previous successes at the U.S. Open and turn his season around.
It is hard to justify fitting Brian Baker into this group because of his age. But Baker does belong, because the American had to sit out of tennis for almost six years because of injuries and subsequent surgeries to correct physical issues the young man suffered.
So even though he turned pro in 2003, this is really only his fourth full year on tour. It is like starting over again—only with much less time to accomplish a trip to the top of the men’s game.
Baker began his comeback in 2011, mainly in Challenger and Futures events. In 2012, the man from Tennessee began the long road back on tour in Nice where he advanced to the finals, losing to Nicolas Almagro.
He advanced to the second round of Roland Garros and to the round of 16 at Wimbledon. Those advances saw Baker into the top 100 for the first time when he rose to No. 76—after starting the year ranked No. 458.
The USTA has just announced that Baker has earned entry into the 2012 U.S. Open because of the rapid rise in his rankings in the past few months.
His play for the rest of 2012 will determine whether his resurgence will continue. But it all begins at Flushing Meadows, which commences at the end of August.
20-year-old American Ryan Harrison is ready to leave behind his ingenue role for a more substantial and higher-ranked place in men’s tennis.
Naturally tennis officials in the United States are eager for Harrison to fulfill their expectations by becoming an impact player.
The problem for Harrison is that, because of his ranking, he often has the bad luck to be drawn against the top seeds very early at the biggest tournaments. For example, at the 2012 Australian Open, Harrison was defeated by Andy Murray in the first round.
At Wimbledon this year, he found himself facing defending champion Novak Djokovic in the second round.
But in 2012 Harrison has had some success. He reached the semifinals of San Jose, losing to Milos Raonic of Canada. He also reached the semifinals of Eastbourne, losing to Andreas Seppi.
Harrison has the drive, the skills and the patience to make his way up the rankings.
His next goal must be to battle his way into the men’s top 50. Making a breakthrough at the 2012 U.S. Open could go a long way to allow Harrison to climb the ranking ladder.
Grigor Dimitrov's highest ranking came in August of 2011, when he reached world No. 52.
Starting 2012 ranked at No. 76, Dimitrov did not have much success until he reached the round of 16 in Miami at the Sony Ericsson Open. There he lost to No. 9 Janko Tipsarevic of Serbia.
Dimitrov advanced equally as far in Nice on clay in 2012, losing to Gilles Simon of France after qualifying to get into the field.
But then the Bulgarian marched through the draw at the Queen’s Club tournament, eventually losing to David Nalbandian in the semifinals. He also reached the semifinals in Bastad, where he lost to world No. 5 David Ferrer, followed by a semifinal loss in Gstaad, Switzerland to Thomaz Bellucci.
A former junior champion, Dimitrov is fighting to break into the men’s top 50.
He is another young pro who deserves to be acknowledged as a potential future champion. Some on tour have compared the young Bulgarian to Roger Federer because of Dimitrov’s groundstrokes—mostly his backhand.
Like many successful juniors have discovered, the transition to the pros can be lengthy. The Bulgarian continues to work to improve his movement on court and his return of serve.
Hopefully, Dimitrov will rise into the top 50 with a breakout performance at the U.S. Open in 2012.
After Bernard Tomic’s run through the draw at the 2011 Wimbledon tournament, all eyes were on the young Aussie, whose promise seemed to indicate he was a future all-star in men’s tennis.
In the fourth round at the All England Club in 2011, Tomic managed to get by veteran Xavier Malisse in straight sets. In the quarterfinals, however, Tomic finally lost to eventual champion Novak Djokovic, although Tomic did manage to take a set from the Serb.
After Wimbledon, Tomic shot up 87 places in the ATP rankings to No. 71 in the world.
At that point, people began to expect positive results from Tomic.
In 2012, however, the Aussie hit a bad losing skid, starting after the 2012 Australian Open.
Tomic has hardly progressed past the second round of tournaments he has entered since Melbourne, although he reached the quarterfinals at Delray Beach and in Munich on clay.
This year Tomic even went out in the first round at Wimbledon and at the Summer Games at the All England Club.
But the Aussie has time on his side. The losses, hopefully, are temporary, and Tomic will turn around his game soon—before he slips out of the men’s top 50.
His great promise is not lost, just temporarily stalled.
What sets Milos Raonic apart from his contemporaries is his powerful serve. The Canadian has used it to great advantage so far in his career.
Standing 6‘5", Raonic first made his presence felt at the 2011 Australian Open, where he reached the fourth round. Following that he went on to win the 2011 SAP Open. In one month’s time Raonic shot up from being ranked world No. 152 to No. 37.
He was slowed after falling on the grass at the 2011 Wimbledon Championships.
The Canadian sat out until the fall indoor hard-court season. But he managed to make some progress, reaching the semifinals in Stockholm. Raonic ended 2011 world-ranked No. 31.
In 2012, Raonic won the tournaments in Chennai and San Jose and reached the finals in Memphis. The Canadian even reached the semifinals on clay in Barcelona, losing to the No. 6 seed David Ferrer.
His epic match with Jo-Wilfried Tsonga at the Summer Games at the All England Club illustrated that Raonic is very close to breaking through into the upper echelons of the men’s game.
He could make that first shocking move to the top at Flushing Meadows.
Kei Nishikori started 2012 by reaching the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, where he was dismissed by finalist Andy Murray.
He reached quarterfinals in Buenos Aires, Barcelona, Newport, Atlanta and the London Olympics. Nishikori started the year ranked No. 25 and climbed to the No. 17 ranking in February of 2012.
His highest ranking to date is No. 16.
Previously, Nishikori made his presence felt during the U.S. Open of 2008, when as a teenager, he advanced to the fourth round in his debut at the tournament. Nishikori was the first man from Japan to reach the round of 16 in the last 71 years.
Eventually, however, Nishikori was defeated by another teenager, Argentine Juan Martin del Potro, 6-3, 6-4, 6-3.
Nishikori sat out most of 2009 dealing with an injured elbow. But in 2010, the man from Japan again advanced to the third round of the U.S. Open before having to retire in his match with Albert Montanes.
Nishikori is primed and ready to make his presence felt once again in the 2012 U.S. Open Championships, where, on the hard courts, his speed and endurance often pay big dividends.
Alexandr Dolgopolov started 2012 making the finals at Brisbane, where he lost to the No. 1 seed Andy Murray. At the Australian Open, Dolgopolov lost in the third round to up-and-coming Aussie Bernard Tomic.
It was at this event in 2011 that Dolgopolov first captured everyone’s attention. He demonstrated his tennis prowess by reaching the 2011 Australian Open quarterfinals. There Dolgopolov lost to the No. 5 seed, Andy Murray, 5–7, 3–6, 7–6, 3–6. The results of that Australian Open sent Dolgopolov into the top 30.
In 2012, the man from Ukraine reached the quarterfinals in Madrid and the semifinals in Umag. Most recently Dolgopolov won the Citi Open tournament in Washington D.C. over German Tommy Haas.
The Ukraine native turned professional in 2006, breaking from his father’s tutelage in 2009 at age 20. It was then that Dolgopolov began making his own decisions about his tennis career in earnest. Since 2010, Dolgopolov has made a substantial mark on the men’s tour.
Despite some setbacks because of illness and injury, Dolgopolov has fought his way into the top 20.
With his unorthodox service motion and his all-court game, expect the man from Ukraine to continue to work his way up the rankings ladder.