ATP World Tour: The 7 Best Players Under 23 Years Old

George Peck@geopeckContributor IINovember 22, 2011

ATP World Tour: The 7 Best Players Under 23 Years Old

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    The days of teenagers winning grand slams on the ATP World Tour seems to be a thing of the past. A couple of Americans, Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick, were able to win the U.S. Open at young ages: Sampras won at 19, while Roddick won in the Big Apple after just turning 21.

    While this can certainly still be done, it won’t come easy.

    On the ATP World Tour, most players find their greatest success after they turn 23. The Top Three players in the world—Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray—are all either 24 or 25, and there is not a single player under the age of 23 in the Top 20.  

    The supreme dominance of the Top Four players has been astounding. As if Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer were not making it tough enough for other players to win grand slams, now Novak Djokovic has made it that much tougher: Djokovic, Nadal and Federer have won all but two of the past 30 grand slams.

    Winning a grand slam is harder than ever before, and no one knows that better than Andy Murray.  Murray, as talented as he is, has not been able to win a single grand slam event. To think that a teenager would be able to knock off more than one of these guys in the same tournament is almost unimaginable.

    However, there are a number of young guns that possess big games. As they gain valuable match experience, they will continue to climb the rankings. Many of these young players have already shown great results, but have not quite broken through.

    You do not make your way to the top overnight. Players take time to mature, both physically and mentally. It was not too long ago that Novak Djokovic was just like these guys, improving his game while working his way up the rankings. Now, Djokovic is the king of tennis.

    Here are seven up-and-coming players that are poised to make a run to the top. 

7. Cedrik-Marcel Stebe

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    Here is a guy that many people may not have heard of. Cedrik-Marcel Stebe is quite a mouthful, but this young German is working hard to make sure people recognize his game as much as his distinctive name.

    Stebe cracked the Top 100 this year after turning pro just last year, and has already taken down Nikolay Davydenko twice this year.

    Stebe, a quick lefty player, needs to build some muscle to help add some power to his consistent game. The 21-year-old player has made great strides in such a short amount of time as a professional, and will look to climb the rankings as he continues to battle against the top players.

6. Ryan Harrison

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    With a big Sampras-like serve, the teenage phenom has been deemed by some to be the future of American tennis.

    Ryan Harrison burst onto the scene at the 2010 U.S. Open, where he upset 19th-seeded Ivan Ljubicic in the first round. He then lost an epic five-set match to Sergiy Stakhovsky.

    This past summer, Harrison was able to make some noise. At Wimbledon, Harrison advanced to the second round, where he lost a tough five-set match to the seventh seed, David Ferrer.

    During the U.S. Open series, Harrison produced some great results, including two semifinal runs in Atlanta and Los Angeles. Although he lost to the surging veteran Mardy Fish in both semifinal matches, Harrison showed that he could compete at a high level.

    The 19-year-old American does possess a volatile temper, one that unfortunately translates to his game. Over time he will need to learn to control his emotions and will then hopefully play a more consistent game. He is a great athlete, and a great mover on the tennis court.

    Harrison could definitely use some improvement off the backhand wing. Nevertheless, Harrison does possess the competitive drive you look for in a champion. 

5. Grigor Dimitrov

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    Grigor Dimitrov, or "G-force," has made a name for himself at just 20 years old, with the right-handed Bulgarian reaching a ranking of 53 earlier this year.

    Dimitrov has a great natural feel for the game and has demonstrated his willingness to win points at the net. His one-handed backhand has drawn comparisons to that of the great Roger Federer.

    Dimitrov was able to advance to the second round of Wimbledon, where he gave Jo-Wilfried Tsonga all that he could handle. Tsonga was able to knock off Dimitrov in four tight sets.

    Dimitrov is still very young, and with his ambition, I expect him to produce some great results. 

4. Donald Young

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    Donald Young’s career has been a roller coaster ride to say the least. Young had a tremendous amount of success as a teen at junior and futures tournaments. Many people believed he was the next “big thing,” not only for American tennis, but tennis as a whole. However, Young soon learned the hard way that wins on the ATP tour are not handed to you on a silver platter.

    Young finished as the top-ranked junior in the world in 2005. In 2007, he had somewhat of a breakout year, winning his first ATP match and advancing to the third round of the U.S. Open. Young ended the year as the youngest player in the Top 100.

    The next three years of Young’s career would not go as smoothly as planned. Young really made no significant progress in his ranking or his game. His work ethic and commitment were questioned, and many began to consider Young a bust.

    To his credit, Young continued to work and improve, and in 2011 the hard work paid off: The 2011 U.S. hard-court season brought the resurrection of Donald Young. A semifinal finish in Washington, D.C. showed that Young was no slouch.

    Only a couple months later, under the bright lights of New York, Young was able to reach the Round of 16 at the U.S. Open, which included a five-set win over Stanislas Wawrinka.

    He carried that momentum over into September, and made a finals appearance in Bangkok. Young took out Gael Monfils in the semis before losing to Andy Murray in the final. The charismatic young man is a great athlete and a crafty tennis player. He moves well and forces his opponent to get back a lot of balls.

    His serve is not particularly strong, so he could use some improvement in that respect. But you have to like the resiliency Young has shown lately. Young is ranked a career-high 39, and will look to build on his recent success.  

3. Bernard Tomic

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    Bernard Tomic has tremendous potential. The young Aussie has a huge serve and forehand, two staples of today’s game. This one-two punch has proven valuable, especially on the grass. Tomic has cracked the Top 50, and is currently ranked 41 in the world.

    At 19 years old, he has already achieved a great deal. Tomic was able to play well in his homeland at this year’s Australian Open, upsetting Jeremy Chardy and Feliciano Lopez before ultimately losing to Nadal.

    He followed that major performance with an even better run at Wimbledon. Tomic took out the likes of Robin Soderling and Xavier Malisse on his way to a quarterfinal matchup against Novak Djokovic. Djokovic, the world No. 1, beat Tomic in four sets and would go on to win the tournament. Tomic finished with a 7-4 record at the majors in 2011 at just 18 years of age!

    For a big guy, Tomic can move surprisingly well. He has all the tools to become one of the greats. He reminds me a lot of Tomas Berdych, a Top 10 player on the tour. He has shown the ability to play well on the big stage, so expect great things from the Aussie—particularly on the lawns of Wimbledon. 

2. Milos Raonic

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    Milos Raonic has been named the ATP Newcomer of the Year for good reason. Standing at 6’5”, Milos Raonic is an imposing figure on the tennis court. His game, it turns out, is as intimidating as his size.

    The long-limbed young man possesses one of the biggest serves in the game, as he demonstrates in this video with a 150-mph heater. His ability to flatten out his serve and forehand leaves his opponents with no hope to return the ball. At just 20 years old, Raonic has undoubtedly become the face of Canadian tennis.

    He started off the year ranked 156, and after qualifying for the Australian Open, he decided to stay down under a bit longer. Raonic took out two ranked players in Michael Llodra and Mikhail Youzhny on his way to the Round of 16, where he lost a four-set match to David Ferrer. Needless to say, Raonic had raised some eyebrows.

    A few months later, Raonic claimed the title in San Jose with a win over Fernando Verdasco. Following that performance, he lost a close final to Andy Roddick in Memphis.

    Raonic has not made quite as much noise following his early-season success, but is currently ranked 31. During 2011 he managed to climb well over 100 spots in the rankings.

    Similar to John Isner, Raonic is a guy that no player wants to see in the same half of the draw. Raonic could definitely improve his conditioning and movement on the court, but his game certainly packs a punch. 

1. Kei Nishikori

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    Kei Nishikori, at just 21 years of age, has displayed a level of consistency well beyond his years. As the pride of Japanese tennis, he is currently ranked 25 in the world. Nishikori has tremendous instincts on court, and he is exceptional at constructing points in his favor.

    Nishikori broke onto the scene in 2008, achieving a great deal at age 18. Nishikori won his first ATP title at Delray Beach, and at the 2008 U.S. Open, he took down the fourth-seeded David Ferrer en route to the Round of 16. Having climbed 200 sports in the rankings, Nishikori finished the year as the youngest player in the top 100.

    Nishikori was sidelined most of 2009 and into the beginning of 2010 with an elbow injury. He worked his way back up the rankings on the challenger circuit and highlighted his 2010 campaign by making it to the third round of the U.S. Open.

    The No. 1 Japanese player began 2011 in the Top 100. He started off strong, making it to the third round at the Australian Open. Nishikori also made it to the finals of Houston, an outdoor clay court tournament, losing to Ryan Sweeting.

    Recently, Nishikori has really taken his game up a notch. October treated him very well, with Nishikori defeating three Top-10 players including world No.1 Novak Djokovic on his way to a semifinal appearance in Shanghai and a final in Basel.

    Nishikori has great fundamentals. He certainly does not blow people off the court like a Milos Raonic, but his consistency kills. He strikes the ball very cleanly off both wings, and his footwork is superb. Nishikori places the ball well on his serve and on his ground strokes. He has great feel around the net.

    It will be interesting to see how much higher Nishikori can rise in the rankings with his style of play. At the moment, no one wants to see Nishikori on the opposite side of the net.