Two critical events took place on the ATP Tour within the last week or so:
Borna Coric thrashed Andy Murray.
And Grigor Dimitrov dropped out of the Top Ten.
One of these is, agreeably, a major event. The other may seem more random. How, you ask, do these two incidents relate to each other?
Let me briefly take you back to the 2014 ATP World Tour Finals – and what seems to have been a prophetic message…
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The Finals were just a few short months ago, believe it or not. You may recall that many of the matches that took place there were bemoaned whitewashes.
But still, it seems that tournament was of the utmost significance.
Throughout the 2014 season, three guys were at the forefront of the tennis world’s watch list. Kei Nishikori, Grigor Dimitrov and Milos Raonic were the ‘middle men’. They weren’t young enough to be counted the future of the sport – nor were they good enough to join Federer, Djokovic and Nadal in consistent contention for the big prizes. They were the prospects that weren’t quite prospects.
They were… well, the Middle Men.
Having been hovering on the verge of breakthroughs for some time, last season was the one in which we finally saw these temporary prospects take a big step forward. At Wimbledon, Raonic and Dimitrov made it to their first Grand Slam semi-finals. But Nishikori – ever-injured, and consequently always the more overlooked of the trio – outdid them, making his first Slam final at the US Open. He beat a host of top names in the process, three straight five set matches versus quality opposition possibly all that cost him his first Grand Slam title.
In different ways, the tour finals were the culmination of the season for our three warriors. Interestingly enough, their results here ranked them in pecking order of how they had performed during the year.
Dimitrov, much to his disgust, didn’t make the cut for the coveted event. Not even as first alternate – although the Bulgarian turned up his nose at the idea of playing under that status, anyway. Milos Raonic fell at the Round Robin stage, after getting to set point against Roger Federer and beating Nishikori. And Kei himself made it to the semis, impressively straight-setting Murray en route to joining the lofty company of Djokovic, Federer and Wawrinka in the final four.
At the time, there were general nods of approval all round. Kei had impressed, Milos had made it, and Grigor had only just missed the mark.
It was supposed to be the start of greater things.
However, recent events beg to differ. Recent events whisper that instead of the dawning of a new breakout, it just might have been Last Chance.
You know. Make It or Break It. Right there. Right then.
Because the real future of the sport – the young prodigies with Big Four-less years ahead of them – have started pushing.
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Let’s take a look at Borna Coric – the Croatian teenager who was innocently asserting himself on the junior tour not that long ago.
Any tennis follower knows how tough it is to break out on the ATP tour these days, with it’s dominating forces in their late twenties and early thirties. It’s deemed acceptable to announce yourself on the scene at the age of 26, 27, such is the strength and supremacy of the guys you’ll be contesting.
Yet remarkably, Borna has launched his career while still in his teens – and, what is even more remarkable, while really still a child. At the tail end of last year, aged 17, he defeated an ailing Rafael Nadal 6-4 7-6, and had claimed several other ATP victories besides. Along with other youngsters such as Alexander Zverev and Stefan Kozlov, he was setting himself up for bigger things.
Little did we know how swiftly those things would come.
Earlier this year, Coric was misunderstood in an interview, and hence it was translated to the general public that the young upstart saw himself on a par with Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Borna, his name in danger of an early muddying, was quick to assure people that he was merely comparing his gamestyle to the two elite.
But does it all honestly matter now? Last week, Borna Coric dished Andy Murray up a comprehensive 6-1, 6-3 annihilation, just a day after the Croat had taken a gruelling three set victory against Ivo Karlovic. It was the furthest thing away from squeezing past an ill Rafa.
Murray didn’t get a single break point versus his young victor. Coric went toe to toe with his more experienced opponent, his movement just as good as Andy’s, if not better. His groundstrokes were certainly as powerful, and he even returned the Scotsman’s overhead smashes.
Granted, Murray can’t really smash. But you get the picture.
With that Dubai semi-final run, in which only the mighty Federer barred his way, Borna truly announced himself on tour. Not just as a presence. But as competition.
And he won’t be alone for long. Others his age will be asserting themselves beside him, keen to keep up with his heroics. It’s the way it works, to keep the sporting cycle turning. And for the present, there are those just the tiniest bit his senior who are getting in with the top guys. 19-year-old Nick Kyrgios’ bomb of a serve and crazy-paced groundstrokes can mess with the best whenever he feels like it. And much more appreciation is due Bernard Tomic, who has finally converted from the dark side in working his socks off since the final months of last year.
The youth are finally rising – and consequently, it could be Deadline Day for Kei, Milos and Grigor.
Their examinations could well have been taken, and there’s no more time to make corrections. It’s time to be marked.
Since those key World Tour Finals last November, the trio have continued with the theme of their respective performances. Kei has risen with the dawn, and last Monday hit a career high of world number 4, behind only Djokovic, Federer and Nadal. Raonic has hovered in a good kind of way, and currently rests at an impressive ranking of world number 6.
And Dimitrov has struggled, resulting in being dumped out of the top ten – separated from his contemporaries once more.
The bad news for him is that Coric and Tomic don’t look like they want a break. They’re hungry for more.
Only time will tell the outcome of this theory, and if the Middle Men really signed their career sentences at the end of last year. For now, the facts laid bare, the questions are yours to answer:
Were the World Tour Finals ‘Make It or Break It’ for these three?
And does this spell Slamless doom for Grigor Dimitrov?