Thiem, Kyrgios, Zverev & Pouille courting the big time on clay
Firmly in the spotlight following their performances in 2016, Dominic Thiem, Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev and Lucas Pouille – household names despite their tender ages – have all the ingredients to shine during the clay swing. The quartet, who are the four youngest members of the world's top 20 and the only players aged under 24 in the top 40, have what it takes to cause a stir in the coming months.
The consolidated clay-courter: Dominic Thiem
Dominic Thiem – the most established of the young guard and currently sitting ninth in the world rankings (two places below his career high of seventh) – no longer needs any introduction. He became the first figure from the 1993 and post-1993 generation to contest a Grand Slam semi-final at the 2016 edition of Roland-Garros, in the process cracking the world's top 10… where he remains entrenched today, almost a year on.
A consistent performer despite an erratic end to 2016, the Austrian – a veritable slugger with a penchant for hogging the baseline – has the advantage of having developed his game on clay at the Viennese academy run by Günter Bresnik, who turned a formerly ultra-defensive teenager into the points-winning machine Thiem is today. Moreover, by overseeing the switch from a two-handed backhand to a fluid one-hander, Bresnik pulled off a technical tour de force that gave his protégé an even more solid footing on a surface where long exchanges and defending are of the essence.
His favourite surface by some distance, "the best there is" in his own words, clay is a natural fit for the world number nine, especially given his excellent movement. His variation and ability to apply heavy topspin to his backhand are two other factors that make him a tricky customer to outplay from the back of the court – or indeed at all – on clay. After all, Thiem is also an astute tactician with the nous to switch things up strategically when required. On top of all that, the Austrian boasts a fierce competitive streak and work ethic to boot: he played 82 matches in 2016 and completed 12-hour practice sessions during his off-season training block in Tenerife. These attributes help explain why, since transitioning to the pro tour, Thiem has been one of the few members of the new generation to regularly rack up the silverware and to do so on clay: six of his eight titles and eight of his 11 finals have come on the surface.
Best result at Roland-Garros: semi-final in 2016. Junior finalist in 2011.
Other notable achievements on clay: 6 ATP titles (Nice, Gstaad and Umag in 2015; Buenos Aires and Nice in 2016; Rio de Janeiro in 2017).
Win-loss record on the surface: 69 wins, 27 losses
Clay results in 2017: 10 wins, 2 losses / 1 title : ATP 500 Rio de Janeiro
Still to cement their clay credentials: Nick Kyrgios, Alexander Zverev & Lucas Pouille
Contrary to appearances, Nick Kyrgios loves playing on clay. The 21-year-old Australian (ranked 15th in the world), who has been in fantastic form in the first few months of this season (as exemplified by recent runs to the quarter-finals at Indian Wells and the semis at Miami), has a real affinity with the red dust, on which he spent long stretches while he was learning his trade. As Todd Larkham, his first coach, explained in an interview back in 2015, his former pupil used to set aside up to five months a year to hone his clay-court skills. A huge fan of sliding, the agile Aussie was determined to excel on the surface.
Kyrgios, who claimed Roger Federer's scalp on the dirt in Madrid in 2015, also has a special connection with Roland-Garros, as it was here that he first made waves at the highest level. Court No.17 in Paris was the venue for his maiden victory in the main draw of a major tournament, a 7-6(11), 7-6(8), 7-6(4) upset of Czech veteran Radek Stepanek in 2013. As the youngster later put it, "It was one of my most memorable wins and it will always be one that I never forget." It is also worth remembering that the firebrand won the junior doubles title at Roland-Garros – his first success on this circuit – with compatriot Andrew Harris in 2012.
Best result at Roland-Garros: round of 32 in 2015 and 2016. Doubles juniors champion in 2012 (with Andrew Harris).
Other notable achievements on clay: quarter-finalist at the Madrid Masters in 2016. Estoril finalist in 2015. Two Challengers titles: Sarasota and Savannah in 2014.
Win-loss record on the surface: 19 wins, 14 losses
Clay results in 2017: 0 match.
Having shot to prominence on terre battue by reaching the semi-finals at the ATP 500 event in Hamburg in 2014, Alexander Zverev (19 years of age, world number 20) is another of the main attractions going into the clay swing. A powerful hitter off both wings, an impressive mover considering his stature and extremely strong mentally, the younger Zverev brother has the weapons to make his mark wherever he plays. Though he has stated that he has no preference, clay remains the surface that he was brought up on and so he is well versed in the distinct technical challenges it poses: "I think the toughest part is the movement. You have to move a bit differently. You have to maybe slide into balls a little bit more.
The runner-up to Thiem in Nice last season, "Sascha" showcased his full repertoire on the red stuff at Roland-Garros 2016, where he was defeated by none other than the Austrian in a blockbuster third-round encounter on Court Suzanne-Lenglen. Lest we forget, he too was a finalist at Roland-Garros as a junior, being pipped to the singles title by Chilean Christian Garin in 2013.
Best result at Roland-Garros: round of 32 in 2016. Junior finalist in 2013.
Other notable achievements on clay: ATP 250 Munich champ in 2017. ATP 250 Nice finalist in 2016. Two Challengers titles: Braunschweig in 2014, Heilbronn in 2015.
Win-loss record on the surface: 28 wins, 18 losses
Clay results in 2017: 7 wins, 2 losses / 1 title : Munich (ATP 250).
A natural-born dirt-baller he may not be, but Lucas Pouille has not let that hold him back. A player seemingly tailor-made to flourish on hard courts thanks to his serve and scorching forehand, the Frenchman has also developed his chops on clay, most importantly by substantially improving his backhand. Indeed, after finding his groove on hard in Miami, where he was eventually halted by David Ferrer, it was his displays on the dust in the following weeks that set him on course for what would go down as a breakout 2016 season.
Pouille went on to topple countryman Richard Gasquet in Monte-Carlo, make the final – his first on the ATP Tour – in Bucharest (losing to Fernando Verdasco) and oust David Goffin in Madrid, before surging to his first Masters 1000 semi-final in Rome, where he succumbed to eventual champion Andy Murray. All of this provided further evidence that the ace from northern France was no less at ease on the ochre than elsewhere and had mastered the surface that the French supporters hold so dear – helped, surely, by spending his formative years at the French Tennis Federation's hub in Poitiers and the National Training Centre (CNE) at Roland-Garros, not to mention at the facilities of the National Institute of Sport, Expertise and Performance (INSEP).
Nevertheless, the home hope has plenty still to prove at Roland-Garros. In four appearances, the 23-year-old – who was running on empty at the Porte d'Auteuil last season following his earlier exploits – has failed to go beyond the second round. Having said that, it was in Paris in 2013 that he propelled himself into the consciousness of the public at large, scoring his first Grand Slam win – at the first attempt – over the American Alex Kuznetsov.
Best result at Roland-Garros: round of 64 in 2013 and 2016.
Other notable achievements on clay: Semi-finalist at the Rome Masters in 2016 and at the Monte-Carlo Masters in 2017. ATP 250 Budapest champ in 2017. ATP 250 Bucarest finalist in 2016. One Future title (Estonia in 2013).
Win-loss record on the surface: 25 wins, 13 losses
Clay results in 2017: 9 wins, 1 loss / 1 title (ATP 250 Budapest).
Other under-24 players to keep an eye on:
Kyle Edmund (world number 47): Highly partial to clay – unusually for a Brit –, Edmund and his ferocious forehand have already proven their worth on the red stuff: he has won four Futures titles and two Challengers on the surface.
Karen Khachanov (world number 52): Bidding to follow in the footsteps of Marat Safin – of whom his superb double-handed backhand is strikingly reminiscent – the Russian took a leaf out of his compatriot's book by moving to Spain, namely to Catalonia. This is very much clay country and Khachanov, an avid dirt-baller, is currently coached by Galo Blanco, an erstwhile specialist on the surface who previously guided Milos Raonic to the top 10.
Jiri Vesely (world number 53, photo): Novak Djokovic's conqueror at Monte-Carlo in 2016, Vesely's unpredictable game makes him a dangerous opponent on the dust. Consistency is the missing piece of the puzzle for the Czech.
Daniil Medvedev (world number 61): Another "young gun" who left his native Russia to pursue his development, in his case in Cannes under the stewardship of Jean-René Lisnard, the 20-year-old has also become a polished clay-courter, winning three singles events on the surface at Futures level between 2014 and 2016.