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Dominic Thiem the early leader for next-generation supremacy

PARIS -- A zebra-fest, more appropriate for the Serengeti, broke out Saturday on Court Suzanne Lenglen.

Adidas, the German sports apparel giant, has hedged its bets on the next generation, paying dearly to outfit both Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev in those grisly black and white stripes. Both are former junior singles finalists here, and seen as future top-10 players.

On the day after Rafael Nadal checked out of the Roland Garros hotel, a venue that was already absent his famous foil, Roger Federer, it was appropriate that some of the best and the brightest of their would-be successors were on display.

Thiem, a 22-year-old Austrian, and Zverev, a 19-year-old German, are two of eight 22-and-under players ranked among the ATP World Tour's top 200. The others: Australia's Nick Kyrgios, 21, Borna Coric of Croatia, 19, American Taylor Fritz, 18, Kyle Edmund of Great Britain, 21, Korea's Hyeon Chung, 20, and Quentin Halys, 19, of France.

Thiem, Zverev, Kyrgios and Coric all made it to third round here, while Edmund and Halys each qualified their way into the main draw and won a first-round match. Kyrgios fell to Richard Gasquet on Friday, but Thiem steamed into the fourth round with an emphatic 6-7 (4), 6-3, 6-3, 6-3 victory over Zverev on Saturday.

Thiem was likely to have played Nadal, the nine-time French Open champion, but after the 14-time Grand Slam winner withdrew with a right wrist injury, Thiem will now face Marcel Granollers, the beneficiary of a walkover. This is an eminently winnable match for Thiem and could put him in his first career quarterfinal at a major.

While Kyrgios has made the biggest splash -- beating Nadal at Wimbledon two years ago and causing a commotion wherever he goes -- Thiem is the most accomplished. He is ranked higher, at No. 15, and has already won six ATP titles, including three this year, in Buenos Aires, Acapulco, and, most recently, Nice, France, where he beat Zverev in a three-set final. In fact, this was their third meeting in four weeks. Thiem is 3-0.

But don't forget that Thiem is 3½ years older than Zverev and far more sturdy and explosive. When Zverev finally grows into his spidery body, he could be lethal; he is the choice of most tennis insiders to go the furthest of his peers.

Zverev, who goes by "Sascha," is 6-foot-6 and has easy power from both sides and a heavy, heavy serve. His technique is flawless, and he is already ranked No. 48 in the world.

Serving at 5-all in the first set, Zverev weathered (count them) six break points before prevailing in a 12-minute game -- a microcosm of a stylish battle that could play out for the next dozen years. He won the tiebreaker with a deep backhand that Thiem couldn't handle, leaving the Austrian slumping on the baseline.

The last three sets were all about maturity, both physical and mental. Thiem, with his gorgeous Gasquet-like one-hand backhand, was never really threatened. The two players shared a warm embrace hugged at net, with Thiem, who is five inches shorter, briefly resting his head on Zverev's shoulder.

Men's tennis has gentrified in recent years, with more and more 30-somethings populating this lucrative business. This French Open featured no fewer than 51 players aged 30 or older -- a record.

Moreover, the average age of the top 100 players, according to ATP data, has increased dramatically. It was 23.92 in 1985, 24.52 in 1995, 25.24 in 2005 and 27.52 in 2015. The current number, which includes Federer and Nadal, is 28.20.

Change, particularly at this elite level, is natural in sport. Generations are measured in years, rather than decades. Like the Phoenix, that marvelous, mythical creature, tennis reinvents itself almost effortlessly, with little regard for the displaced athletes.

A year ago, what would the odds have been for this unlikely scenario: After three rounds at Roland Garros, Domnic Thiem has three match-wins, one more than Federer and Nadal combined.