Wednesday, February 5, 2014
A glimpse into the future of tennis
By Ed McGrogan
They say February is one of the slowest months in tennis, but with 12 ATP tournaments, seven WTA tournaments and rounds of Davis and Fed Cup for good measure, it seems pretty fast-paced to me. What I'd compare February to is the first week of a Grand Slam tournament -- there's plenty to discuss, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for the main events ahead. At the Slams, that means the second week, where the top players take back the headlines. On the calendar, that means March, where Indian Wells and Miami take center stage.
That's not to say February is devoid of big names, with Roger Federer and Andy Murray playing Davis Cup and impressive fields converging in Doha and Dubai. But these are the exceptions in a month full of small-stakes tournaments. Yet these events offer their own charms, specifically chances to watch players you wouldn't normally focus on. Players such as Nick Kyrgios and Thanasi Kokkinakis, two relative unknowns who captivated fans around the world during the Australian Open with their charisma and talent. By the time Stanislas Wawrinka turned the tournament on its head, both teenagers were in the rearview mirror, but that's the difference between first-week and second-week players at majors -- something Australians Kyrgios and Kokkinakis are now keenly aware of.
The Kyrgios (or Kokkinakis, if you prefer) of Croatia may be Borna Coric, a 17-year-old currently ranked No. 303. He was given a wild card into this week’s Zagreb Indoors, where he faced veteran Michael Berrer. Last year, Coric actually played Berrer in Zagreb qualifying, winning just four games. This year, he won a set and put a scare into the German, who was forced out of his defensive comfort zone to keep up with Coric's impressive and aggressive game. The Croat has an outstanding two-handed backhand, can serve with pop and has a taste for finishing at net. He lost 6-4, 3-6, 6-4, but it would be surprising not to see Coric resurface -- and win -- in tournaments down the road.
And perhaps that is the best way to describe February -- as a glimpse into the future. Look past the usual stable of French veterans in Montpellier and you’ll find wild card Pierre-Hughes Herbert, the 22-year-old who last fall took Novak Djokovic to a tiebreaker at the Paris Masters. In Fed Cup, it's 18-year-old Madison Keys -- not Serena Williams or Sloane Stephens -- who will lead the United States against Italy. And Kyrgios and Kokkinakis even gave encore performances in Davis Cup last weekend. With both tours so top heavy, February is a good time to see what else is out there, and there’s no shortage of options.
The only thing slow about February may be the schedules of the elites, but I don’t think that's a bad thing. Whether you're a fan of the Big Four or not, it's in the sport's best interest to see them healthy and playing at their peak. They'll be back before you know it. For now, show some love before, after and during Valentine's Day for those who will likely be their opening-round opponents come March.