Nearly every male tennis player under age 25 claims that Roger Federer is his idol. But not many can say they were invited to train with the Swiss star in Dubai prior to the 2011 season. "Practicing with Roger is an amazing experience," Berankis said in an article in DEUCE. "Sometimes he'll come up to me in the locker room, slap me on the back and say, 'Hey, Richard, how are you?' It makes me feel very good." Very good can also describe Berankis' game. At 17, this modest son of a post office worker and a taxi driver won the U.S. Open junior title without dropping a set. In 2010, at age 20, he finished the year as the youngest player in the top 100. His Agassi-like return is his biggest weapon. But the versatility of his game also enables him to either push the pace with superior fitness and mobility or stay back and take whatever his opponent throws at him. In this, his first full year on the ATP Tour, Berankis has collected wins over Nicholas Mahut, Donald Young and Alex Bogomolov Jr. No doubt there will be more to come.
Grigor Dimitrov has good reason to be confident. In 2009, the young Bulgarian was coached by Peter Lundgren, who guided Roger Federer to his first Wimbledon title -- and Lundgren said Dimitrov was more talented than Federer at the same age. As the comparisons grew, so did Dimitrov's head. "I definitely believe I can be the world No. 1," he told London's Daily Telegraph. "I can do anything on any surface." But he's not all talk. In 2008, Dimitrov won both the Wimbledon and U.S. Open Junior titles. And in many respects, Dimitrov is downright Federer-esque: the smooth one-handed backhand, the down-the-line topspin drive, the one-behind-the-other stack of his feet on serve. Like Federer, Dimitrov has infinite variety in his game, with spin and direction, drop shots and slices. His lanky 6'2", 169-pound frame, topped with dark curls, cuts a familiar silhouette. Federer was 22 when he won his first Grand Slam; Dimitrov still has plenty of time to work out how to truly emulate the Swiss star.
Up-and-coming American Christina McHale trains at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center and grew up attending the U.S. Open, so it was only natural that Flushing Meadows would be the site of her first real tennis success. She got off to a rough start in 2011 but rebounded with summer victories over Svetlana Kuznetsova and world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki. Then she became the American darling of the 2011 U.S. Open, defeating Aleksandra Wozniak and upsetting Marion Bartoli before losing in the third round to Maria Kirilenko. McHale is a counterpuncher whose biggest strengths are her mental toughness and her movement. She's a good returner who likes to mix up her shots, and despite her 5'7", 110-pound frame, McHale uses her heavy forehand to move opponents around the court and generates deceptive power on a serve she's not afraid to use in big situations. Case in point: To polish off Bartoli at the U.S. Open, she fired a 109 mph ace up the T on match point.
Pavlyuchenkova was a greedy junior player, winning the 2006 and 2007 Australian Opens and the 2006 U.S. Open. "I don't mean to sound arrogant, but I won everything in the juniors," she told Benjamin Adler for the Roland Garros website. "When I turned pro at 16, I had to learn how to lose. I started racking up disappointment after disappointment, and I wasn't used to it." That feeling didn't last long. Pavlyuchenkova had a breakout year in 2010, taking her first WTA singles titles in Monterrey and Istanbul, amassing a 40-22 match record and finishing the season ranked 21st in the world. She continued her roll in 2011, reaching the quarterfinals at both the French and U.S. Opens. Pavlyuchenkova, who began playing tennis at age 6, comes from a long line of athletic stock; her grandmother played basketball for the USSR, her father was an Olympic-level canoeist and her mother was a competitive swimmer. At 5'10" and 159 pounds, Pavlyuchenkova uses her strength, athleticism and big forehand to push pace from the backcourt and likes to paint the lines with her flat, hard ground strokes. It's a safe bet she'll be Russia's next Grand Slam winner.
When Sloane Stephens was 11 years old, she and her mother signed a pact with regard to her tennis career. "We agreed she would try to have the best attitude she could, and I agreed to support her no matter what," Sybil Smith told World Tennis Magazine. "One of these days we're going to have it framed." At no other time did Stephens need her mother's support more than at the 2010 U.S. Open. Stephens' father, former Patriots Pro Bowler John Stephens, died in a car accident during the first week of the tournament. Sloane flew to Louisiana to attend the funeral, then returned to Flushing Meadows to play her first-round match the following morning. "I still think about that," she said during a news conference at the 2011 U.S. Open. "I don't even know how I played ... It was crazy." Taking that U.S. Open title was a mental display of strength matched only by the strength of her game. Like her idols, Venus and Serena Williams, Stephens channels her natural power into huge ground strokes and a booming serve. But Stephens, unlike most Americans, also has the finesse to excel on clay; this season, she qualified for the main draw at Roland Garros and cracked the top 100.