Commentary

Trio of 22-year-olds ready to shine

Raonic, Dimitrov, Janowicz have the game to become next ATP stars

Originally Published: August 24, 2013
By Sandra Harwitt | Special to ESPN.com

When glimpsing at the top 30 players in the ATP World Tour rankings, you clearly notice three 22-year-old players who stand out as the likely candidates to be the next big success stories.

The trio in question -- Milos Raonic, Jerzy Janowicz and Grigor Dimitrov -- are among the 10 youngest players in the top 100 overall, and are the highest-ranked in that group.

All three started their lives in Eastern Europe: Raonic was born in Montenegro, but emigrated to Toronto, Canada, with his engineer parents when he was 3 years old; Janowicz comes from and still lives in Lodz, Poland; and Dimitrov grew up in Haskovo, Bulgaria, but now trains in Sweden.

So why are these three considered potential superstars of the future? That's easy: All three have game.

That's certainly how Rafael Nadal sees it.

"They are great players, they are dangerous," Nadal said. "Janowicz is having a great season. He's already played the semifinals at Wimbledon. He already played the final of Masters 1000 in [Paris] last year.

[+] EnlargeMilos Raonic
AP Photo/George NikitinMilos Raonic won his third straight SAP Open in February, beating Tommy Haas 6-4, 6-3 for the title.
"Raonic, he was able to play a final last week at home," Nadal added. "That's a lot of confidence for him. He's a very, very dangerous player. And Dimitrov has everything to be in the top. I'm sure they will be in the top."

One of the three is advancing at a quicker pace than the others, though, at least in terms of ranking.

Raonic entered the top 10 for the first time in his career last week, the youngest player in that elite category. He did so following his appearance in the ATP Masters Series 1000 Montreal final, where he lost to Nadal. Raonic was hardly worried that the top 10 honor held traction for only a few days, at least this time around, with him bouncing back to No. 11 this week.

"It doesn't feel any different to tell you the truth," said Raonic, of achieving top-10 status. "I just think you just get a little bit more attention and recognition for it. But it hasn't changed me in any way and hasn't changed my tennis. Maybe I'm not really that hung up on it because I see it more as a stepping stone to get something bigger. It's not the goal of my career getting to top 10."

"The goal is to be the best in the world. And to be the best you have to win Slams," he added, noting that his best result at the majors has been three fourth-round showings.

Most everything Raonic does on the court is wrapped around his canon-like serve. Last year, he ranked second on the tour with 1,002 aces, only three behind American John Isner. Roanic, however, did finish 2012 having one more first-serve points (2,507) than anyone else.

Besides his Montreal final, Raonic won his third consecutive title at San Jose and was a semifinalist in Barcelona this year. But his most notable achievement of 2013 is undoubtedly leading Canada to its first ever Davis Cup World Group semifinal berth. Raonic and the team will travel to Belgrade in September with the hopes of beating Serbia and advancing to the final.

"I think I have to keep doing well," said Raonic, now working with former player Ivan Ljubicic as his coach. "I'm OK with my year, but I'm not happy because I want more and more from myself when it comes to my tennis."

[+] EnlargeGrigor Dimitrov
Clive Brunskill/Getty ImagesGrigor Dimitrov's backhand is one of the reasons he's earned comparisons to Roger Federer.
The Dimitrov story is one of a kind: born to be an athlete, the only child of a tennis-coach father and volleyball-playing mother.

The 28th-ranked Dimitrov's own description of his game is that he enjoys "improvising on the court." He's noted for his one-handed backhand, especially when he whips it down the line.

In playing the game of "Who does he remind you of?" Dimitrov's game is most often likened to Roger Federer's, which has sometimes earned him the nickname "Baby Fed." Where the Bulgarian needs to improve is with his physical stamina, consistency and, stroke-wise, improve his return of serve.

This year, Dimitrov has been in the Brisbane final and the semifinals at both Rotterdam and Bastad. His best ranking came back in May when he reached No. 26.

"Being in the final at Brisbane was a good step for me and my ranking," Dimitrov said. "I've been feeling quite well on and off the court, which, of course, brings a lot of positive energy. And so far I've been blessed to be injury-free, which is very important. Now I'm trying to find an even better way on the court and finding the right formula to have that little extra."

Dimitrov trains primarily with Mikael Tillstrom, who started the Good To Great Tennis Academy in Stockholm with fellow Swedes Magnus Norman and Nicklas Kulti. When asked if he's gone from good to great yet, he laughingly replied, "I'm on my way."

As the top Bulgarian to ever play the men's tour, a reputation as a talent waiting in the wings for big things to happen, possessing an outgoing personality, and being in a high-profile love match with Maria Sharapova, it's not surprising that Dimitrov is on most tennis fans' radar. Yet none of that acclaim appears to drive Dimitrov.

"I'm not thirsty for attention," Dimitrov said. "I think I have to be more consistent with my results at tournaments, that's very important. You can't just player really good one week or two weeks, and then eventually start beating the better players."

[+] EnlargeJerzy Janowicz
Julian Finney/Getty Imagestbd by editor
Of the three, Janowicz has had the most impressive result at a Grand Slam, finding himself in this year's semifinal at Wimbledon, where he fell to eventual champion Andy Murray.

The top-ranked player from Poland, there's much hope that Janowicz will make some history by ending the year with the highest ranking ever for a Polish male player. He needs to beat out Wojtek Fibak, who ended the 1980 season ranked No. 15, for that honor.

Janowicz has one of the biggest serves in the game, routinely hitting first serves in the 130- to 140-mph range, and boasting a second serve that often clocks in at 115-120. At 6-foot-8, he's powerful, moves surprisingly well, and has good touch.

The 15th-ranked Janowicz still needs improvement in terms of consistency, though. His serve is huge, but so is the amount of double faults he often posts. He also tends to be moody, and appears to have a lack of understanding of the off-court responsibilities that go along with being a notable player.

When Janowicz gets all that ironed out, Murray is convinced "he can be the future of the game." After playing Janowicz at Wimbledon, Murray later commented, "I think Jerzy will be around the top of the game for quite a while. I would have thought in the next few months he'll get himself inside the top 10."

The days of players making great noise in their teens seems to be a thing of the past. So, in today's world, 22 seems to be just the right age for a male player to break out.

"They are still young, but they should start to have chances to win important tournaments even if we [the current Grand Slam champions] are here," Nadal said. "That's my feeling. So they will probably next year. The normal evolution and the history says that's going to happen."

Now the fun starts as we wait to see how these three talents jockey for top positions in the game. And rest assured that those already atop the charts are watching the progress of this up-and-coming trio. 

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.

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