October 18, 2020

The Heirs Apparent

So many of the headlines this year have surrounded the historic performances of players like Novak Djokovic, who amassed an impressive 26-0 record this season before that bizarre disqualification at the U.S. Open and passed Rafael Nadal for the record in Masters 1000 titles, and Nadal himself, who picked up an unprecendented and likely insurmountable 13th trophy at the French Open.

And as notable and monumental as those accomplishments are, it might be worth looking at a couple other players who this week may have cemented themselves as players to watch in the next generation.

Between November of last year and January of this one, Andrey Rublev put together his own unbeaten streak, winning all of his Davis Cup matches and then picking up titles in Doha and Adelaide to start 2020. While he seemed to lose a little momemtum before the lockdown, he did quickly regroup, making the quarters both in New York and at Roland Garros and picking up a clay court title in Hamburg. He came to St. Petersburg this week ranked in the top ten for the first time and made good on expectations, outlasting Denis Shapovalov in the semis and earlier today denying Borna Coric in his second straight attempt to come away with the title here.

The win not only earns Rublev his fourth title of the year -- his sixth overall -- but also gives him 34 match wins for the season, second only to Djokovic. And it certainly makes you wonder how many more he might have had if not for the seven-month shutdown. His trophies may not have come at the biggest events, but his showings at the U.S. and French Opens suggest that perhaps those are not far away. And if he can stay as consistent as he's been this year, we might see the 22-year-old's name at the top of this sport for a long time to come.

A little further down the rankings, but also lighting up the radar these days, is 17-year-old Carlos Alcaraz, who has been demolishing the ITF and Challengers circuits this year. Having started the year ranked just inside the top five hundred, his title run in Barcelona last week helped him climb to #158 in the world. And this week in Alicante he stretched his streak even further, beating top-seeded Pedro Martinez in today's final.

He's only played two matches on the main tour so far, upsetting veteran Albert Ramos-Viñolas in Rio in February. But a third Challengers title before the age of 18 -- he's got three more ITF trophies, by the way -- puts him in the rarefied air of players like Juan Martin del Porto and, you guessed it, Novak Djokovic. And he certainly seems ready to graduate to the big leagues and start to make his mark there too.

Will these guys be the faces of the sport in the years ahead? Perhaps -- so far the old guard remains loathe to give up their hold on the top. But we all know that that day will come eventually, and the talent we've seen from these two shows they might have what it takes to pick up the mantle. If they can do it remains to be seen, but it sure looks like they're off to a great start.

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