Dominic Thiem and Alexander Zverev headline young stars ready to win first major
By Mathieu Wood
Last Updated: 27/05/17 4:36pm
Roland Garros will welcome the world's best tennis players for the second major of the year with former champions Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka among the favourites following Roger Federer's decision to withdraw.
However, there are a group of young, hungry and talented players ready to make their mark at a major and possibly go all the way to lift a Grand Slam trophy.
As the average age of tennis players on the ATP tour increases - the current top five players in the world are all aged 30 or older - the challenge for the newer generation to reach the pinnacle toughens.
All have impressed on the tour but are now seemingly ready to go the distance in a Grand Slam and bridge the gap between the very elite of the game.
We take a look at four players who are proving to be a consistent presence in the top 20 of the rankings, household names despite their relative inexperience, and ready to challenge for major honours.
All are under 23, multiple tour winners and possess the character, talent and confidence to go deep at the Grand Slam events.
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Dominic Thiem (23) - World No 7
The Austrian has enjoyed a fantastic clay court season, reaching the final in Madrid and Barcelona losing to Nadal on both occasions.
Thiem has not been outside the top 10 since last June after reaching the semi-finals of the French Open where he lost to eventual champion Djokovic.
There is no doubt that Thiem's progress is due to his long-standing collaboration with experienced coach Gunter Bresnik. Bresnik is well known within the coaching ranks and previously coached precocious talent Ernests Gulbis alongside a raft of former top-100 players.
Bresnik's smartest move was to convince Thiem to switch from a traditional two-handed backhand to the more powerful and fluid single-handed backhand which complements the Austrian's natural movement around the court.
Nicknamed the "Dominator", Thiem's favourite surface is clay and his run to the Madrid final earlier this month saw him reach his first Masters 1000 final. Thiem's style is to stand his ground from the back of the court and unleash his explosive power when the opportunity arises.
Thiem's biggest attribute is certainly his tenacious and unwavering work ethic during the season which coupled with his packed schedule could easily cause a negative effect on other players. However, Thiem seems to rise to the challenge and proved this when he won in Rio de Janeiro during a hectic schedule that followed the Australian Open.
Best result at Roland-Garros: Semi-final in 2016
Alexander Zverev (20) - World No 10
Zverev, born in Hamburg, is the youngest of the four players but has a very calm demeanour on court. He has already picked up titles on the indoor hard courts of Montpellier, in his native homeland in Munich on clay, but most significantly his Masters 1000 triumph in Rome, where he defeated Novak Djokovic convincingly in the final.
Zverev produced several milestones with his victory at the Rome Masters including becoming the youngest Masters 1000 champion since Djokovic in 2007 and the first player born in the 1990s to win a Masters 1000 event.
His older brother Mischa caused a huge shock when he produced an inspired performance to beat world No 1 Murray in the fourth round of the Australian Open earlier this year.
The German, nicknamed "Sascha", is the tallest of the four players we are profiling and has made huge strides in his physical conditioning since working with Murray's former fitness trainer Jez Green.
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The 20-year-old is an extremely good mover around the court for someone so tall and is able to trouble the very best from both wings which was clear to see during his narrow and absorbing defeat in five sets to eventual runner-up Rafael Nadal at the Australian Open.
In October 2016 he became the youngest player to enter the ATP top 20 since Djokovic in 2006 proving that he is here to stay within the elite of the game for many years to come.
Zverev and Thiem have faced off five times previously including at Roland Garros last year where the Austrian prevailed in four sets. Thiem's sole defeat came on the outdoor hard courts of Beijing during the later stages of last season.
Much will depend on the draw but, having grown up on the clay courts in Germany, Zverev has all that is required to impress once again.
Best result at Roland-Garros: Third round in 2016
Lucas Pouille (23) - World No 17
The Frenchman has enjoyed a solid if not spectacular season so far, picking up his only title of the year on the clay courts of Budapest where he defeated Britain's Aljaz Bedene in the final.
Pouille has emerged from a strong contingent of more experienced French players including the likes of Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Richard Gasquet and Gael Monfils. French supporters are desperate for one of their heroes to win at Roland Garros this year. Yannick Noah's victory in 1983 remains the most recent French champion.
Pouille is yet to fully certify his credentials on clay and doesn't possess the all-round game which has enabled compatriots like Tsonga and Monfils to reach the semi-finals in the past.
The 23-year-old has had an indifferent clay court season, losing early in both the Madrid and Rome Masters, however, he did reach the semi-finals at Monte Carlo to underline he does have the credentials to perform well on clay.
Pouille, at the moment, will believe his best opportunity for a deep run in a major will come under the lights of Flushing Meadows later in the year where his pro-activeness to attack behind his first serve with his dominant forehands should pay dividends.
The Frenchman produced a noteworthy performance last year on the hard courts in New York by knocking out 14-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal in five sets.
Best result at Roland-Garros: Second round in 2013 and 2016
Nick Kyrgios (22) - World No 19
Who can forget the Australian's entrance into the greater public's conscience when the often controversial but extremely talented Kyrgios sent Nadal packing in the fourth round at Wimbledon in 2014?
Kyrgios, then aged 19 and ranked 144th in the world, became the first man outside the top 100 to beat a world number one at a Grand Slam since 1992.
The Australian is exuberant, frustrating and volatile in equal measure but when on song is an extremely difficult proposition for his opponents.
It was announced earlier in the month that the Australian would link up on a part-time basis with former world No 4 French player Sebastien Grosjean who previously coached countryman Gasquet.
Grosjean is likely to be a much-needed presence in the Kyrgios camp and will hopefully provide some clarity for the Australian, who has had to battle against injuries in recent weeks highlighted by his withdrawal from the Rome Masters. In fact, the charismatic 22-year-old has only competed at the Madrid Masters during the clay court swing, meaning he could be short of the required match practice before the second major of the year.
One of Kyrgios' most notable wins came on the clay of Madrid in 2015 when he got the better of Federer in a match decided by three separate tie-breaks. Kyrgios holds the accolade of beating Federer, Nadal and Djokovic in their first tour meetings - something only matched by compatriot and former world No 1 Lleyton Hewitt.
The big-serving Kyrgios is good friends off the court with Zverev and the prospect of a long-term rivalry on the court promises much interest and excitement over the years to come.
Expect Kyrgios to perform well on the grass this summer thanks to his accurate and explosive serve especially at Wimbledon where he came to prominence.
Best result at Roland-Garros: Third round in 2015 and 2016
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