Pouille and Zverev arrive

Two of the hottest young players on the men’s tour reached major milestones this week by claiming their first ATP World Tour titles. The names Lucas Pouille and Alexander Zverev are hardly household names, but you can be quite certain they will be within the next few years.

Lucas Pouille received a mention in my last column after making the quarter-finals of the US Open by defeating two-time champion Rafael Nadal, shortly after making his first Grand Slam quarter-final at Wimbledon. Last week the focussed 22 year old Frenchman notched his first title in Metz by downing the top seed, another young gun, Dominic Thiem. But the manner in which he did it was as impressive as his victory.

(Zverev's victory brought) back memories of a 19 year old Federer taking down Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001

After Pouille failed to convert three set points at 5-4 in a tight first set, the players entered a tie-break. Thiem pulled away to a 4-0 lead before Pouille came back to level at 5-5, resulting in Thiem losing his nerve and double faulting. Pouille then immediately broke serve in the second set and ran away with the match, showing that there is more to his game than just great shots... and he does have great shots!

Pouille showed the kind of mental toughness we typically see from a top-five player, a trait that we saw in a young Federer and Nadal. It’s the belief that they have the game to bring down any opponent, regardless of how well-established or successful the player is. And with his strong all-court game, Pouille has good reason to believe in himself. He is aiming for a top-twenty finish this year but his ascent won’t stop there.

Alexander Zverev had a tougher time claiming his maiden title in St. Petersburg, having to overcome the newly crowned US Open champion, Stan Wawrinka in the final. In a similar fashion to Pouille, Zverev didn’t just achieve a milestone but really proved his mettle in doing so. Zverev looked to be out of the match early in the third set, as Wawrinka used a variety of topspin and slice to jerk the 6’6” Zverev all over the court, jumping out to a 3-0 lead. But the youngster clawed his way back and at 5-5, after a 21-shot rally, it was Wawrinka who blinked first to hand Zverev the break.

It would have been quite normal for Zverev to be affected by nerves as he stepped up to serve for the championship. Not only was he entering unchartered territory, he was doing it against a 3-time Grand Slam champion who is 12 years his senior and was on an 11-match winning streak in finals. But Zverev was unfazed, confidently closing out the match by smacking a forehand winner, bringing back memories of a 19 year old Federer taking down Pete Sampras at Wimbledon in 2001. He would join an exclusive group of teenage stars if he’s able to finish the year in the top-twenty (he’s currently No 24). But, like Pouille, expect this star to continue to rise, right into the top-ten.

While some of todays young guns, like Kyrgios and Tomic, have shown that they have the playing skills required to be top-ten or even top-five players, their lack of maturity and commitment to the game has placed question marks against their names. On the other hand, Pouille and Zverev are two talented and committed young players who are also showing that they have the goods upstairs.

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