By David Gertler
With the 2021 tennis season coming to a close (at least besides Challengers and Futures), tennis fans are looking forward to 2022 and trying to figure out how the landscape of tennis will change. And for the men, the ATP Next Gen Finals in Milan provided eight contenders to shake up the field in 2022.
Who are these eight players? How did they perform in 2021 and what are their expectations for 2022? Read on for a brief synopsis below!
Juan Manuel Cerundolo
While Cerundolo ended up going 0/3 in his first Next Gen Finals appearance, his clay-court aptitude was fully on display for the world to see this season. Whether it be winning the ATP 250 in Cordoba or his three Challenger titles and two additional finals, the World No. 90 is set to build on his season next year.
Cerundolo’s game is very clay-centric and he uses his heavy lefty forehand and variety to puzzle opponents. However, for him to build on this season in 2022, Cerundolo will need to continue to add more pace onto his groundstrokes, beef up his serve, and become more comfortable off of clay. Cerundolo felt like a fish-out-of-water at times at the Next Ge Finals.
World No. 67 Hugo Gaston disappointed at the Next Gen Finals, going 0-3. However, his 2021 season was fairly successful. While the Frenchman never won a title, he did make the final of the ATP 250 event in Gstaad and made four Challenger finals. Gaston also made the quarterfinals of the Masters 1000 in Paris, beating Kevin Anderson, Pablo Carreno Busta, and Carlos Alcaraz along the way.
Gaston is a lefty with incredible touch. Whether it be drop shots, drop volleys, or pinpoint groundstrokes, Gaston’s ability to place the ball around the court and his unpredictability have made him a huge threat on the tour. For 2022, it’s vital for him to snag that first Challenger. At the Challenger level and higher, he’s 0-5 in finals and has lost his last seven sets. Playing with the precision he has under the pressure of a final will be the next jump for Gaston.
Musetti didn’t perform as well as he might have hoped in regards to his home event in Milan,, a microcosm for the second half of his season. The World No. 59 went 1-2, with a sole win over Gaston. Through the French Open, Musetti was having a dream season. He made the final of the Antalya and Biella Challengers, semifinals of the ATP 500 in Acapulco and the ATP 250 in Lyon, quarterfinals of the ATP 250 in Sardinia, and was two sets up on Novak Djokovic at the French Open. However, after the French Open, he won five matches total in a very disappointing stretch of play.
Musetti’s game is built for clay, which certainly made it difficult on the quick courts of Milan. He often stands behind the baseline, working the ball around the court, and has incredible touch. However, like Cerundolo (but to a lesser extent), he relies on his clay prowess and will need to continue to get practice on hard courts. Perhaps it would do him good to go down to the Challenger level. His groundstrokes are also long swings, so that hurts his ability to play on faster courts, and is something he will need to adapt to in 2022.
But, overall, Musetti needs to get confidence in his groundstrokes back.
Rune far-exceeded expectations this season, winning four Challengers and making the final of another. Rune won one match at the Next Gen Finals, beating Juan Manuel Cerundolo, but lost the other two. However, that shouldn’t soil what has truly been a remarkable season for Rune.
The World No. 103 is physically in a much better spot than before (he struggled with cramps for a while), and his aggressive baseline game can take the racquet out of opponents’ hands. Rune does a great job of waiting for the right moment to pull the trigger. For 2022, it will be important for the Dane to continue improving his fitness so the cramps don’t come back and to work on his ability to turn defense-into-offense, which is fine at the Challenger level, but will need to improve at the ATP Tour level.
We have our second Argentine on this list with Baez. He had an incredible season on the ATP Challenger Tour, winning six Challengers and making the final of three others. And he carried the momentum of his season into the ATP Next Gen Finals, where he went 2-1 in the round robin and made the semifinals, before losing to Carlos Alcaraz. This was a somewhat surprising result, given Baez’s successes in 2021 were almost exclusively on clay. Yet, Baez did a great job adapting his game to the quick surface in Milan.
Baez is a very smart, solid baseliner. He does a great job of not getting pushed back and knows the right time when to pull the trigger on his groundstrokes. For 2022, the key for the World No. 99 will be to continue to play on hard courts and get experience there, to touch up his forehand so that it doesn’t get erratic under pressure, and to try to get a bit more “muster” on his first serve.
Nakashima had a reasonably successful tournament in Milan, making the semifinals with a 2-1 record in the group stage, but losing to Sebastian Korda in the final four. The Next Gen Finals was the cherry on top of a great season for Nakashima, one that saw him make two ATP Tour finals, and win two Challengers.
At World No. 68, Nakashima is climbing up the rankings steadily. His game, consisting of a well-placed serve, flatter and deep groundstrokes, and much-improved transition/net play make him very tough to play, especially on quicker and lower-bouncing surfaces. Yet, Nakashima made a huge effort to improve his clay game, which is commendable. For 2022, Nakashima’s goals should be winning his first ATP Tour title, continuing to improve his clay game, and working on his movement around the court, which looks stiff at times.
Korda, at World No. 41, had a terrific, although inconsistent, season. Korda won an ATP 250 event on clay, made the final of one on hard, and even made the second week of Wimbledon, losing in the round of 16 to Karen Khachanov. In Milan, Korda went 3-0 in the round robin, beat Nakashima in the semifinals, before losing to Carlos Alcaraz in the final.
The American has a big serve and does a great job with the controlled aggression on his groundstrokes. His backhand is particularly lethal and his groundstrokes slice through the court with authority. For 2022, the top 20 is certainly a possibility for a player with the weapons that Korda possesses. For him to get there, however, he will need to work on his transition game to the net and his rally tolerance, as Korda can get slap-happy on his groundstrokes when he’s not mentally engaged in a match.
There are not enough words in the dictionary to praise World No. 32 Alcaraz’s 2021 season. Whether it be the title at the ATP 250 in Umag, the Oeiras 3 Challenger victory, or the quarterfinal at the US Open, the Spaniard made a name for himself in 2021. And his success carried into the Next Gen Finals, where he won the title without losing a match. This included a straight-sets victory over Korda in the final.
Alcaraz’s game is very, very explosive. His serve has massively improved, he’s far from a “clay courter” anymore, adapting his game so that he can play effectively off of clay, his forehand has incredible pop, and he’s extremely fast around the court. His backhand isn’t as good as his forehand, but it’s still a solid shot and he can get good depth and power on both wings.
For 2022, the expectations are certainly high, with more ATP titles and Major second weeks expected, but Alcaraz seems ready to take on the challenge. If he can touch-up his net game and continue to improve his serve, he is going to be a force-to-be-reckoned-with in 2022.
So, that’s a breakdown of the eight contenders at the ATP Next Gen. Finals! For those worried about the future of men’s tennis, don’t be. These eight have us covered.