Pop culture is nothing without its teen idols. Talent alone is often enough to turn the wheels on the mainstream bus; mix in youth and you have an intoxicating combination, one that can drive an entire generation into fits of screaming, crying, and #hashtags.
Tennis is hardly immune to the charms of a Howitzer forehand and a hangdog face, lest we forget the Open Era exploded in popularity in the mid 70s, when a barely legal Bjorn Borg captured the first of his 11 Grand Slam titles. The Swede was Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in one, drawing in legions of fans with a cool refinement, wild blonde mane, and a domination of both sides of the English Channel.
These days, teen idols are harder to find at the top of the ATP World Tour. Today’s trophies are truly won by men, and maturity – physical and emotional – is placed at a premium. The last decade has been defined by superhuman stamina and gross gentility; the matches have been classics, the combatants, classy.
But there is a new wave teeming its way up to the shores. It is a generation spawned in the shadow of six-hour Slam finals, a brash bunch who grew up beneath the Golden Era of the men’s game, but lack the deference of its denizens. These boys aren’t content with accession; they want to usurp.
The tennis world has seen hints of these fearless youngsters in the last twelve months. Teenagers like Borna Coric has already earned two Big 4 scalps in four months. Thanasi Kokkinakis has grabbed the spotlight on the game’s biggest stages, capturing a five-set thriller against Ernests Gulbis in front of a delighted home crowd at the Australian Open. Compatriot Nick Kyrgios has arguably been the most impressive of all, reaching two Grand Slam quarterfinals, all the while waving the flag for Generation Swag.
Where the WTA Tour has depended on the seemingly endless supply of Russian talent, the men’s side has seen fewer spoils from the Golden Horde. Andrey Rublev was seven years old when Marat Safin won the Australian Open in 2005, and was hardly older than that when Nikolay Davydenko earned his career-high ranking of No. 3. Named after the iconic Russian painter, Rublev is the youngest of the next generation of ATP talent and, with his mop of strawberry blonde hair, looks more like Bieber than Borg. But the teenager looks to be no passing pop star. The Russian’s results were explosive as a junior, and is enjoying a steady, well-earned transition onto the senior circuit.
Son of a former boxer turned restaurant mogul, the Youth Olympic bronze medalist fell for the game at an early age, due in large part to his mother, tennis coach Marina Marenko.
“He had a lot of toys, stuffed animals, a soccer ball, but his favorite toys were the racket and tennis ball,” Marenko reminisced in 2013.
The childhood coach of Daria Gavilova could well be Russia’s answer to Judy Murray, imparting everything she knew on a son who would grow up to play professionally.
“All my life she was teaching,” Rublev said. Like since I was born I had a racket.”
Rublev began playing ITF junior tournaments at 13, showing off a prowess for singles and doubles before his true breakthrough came in the winter of 2013, when he reached the final of the prestigious Eddie Herr International – falling in a final set tiebreak. The Russian seamlessly moved from green clay to red a few months later, capping a 16-3 record during last year’s European clay swing with his first junior Grand Slam at Roland Garros.
“This win proves that I’m doing the right thing and that I need to carry on the same way,” he said after becoming the first Russian to win the boy’s title in nearly 40 years.
Carry on, he did; Rublev went on to win Roehampton a few weeks later, and partner good friend Stefan Kozlov to reach the final of the Wimbledon boy’s doubles event. With a game for all surfaces, Rublev moves well from the back of the court, eager to find openings with his forehand. Top seed at last year’s US Open, the Russian lost an entertaining three-setter to America’s Francis Tiafoe, and hung up his junior career after getting the chance to play with childhood idol, Rafael Nadal.
“He had a few advices for me. The big one was keep working hard. Yes, I know I need to keep working harder.”
Resolved to conquer the ATP Tour, the youngster won his first main draw match in Delray Beach. Weeks later, he won his second in Miami, joining Kokkinakis and Japan’s Yoshihito Nishioka to make up the first trio of teens to reach the second round of an ATP event in over seven years.
Nearly a year removed from his French Open victory, Rublev finds himself back on clay, in Barcelona – Nadal’s home tournament – and playing another Spaniard in Fernando Verdasco in the first round. From a break down in the opening set, the young Russian showed off stellar agility and anticipation, cutting off the former Top 10 player’s would-be winners and cracking a few of his own to win the tiebreak.
With his mother watching from the stands, Rublev hit through cramps and a late bout with nerves to close out Verdasco in straight sets, though his football-inspired celebrations evidently rubbed the veteran the wrong way. For a career win, the Russian was as subdued as one could expect, though Marenko could be seen shedding a few tears from the sidelines.
But there is an irony in Verdasco rolling his eyes at one unwilling to wait his turn. The ATP’s next generation seems largely unconcerned with winning beautifully; they want to win big. Rublev’s youth may preclude him from idol status, but he is undoubtedly a teen to watch.
Hand: Right (two-handed backhand)
ATP Titles: None (4 ITF Futures)
Career High Rank: No. 328 (3/02/2015)
Best Slam Result: Champion (French Open Boy’s Singles, 2014)
Biggest Win: Fernando Verdasco (No. 37, Barcelona 2015)