The upper echelons of the men’s game have been spoilt in the era of the ‘Big Four’. For the past 14 successive seasons the year-end No.1 has been either the current incumbent Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic or Andy Murray.
In particular, 2017 has seen the headlines dominated by the remarkable resurgence of Nadal and Federer, who swept up all four Grand Slam men's singles titles.
Their dominance cannot continue forever, though, and to that end here has also been an undercurrent to the season, with the emergence of the new stars poised to tussle for major titles at the top.
The ATP launched an ambitious campaign last November in London, which has seen the finest 21-and-under players vie all year long for a ticket to the Next Gen ATP Finals. The inaugural tournament has some intriguing twists on the rules to engage a plethora of younger fans to the sport.
MEET THE FIELD
Alexander Zverev surged to world No.3 courtesy of five titles in an astonishing year, which has catapulted him to the prestigious ATP World Tour Finals. The German dominated the race to Milan, but has understandably concenrated his sights on London.
Despite the absence of Zverev, those lucky enough to sit courtside in Milan will observe a strong field of young men with explosive power and raw talent.
Andrey Rublev arrived in Italy as the top seed. The Russian is the youngest player in the world’s top 40 and won his first ATP title in Umag in July. He shot to prominence with a quarter-final run at the US Open, having dispatched Grigor Dimitrov and David Goffin along the way.
At 18, Denis Shapovalov is the only teenager in the draw and has caught the eye of the sporting world with his exquisite single-handed backhand.
“I feel like we are part of history,” stated Shapovalov. “This event is going to go on for many years to come!”
The Canadian, who won the boys' singles title here in 2016, soared into the spotlight by ousting Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal en route to the Coupe Rogers semi-finals on home soil.
Hyeon Chung has been on the periphery of a major breakthough for a couple of seasons but his fearless shotmaking has reaped a return. He contested a marathon four-hour battle with Kei Nishikori in the French Open third round and is evidently delighted to return to the big stage this week.
“It’s an honour to play in Milan,” revealed the South Korean. “I have been working really hard during the whole season, so being able to play here is a recognition to that effort.”
Karen Khachanov leads the field with 25 match wins this season. The towering Russian climbed to a career best world No.29 following impressive displays to reach the last 16 at Roland Garros and the third round at Wimbledon.
Daniil Medvedev stormed to a maiden ATP final in Chennai, and secured his maiden Grand Slam match win against no less an opponent than Stan Wawrinka on Centre Court.
Meanwhile, fourth seed Borna Coric exceeded 20 match victories for the third consecutive campaign and can recall a brace of wins against Nadal and Murray this term.
Jared Donaldson will represent America in Milan. Having started the year outside the top 100, Donaldson proved his credentials by navigating to the Miami Masters fourth round.
“It's definitely an accomplishment. It's something that all the players under-21 wanted to qualify for, just because it's a reflection of how well you played throughout the year,” added the world No. 55. “To be one of the top seven guys to do it, I think is definitely really special, definitely an accolade. Now I'm just trying to finish up the year on a positive note.”
Closing out the field is Italian Gianluigi Quinzi, who prevailed in pulsating 3-4, 3-4, 4-2, 4-2, 4-2 battle past compatriot Filippo Baldi to secure the Milan wildcard.
The 21-year-old is a former junior world No.1 and defeated fellow Next Gen prodigy Chung in the 2013 boys' singles final at Wimbledon in straight sets.
INNOVATION IS THE KEY
The field is set, with a blend of styles and personalities, but what about the format? The ATP states that it wants fans to be absorbed in the drama whether they are in the stands or worldwide on digital platforms.
The round-robin format will decide the semi-finalists but the Next Gen prospects will also be competing with brave innovations. All matches will be the best-of-five sets using a shorter format (first to four game sets).
No let calls on serves, sudden-death points at deuce and an on court shot clock are targeting fast-paced, ferocious action.
“We will see if it works for everybody, how everybody feels,” stated Khachanov. “Maybe in the future it can be the new step for tennis.”
In addition, a world debut without line judges will see play rely upon electronic line calling, whilst the Next Gen stars can communicate with their coaches via headset after each set.
The ATP hopes such scintillating talent, combined with the innovations, can prove there is more to the men's game than the Big Four.
“It’s unbelievable,” said ATP Executive Chairman and President Chris Kermode. “When we started this project, I thought the players would be ranked 200 in the world, but they have already surpassed expectations around the Top 50. These guys are the real deal and are the future of the sport.”
It looks like tennis is ready to embrace the Next Gen.