By Benjamin Snyder, special to EmiratesUSOpenSeries.
CINCINNATI - In the first match of the main draw event at the Western & Southern Open on Sunday, two of the youngest competitors to play at the Lindner Family Tennis Center this year took to Center Court.
During the match, two of the brightest prospects for the future of men’s tennis were locked in a close battle with Australian Bernard Tomic, 19, ultimately coming out on top against the American Ryan Harrison, 20, in two close sets.
But as the youngest guns of the top 60 fought for a spot in the second round of the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 event, one question loomed over them: When will the younger generation be able to challenge and break through against the top talent on the ATP Tour?
After the Aussie secured the victory over his slightly older opponent, he, along with Harrison, gave voice to their generation in an era dominated by the "Big Four," including Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray.
"You can’t just replace the players that are there now in the top four," Tomic said about the number of victories the top four held.
With 33 major titles between them, the highest-ranked four men have combined to claim 15 straight Masters 1000 titles and 11 straight majors. Additionally, Britain’s Murray claimed the gold medal at the London Olympics, beating Federer in straight sets.
Tomic, who considers this "the most difficult time of tennis" to earn a breakthrough run, lauded the men atop the rankings. "The guys in the top three, four, they’re showing us why they’re the legends of the game," he said.
The 6-foot-5 Tomic, who was a Brisbane semifinalist this year, said things haven’t always been this way. "Back I think 10 years it was much easier – not easier – but in a way there were 20 players that could win a Grand Slam. Now, I think there’s three players," he said.
The No. 49 Australian faces added pressure to succeed along with former No. 1 Lleyton Hewitt, a wild card at this year’s Western & Southern Open, and the last Aussie man to win a major title back in 2002 at Wimbledon.
"It wasn’t that good," Tomic said of Australian men’s tennis in recent years. "Obviously, Lleyton was there." There’s improvement now, he noted. "I think this year’s just shown us we can actually play," he continued, pointing to the rise in the rankings of compatriots Marinko Matosevic and Matthew Ebden.
But Tomic has already made his mark at tennis’ biggest events. His budding resume includes a quarterfinal showing at Wimbledon in 2011, where became the youngest man to reach the quarters since Boris Becker 25 years ago. In the final eight, he fell to the eventual champion Novak Djokovic in four sets.
Harrison, too, discussed the difficulty of cracking the form of the top major contenders in the recent years. "We’ve got a ways to go," Harrison said of the younger ranks, including Milos Raonic and Grigor Dimitrov, taking on the top four. "I mean, I guess there’s been like two or three Top 10 wins out of all of us. Unfortunately, I’ve contributed to zero."
He did, however, remain confident in his ability to keep climbing the rankings and to eventually challenge the world’s top tennis stars. "It’s not impossible," said Harrison, who recently achieved his career-high ranking of No. 43 after advancing to the semifinals at Newport. "I know that I’m going to keep working."
Harrison is realistic regarding his efforts both on and off-court to achieve success when compared to the work of Federer, Djokovic, Nadal and Murray. "I’ve seen those guys working," said Harrison, who recently took to the practice courts at the Lindner Family Tennis Center with two-time Cincinnati titlist and 2003 US Open champion Andy Roddick, a former top-ranked player.
"I’m going to strive as hard as I possibly can," Harrison said. "That’s my goal, because I want to be the best."
Like Harrison, Tomic also spoke optimistically about some day entering the highest echelons of the sport. "It’s just a difficult time for young guys," he said. "We have to keep working, improving."
If the players of his generation continue to push themselves, Tomic said things will eventually get better, "I think our time will come in the next few years," he said. "But we’ve got to work hard, for sure."