Cerundolo, Korda and Wolf still with further upside
While the 2020 tennis season was somewhat shortened, there were still plenty of young players impressing on the lower Challenger Tour and giving some insight into both their current and future ability levels.
I produced a similar preview last season, and of the 10 players highlighted, seven gained at least 35 ranking spots, with two players - Francisco Cerundolo and Sebastian Korda - moving up over 100 places in the world rankings. Jeffrey Wolf was also highlighted and he gained 61 spots, and these three players again feature in this year's high potential list, with all three capable of breaking into the top 100 during the coming season.
Jannik Sinner was our headline pick last year, and the Italian is now into the top 40 after an excellent breakthrough year, and while he remains a player on an extremely high trajectory, I want to look at some lower-profile players for our 10 to watch for the 2021 season. There's no headline pick this year, although I do have strong expectations for these ten players to rise up the rankings.
Martinez Portero can make an impact on clay
Pedro Martinez Portero - Rank 85, Age 23, 2020 ATP combined service/return points won 99.3%.
The Spanish clay-courter, Martinez Portero, already looks an above-average clay-courter on the main tour (almost 103% combined on clay in 2020) and even towards the end of the season performed strongly on the dirt, making back-to-back Challenger finals in October. He won in Marbella and lost in the Alicante final to Carlos Alcaraz Garfia, who I will discuss shortly).
Martinez Portero is very return-orientated, with excellent return points won percentages but mediocre service numbers, and the challenge now for him is to improve away from clay and to work on getting his service numbers up to around average levels.
Sebastian Korda - Rank 118, Age 20, 2020 Challenger combined service/return points won 102.5%.
Son of former Slam winner Petr Korda, Sebastian is following in his father's footsteps with a solid start to professional tennis, finishing 2020 with a Challenger title in Eckental indoors. He also reached the fourth round of the French Open, beating the likes of John Isner on the way, suggesting all-court ability as well.
Jeffrey Wolf - Rank 127, Age 21, 2020 Challenger combined service/return points won 107.5%.
Wolf has displayed an excellent level in Challengers recently, winning two hard court titles (Noumea outdoor, Columbus indoor) early in the season before the tour stopped. He also reached the third round of the US Open in 2020, losing to Daniil Medvedev. Wolf's strong serve should see him tough to get past on the main tour and I'm expecting him to break into the top 100 in the coming year.
Musetti already above-average on clay on the main tour
Lorenzo Musetti - Rank 128, Age 18, 2020 ATP combined service/return points won 102.4%.
Musetti's main tour performances in 2020 already suggest he's an above-average player at that level despite still being 18 years of age. Largely a clay-courter, he made the last 16 of the Rome Masters beating Kei Nishikori and Stan Wawrinka to get to that stage, and made the semi-final in the Sardinia ATP event, also on clay. Musetti also boasts a greater than 110% combined figure on clay in Challengers, making him a clay-courter of extreme upside - as with Martinez Portero, his next challenge is to start improving away from his preferred clay.
Francisco Cerundolo - Rank 139, Age 22, 2020 Challenger combined service/return points won 103.9%.
Another clay-courter in the list, Cerundolo mainly plies his trade on clay and finished his 2020 season with two Challenger Tour titles in Campinas and Guayaquil in November beating some main tour clay-courters. He's won three clay court Challenger titles since the tour resumed, and will be looking to make an impact on the main tour in South American clay events early on in the season.
Alcaraz Garfia looking to emulate Nadal
Carlos Alcaraz Garfia - Rank 141, Age 17, 2020 Challenger combined service/return points won 103.6%.
The Spaniard won 20 of 24 Challenger clay matches in 2020, and won back-to-back clay titles in Barcelona and Alicante on that tour. He reached four clay finals in 2020, winning three titles - all in advance of his 18th birthday. If he can improve his serve - and he should be able to in the coming years - he will be a real threat on the main tour. As a return-orientated Spanish clay-courter, could he be the next Nadal?
Brandon Nakashima - Rank 166, Age 19, 2020 Challenger combined service/return points won 104.9%.
Unlike many of the young players in this list, Nakashima is a hard courter (107% combined in Challengers in 2020 on hard courts) and finished his 2020 season with a win in the Orlando Challenger event. He also showed glimpses of his high potential in the US Open where he split the first two sets against Alexander Zverev, giving the German a real tough time for those opening two sets. Expect Nakashima to make a big jump in the rankings in 2021, with most of his wins coming on hard courts.
Big-serving Machac capable of shocks in hard court events
Tomas Machac - Rank 195, Age 20, 2020 Challenger combined service/return points won 104.6%.
The big-serving Machac held serve almost 89% across hard and indoor hard in Challengers in 2020, and this ability on serve should stand him in good stead against higher level opposition. He reached the final of the Bratislava Challenger indoors in November, and took regular main tour player Taylor Fritz to a deciding fifth set in the French Open.
Felipe Meligeni Rodrigues - Rank 231, Age 22, 2020 Challenger combined service/return points won 102.5%.
Meligeni won almost 80% of his Challenger clay court matches in 2020, winning the Sao Paulo Challenger in November before backing this up with a semi-final in Campinas in early December.
Given those performance levels, I'm expecting him to get into the top 200 and beyond in 2021, and possibly look to pick up a few main tour clay wins in some of the clay 250 events in the next few months.
Tomas Etcheverry - Rank 257, Age 21, 2020 Challenger combined service/return points won 104.1%.
The final player on the list, Etcheverry is another player capable of getting into the top 200. Like many on this list, he's a clay-courter, reaching the Challenger Sibiu final in September and most of his recent losses coming against strong opposition at that level. He has a similar dynamic to Thiago Monteiro to some extent - being a clay-courter with a solid serve - and looks under-ranked at the current time.
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