A host of those rising Nextgen stars, led by 21-year-old Alexander Zverev, might profit from paying attention this weekend when former Wimbledon champion Michael Stich gets inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, Rhode Island.
While overshadowed by some of the game's most familiar superstars in the early to mid-1990s -- surely the names Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg ring a bell -- Stich, a lean 6-foot-4 German, managed to amass one of the most well-rounded records in the history of the Open era. He won only one Grand Slam title (in three finals), but he hit some remarkable high notes that remain a tribute to his versatility and opportunism.
When Stich matured, Germany's Davis Cup captain Nikki Pilic praised his intelligence, good movement and touch around the net. Stich, who already had a strong baseline game, took advantage of any opportunity to attack, and it paid off on all surfaces including clay and hard courts.
Like Stich, fellow German Zverev, who is 2 inches taller, is a good mover. Zverev doesn't hit a one-handed rocket backhand the way Stich did, but he's got an excellent two-hander (some believe it's a superior weapon for returning serve), and he can slice nicely with one hand. Zverev is an intelligent player, but he lacks that sense of opportunism cultivated by Stich and other players who had greater attacking skills.
Zverev, who has struggled to live up to his potential and ranking at Grand Slams, looked to be on the verge of a breakthrough when he made the quarterfinals at Roland Garros and ripped through two rounds at Wimbledon. But he was ousted in the third round in London by No. 138 Ernests Gulbis. The interesting thing about Zverev, and it's true of many of his Nextgen peers as well, is that they don't seem to have a clear desire or plan to impose themselves on an opponent -- other than to hit a whopper of a serve. They seem more or less content to react to what an opponent does, hoping to outwit or outhit him.
Part of the problem is that without the desire or ability to attack the net comfortably, it doesn't make sense to play too aggressively. You can lay some of the blame for the decline of attacking play on the equipment, especially those dreaded polyester strings that everyone claims have altered the game so much. But Roger Federer dared challenge the conventional wisdom about the perils of playing alert, attacking tennis and reaped some benefits. Maybe other gifted players can as well.
Kevin Anderson, who made the Wimbledon final last week, doesn't have Stich's natural talent. But the 6-foot-8 Anderson has paid the price for lacking the attacking component. One of the most diligent workers in the game, Anderson is resolved to adding that dimension to his game. It could be the key to Anderson, 32, finally winning a major -- if he doesn't run out of time. "Moving forward, I want to start hitting even more balls at the net," he said at Wimbledon. "Shortening points is an aspect of my game which I believe I can become much better at."
Stich knew how to shorten points under all conditions. He played Grand Slam finals on all three major surfaces. He won Wimbledon in 1991 (it was just his second title as a pro) with back-to-back wins over Edberg and Becker, two players who had won five of the previous six titles at Wimbledon. Stich lost the 1994 US Open final to Andre Agassi and the 1996 French Open final to Yevgeny Kafelnikov.
The variety of Stich's accomplishments is impressive. He was an Olympic gold medalist in doubles (with Becker) and played on a winning German Davis Cup squad. He was the only player in the 1990s to win the ATP World Tour Championships undefeated, overcoming Sampras in the 1993 final. Stich beat Goran Ivanisevic on indoor carpet, won 18 singles titles and finished his nine-year career with a 5-4 series edge over Sampras.
Stich might have been overshadowed, but he was never overwhelmed or overrun on a tennis court. He played the game on his terms, a good lesson for Zverev and those rising stars still looking for a breakthrough.