wimbledon tennis

Holding court: The Wimbledon wild cards poised to cause an upset

Meet the tennis wild cards to watch out for at Wimbledon 2019...

Change is coming to tennis. The Big Four have served their time and a new generation of icons are finding their feet on the grass and clay. But what exactly does it take to make it in this highly strung, fiercely fought, smash hit of a sport?Which wild cards are set to become the next big hitters? And who is poised to take centre stage on Centre Court?

Taylor Fritz, 21 World No. 31

Taylor Fritz was born to be a tennis player. Not only is his mother former world top 10 Kathy May, and his father a tennis coach, but he was also brought up near Carson, one of the US’s two tennis training hotspots. And that’s before we even get to his 6ft 4in frame. “I knew I was going to be a big guy,” Fritz says, matter-of-factly. “So I had to develop a big game, a pro game. So everything I did was aimed at my physicality, how I was going to be built and the powerful strokes that work for me.”

As such, Fritz adds, he never really focused on his junior form — instead deciding to build towards a 2015 professional debut. “It was what I had been waiting for,” he says. “I was more engaged and serious. Physically, it was a lot tougher, but I was already pretty much fully grown so I could deal with the older players and the pros.” There’s undeniable confidence in Fritz. And, as the second-fastest American to reach an ATP final, it’s justified. But, despite the stars aligning for the 21-year-old, Fritz acknowledges he’ll need help bringing back the US’s glory days. “I’m hoping that we can have two to five guys who can make the sport popular again. And the only way to do that is for us to be the best.”

Feliciano López, 37 World No. 54

There are few players who can claim they’ve beaten records set by Roger Federer. But Feliciano López, the Spaniard who peaked in the ATP rankings at No. 12 in 2015, is one of them. For, with this year’s Australian Open, he has now played in 68 consecutive Grand Slams — three more than Federer. And, although five-setters may be behind him, he still has a talent for finding joy in his career. “I was so proud when I won Queen’s in 2017,” he laughs. “It was just so unexpected. I was 35 — to win at that stage was very special.”

And López’s sporting pride extends to his wider life. He counts Vienna as one of his favourite cities because it was there he won his first ATP tournament — out of six. Asked to name his greatest rivals, he starts rattling off the names: “David Ferrer probably. Tommy Robredo. Guillermo Coria from Argentina. All great rivals!” Sadly, López believes he’s missed out on a Grand Slam singles title, but he maintains that his and Marc López’s doubles win at the 2016 French Open was as rewarding a victory as he could ever want. “As a tennis player,” he reasons, “you don’t normally share your emotions. But that win at Roland Garros with Marc was very special.”

Grigor Dimitrov, 27 World No. 49

“The past year has been very up and down,” admits Grigor Dimitrov, the one-time World No. 3 who has this year struggled with injuries, early defeats and form. “At the start of the year, I had a few things to work on. It was a challenge.” He pauses. “And everyone’s playing so well right now — so everyone’s dangerous.” But down isn’t necessarily out for Dimitrov. As the only Bulgarian to make the ATP Singles Top 10, and with eight ATP titles to his name, he’s got enough talent for a comeback. Indeed, he counts Tiger Woods as one of his sporting heroes, and “still can’t believe what [the golfer] did earlier this year.”

“I think we can all see that age doesn’t define us,” Dimitrov reasons. “We see guys over 35 doing a tremendous job. So I’d never set myself goals to reach before a certain age. Instead, I just have that hunger of wanting to be better every day.” So what is the aim? Dimitrov reveals that his team has been putting in extra effort this past year; no one more so than his father, tennis coach Dimitar Dimitrov, who helped his son turn professional at 16. And this support has one objective. “A Grand Slam is the thing I want the most, so that’s definitely the next step for me.”

Karen Khachanov, 23 World No. 9

Khachanov is a big deal in the tennis world. In fact, Khachanov is a big deal in general, standing at 6ft 6in and having just climbed to a career-high ranking of 9, having previously peaked at number 11 after winning the Paris Masters last year. But the Russian’s swift path to success hasn’t been without obstacles. With coaches, especially, he has found it difficult to find the right fit: Igor Bitsenko, Galo Blanco and Vedran Martić have all put in stints throughout his career. “It’s really difficult,” says Khachanov, “to match with a coach. Personally, mentally, you both need to be looking in the same direction. And you must try. Then it’s practice and whether you improve.” The Russian adds: “All of this influences how you choose a coach.”

There’s an intensity to Khachanov — expectedly so, for such a dedicated sportsman. But, with a track record for taking down Djokovic and other top players, as well as his imposing physicality, is the Russian concerned he’ll build up a reputation for being intimidating? “I hope so!” he laughs. “But I still want kids to look up to me and follow my example. I’m trying to do my best. And, while results make you happy, I think we sometimes forget the bigger picture. You need to find positives in any scenario.”

Lucas Pouille, 25 World No. 28

The Frenchman with five ATP Tour titles safely in his kit bag, Lucas Pouille has come a long way. But, the World No. 28 adds, so has his sport. “I really don’t like the ice baths and cryotherapy,” Pouille complains of new treatments. “Even though it’s important for recovery and to be ready for the next match.”

With Pouille more than most, no one knows what the next match will bring. Last year, he rose to World No. 10, but was stricken with injury during the Davis Cup. The year before, he won three ATP World Tour titles on three different surfaces, but also endured a scorching straight-sets loss to Andy Murray. The year before, he suffered a string of first-round losses — but then knocked Rafael Nadal out of the 2016 US Open. “I think my victory against Nadal was one of the best of my career,” he says. “Beating one of the best players of all time on one of the biggest courts is something special.” And Pouille reveals he has his eyes firmly set on Wimbledon. “On the grass, you have to stay lower on your legs, be more aggressive. And it’s more about the serve. Wimbledon is such an exciting part of the year. It’s so clean, so perfect. I’d say it’s maybe the best Grand Slam.”

Borna Ćorić, 22 World No. 14

It takes a lot to rattle Borna Ćorić. The steely-eyed Croatian wunderkind has felled Federer, Nadal and Murray — beating the latter when he was just 18. He’s won two ATP career finals, made it through to the fourth round of this year’s Australian Open — and all before his 23rd birthday. So what is the secret to Ćorić’s success? “I don’t really get nervous, to be honest,” he confides. “I always feel normal. Very excited, yes, but not nervous. Never nervous. I just try to enjoy the moment.”

Those ‘moments’ are coming thick and fast. In the last year alone, Ćorić has broached the Top 20, reached the last 16 of a major tournament for the first time (at the 2018 US Open) — and helped Croatia bring home the Davis Cup in November. “I try not to look too far forward,” says Ćorić. “That drags my focus away. Instead, I look at immediate goals and try to win as many matches as I can.” But Ćorić, who names fellow countryman Goran Ivanišević as his biggest inspiration, admits that he has high hopes for Wimbledon. “I’ve been there many times. Three times on the junior circuit and three on the pro. But, on the pro, I’ve actually won a match at Wimbledon, just once. This year it will be even better.”

Dominic Thiem, 25 World No. 4

“Confidence is key,” says Dominic Thiem, before quickly adding: “especially at Wimbledon.” The Austrian clearly has a Grand Slam on his mind. “It’s my next step,” he agrees, “my next big goal. But I don’t have a plan! I think the most important thing is to work well and play well — and then hopefully it will happen one day.” But when? Thiem has been ranked in the ATP Top 10 for over three years, and is yet to win a Grand Slam. Could Wimbledon be it? “There aren’t many weeks on grass courts,” says Thiem. “So, if I’m unlucky in tournaments, I don’t have a lot of matches to prepare for Wimbledon. And I want to prepare — it’s the most prestigious tournament in tennis. I want to do well.”

His reputation for keeping cool has endeared him to other players. Nadal even revealed he would “love to see [Thiem] play as No. 1”. But Thiem admits he still gets nervous — especially against the Big Four. “I don’t always remain calm,” he laughs. “Even if I’m not calm inside, I never show it because it’s nice for your opponent to see you feeling bad or unsatisfied with your game. So you don’t show that — and that’s key to winning big tournaments.” Like Wimbledon? “Hopefully.”

Nikoloz Basilashvili, 27 World No. 16

“Roger, Rafa, Novak, Andy.” The Georgian counts his heroes on his fingers. “They’re for sure my idols, they’re unbelievably good athletes and people I look up to.” It’s odd, hearing one of tennis’ most exciting young talents — a formidable athlete who has recently dispatched players including del Potro and Thiem — rhapsodise so effusively about men who are, essentially, his rivals. But the 27-year-old is clearly still more comfortable idolising others than being idolised himself. “Zaza Pachulia, a Georgian basketball player,” he says, listing yet more inspirations. “Kakha Kaladze, the football player.”

Patriotic to the last, Basilashvili also admits that making his country proud has been the best part of success. “It makes me really happy to play at such a high level for Georgia,” he says. “But it’s a big responsibility to be a good example — behaving well on and off the court.” He needn’t worry. Basilashvili, who believes he would have been a psychologist if he hadn’t made it in tennis, is acutely aware of the challenges that come with the job. “My new coach and I changed a few things. That’s what I need to win a big tournament — like Wimbledon, the most prestigious for sure.”

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