Can You Predict Future Champions?
“When you are a young man, you are looking for your own identity, and winning is a way of expressing yourself. When I lost, I wanted to die. And because I thought in victory I became somebody, in defeat, it followed, I was nobody.” – Boris Becker, who won his first Grand Slam title at the 1985 Wimbledon, at age 17.
One of the most interesting and challenging aspects of tennis if you’re a fervent tennis fan or a tennis writer and teaching pro like me is to try to predict which young players will become future champions. Sometimes it’s fairly easy. For example, Serena Williams, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, and Jennifer Capriati were all considered “can’t miss” kids at 11 or 12.
This talented quartet encountered plenty of adversity that at times derailed their brilliant careers, but they still garnered 23, nine, five, and three Grand Slam titles, respectively. Serena and Capriati added Olympic gold medals to their resumes.
Other times, though, it’s much more difficult to predict future greatness when observing teenagers. Roger Federer was a brilliant shot-maker but often immature and volatile. Would you have predicted the teenaged Daniil Medvedev would win a major title (the 2021 US Open) and rise to No. 2 with the prospect that he could win several more majors?
Last year Jiri Lehecka certainly was not on my radar screen. But watching the 20-year-old Czech last week at Rotterdam made me a believer. Before he lost a 4-6, 6-4, 6-2 to world No. 4 Stefanos Tsitsipas in the semifinals, Lehecka notched an impressive 6-4, 6-4 win over No. 12 Denis Shapovalov.
At the Australian Open in January, the 22-year-old Shapovalov had extended Rafael Nadal, the eventual champion, to five sets. But calm and confident Lehecka’s groundstrokes proved too solid and powerful for Shapo, whose inferior one-handed backhand broke down.
Against Shapo and Tsitsipas, the Czech consistently hit his first serve around 125 mph and occasionally over 130 mph. Lehecka’s forehand, while technically sound, erred too often in the last two sets against the more experienced Tsitsipas. He also hit fewer balls on the rise and from inside the baseline after the first set.
Nevertheless, a thoroughly impressed Tsitsipas afterward said, "He was really pushing me. I did not know what to expect, so I was trying to figure out his patterns and his game. He was playing incredibly well after the first serve, pressing and attacking like I had never seen before. I had to stay in the match and I managed to survive."
When you watch a boy or girl compete at a national or international junior tournament or a Challenger or Futures event, what attributes are you looking for in a potential future champion?
Is it various athletic abilities, such as speed, strength, strength, agility, hand-eye coordination, and flexibility? Superb technique? Tactical acumen? Fierce competitiveness? Other mental qualities, such as concentration, patience, and poise?
Let’s see how Jiri Lehecka measures up in all these critical areas in what is sure to be a breakthrough year for him.