And Then There was Ugo
Men’s tennis’ search for the stars to replace the current Polaris’ of the game saw pundits and fans gaze and speculate at many familiar names on the Wimbledon 2019 draw sheet– Stefanos Tsitsipas, Alexander Zverev, Denis Shapovolov, Taylor Fritz, Miomir Kecmanovic, Frances Tiafoe and Felix-Auger Aliassime, to name the most high profile.
By the end of week 1, all were gone, as were Christian Garin, Andrey Rublev, Reilly Opelka, Casper Ruud, Alex di Minaur, Corentin Moutet, and Hubert Hurcakz.
Humbert has succeeded where his fellow ‘Next Gen’ failed for a number of reasons- draws, luck, fitness, form, pressure and style.
Primarily his success is because he has the attacking game, touch and net skills to succeed on the low bouncing grass courts.
Perhaps, also, because he has not been studied under quite the same strength lens of a tennis world craving a meteor from the sky, every move and twinkle noted and analysed, as some of his peers have.
The man Humbert beat in the third round, Felix AA, so well known aged 18 he has his own moniker, admitted the pressure got to him after his 4-6, 5-7, 3-6 loss to Humbert on court 1.
No wonder- Felix’s name came up in matches he was not even playing and his interviews played between them. He was the third match on court 1 in the round of 32 playing in only his second slam and having never won a slam match before this Wimbledon.
The hype, while Felix AA’s earned it, the Canadian is the youngest player in the top 100, has made 3 finals and the Miami semis this season and was the tournament’s 19th seed, might end up being something he’d rather return.
Something FAA would also like to have well returned was Humbert’s serve. The Frenchman had a first serve percentage of 79 and a second delivery of 61 and faced just four break points the entire match with FAA breaking once. Humbert, meanwhile, broke FAA five times and held ten break points.
If FAA had been feeling pressure before the match, Humbert capitalized on it, applying plenty of his own.
That highly anticipated even taken for granted Felix AA fourth rounder versus Novak Djokovic is not happening now, the media denied its potential changing of the guard or young gun schooled by legend headlines.
Instead the focus will be on Humbert reaching his first Grand slam fourth rounder.
On his way there, he had to come from two sets to love down to beat Gael Monfils, one of his country’s most famous and loved players, who retired 0-3 down in the fifth with an ankle injury.
In the second round, Humbert beat experienced Marcel Granollers, playing his 12th Wimbledon. Granollers has never been past the second round at Wimbledon; Humbert is into the fourth round and on his SW19 debut and in his only his fourth main draw of a Major.
Not just any Major of course. But Wimbledon, with its practically extinct yet 21st century grass courts on which the ball bounces lowly rather slowly, though with the same old odd, unpredictable and frustrating angles.
That Zverev and Co did not not make it into the round of sixteen is not as surprising as the ball sometimes bounces in SW19.
The tennis played there is quite different to the one they often excel at the rest of the year- generally medium slow high bouncing Hard and Clay, surfaces on which the ball grips on the court and then rises right up into the optimum top spin crunching zone.
Humbert, likes to hit flat and go for his shots, a recipe which has been known to work well on Grass, and which has helped him become the youngest man in the fourth round.
At 21, the French man is nearly 9 years younger than the average age of this year’s men’s single last sixteeners at Wimbledon.
He’s not the only player in his early twenties, though, joined as he is by 23 year old Matteo Berrettini who defeated Diego Schwartzman in five gripping sets. But, there’s no one else under 26, and the third youngest player left in the draw is 27 year old Tennys Sandgren.
Humbert won’t be out of the spotlight for much longer though with a match against the world No.1 and defending champion Novak Djokovic on Court 1 on Wimbledon’s manic Monday.
While he won’t have experienced quite the attention he’ll get facing title favorite Djokovic on Monday, Humbert is no stranger to buzz after his deep run at the ATP 250 Marseille tournament, in which he beat Borna Coric on his way to the semis. There was also his run to the US Open second round last year, not deep main draw wise, but he came out of qualifying to reach the second round, a four match streak, before losing to Stan Wawrinka in four sets. Enough to get you talked about by fans and featured in the tennis press, but not quite enough to get you talked up as the next big thing with the likes of Zverev, Tsitispas and FAA around.
For now, the 21 one year old can enjoy being the youngest player in the Wimbledon fourth round, the sole representative of his peers, in a sport which has no active slam champ under 30 and at a tournament of which the surface is only played on for six weeks of a 46 week season.
Humbert’s arrival in the second week of Wimbledon may not herald him as the next big thing with the upcoming US hard court swing a more welcoming stomping ground for his fellow ATP Next Genners and recent grads and one in which they will once again hit the headlines and for the right reasons.
Not anointing Humbert is OK, though. More than OK in fact. Heralding the other youngsters is not doing them much good that often- only Tsitsipas has reached a slam semi-final- and it probably won’t do great things for Humbert, either. Hype makes money, not players.
The search for the next young star will still go on, and it’s one we should probably call off. Like Humbert did at Wimbledon, the next youngsters ready to contend for slams will make themselves known to us no matter how much we focus our lens and how much time we spend predicting their paths.
The stars will shoot nonetheless, so let’s just pull up a seat, put up our feet and enjoy a good gape as their games shoot off before us, whoever they are.
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