Young guns climbing the charts

Andy Murray owes his rise up in part to the addition of his new coach. Murray isn't the only player 21 and under moving up in the rankings, Greg Garber writes.

Updated: August 27, 2006, 4:32 PM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Brad Gilbert, typically breathless, is doing what he does best: multitasking.

The former coach of Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick is driving Andy Murray, his latest protégé, to the Lindner Family Tennis Center in Cincinnati and, simultaneously, pontificating on the game he adores.

"Do you know what the four most important words in tennis are?" he shrieks into his mobile phone. "I'll tell you, it's -- where is the AC?"

Andy Murray (left) and Roger Federer
Robert Laberge/Getty ImagesMurray (left) is ranked in the top 20 after starting the season at No. 65.
Where is the AC? Those are the most important words in tennis?

"No, no, no, dude," Gilbert says. "Andy," he says to his front-seat companion, "what are the words?"

"Game, set, match, Murray!" they say in unison.

As the U.S. Open rapidly approaches, you may be hearing more of this mantra.

Gilbert has a legendary power of persuasion, and his 19-year-old charge is buying in -- in a big way. A year ago this time, the petulant Scotsman was ranked No. 132 in the world, and widely viewed as a negative-thinking, enfant terrible. After three weeks of working with Gilbert, Murray finds himself ranked No. 19 among ATP players, an astonishing climb that included a victory last week over No. 1-ranked Roger Federer.

And yet, by ATP standards, Murray's leap up the ladder is by no means extraordinary. Nicolas Almagro, Novak Djokovic and Marcos Baghdatis have all made similar jumps into prominence. On the women's side, 17-year-old Nicole Vaidisova has thrust herself into the top 10 and Shenay Perry and Shahar Peer have also made impressive progress in the rankings.

With Agassi retiring and Serena and Venus Williams and Lleyton Hewitt outside the top 10, new blood is the theme of tennis in 2006.

"It's true of all sports; one guy leaves, a new guy has to come in," said Todd Martin, who won eight ATP titles in 15 years. "It is highlighted even more in our sport. If I get drafted out of college to play basketball and sign a contract, I've got a job for five years.

"That doesn't happen in our sport."

In others words, if you don't win, you don't eat. Make no mistake, these young players are exceedingly hungry.

Murray, for example, produced the biggest win of his career last week by earning 14 break points against the Wimbledon and Australian Open champion -- and converting half of them. While Federer was clearly out of form, tired from a heavy summer schedule, it was the first time in 194 matches he was beaten in straight sets and the first time in 18 consecutive tournaments that he failed to reach the final.

21 and under, ranked in top 30
Player Rank Age
Rafael Nadal 2 20
Marcos Baghdatis 8 21
Tomas Berdych 14 20
Andy Murray 19 19
Novak Djokovic 23 19
Richard Gasquet 28 20
"I think there always comes a time when it's kind of meant to be," Murray told reporters after the match. "Federer won against [Pete] Sampras at Wimbledon, and I think that was the moment where everybody said, 'You know, this guy is special.'

"I wasn't expecting to win, and I know Federer didn't play his best match, but how many guys beat him when he's playing badly, anyway?"

Murray joined Rafael Nadal as only the second person to beat Federer this year and the second to beat him on hard courts, where his record is 85-2 over two years.

Djokovic is another 19-year-old overnight success story a decade in the making. He finished the 2005 season as the youngest player ranked in the top 100 at 18 years, 5 months. This year he reached the quarterfinals at the French Open (losing to Nadal), the round of 16 at Wimbledon and went 4-0 in Davis Cup.

On the WTA Tour, Perry, a 22-year-old American, has been a leading mover and shaker, going from No. 112 at the end of 2005 to No. 45. As a qualifier last week in Montreal, she upset No. 10 seed Anna-Lena Groenefeld, herself a 21-year-old up-and-comer, in straight sets.

Peer, a 19-year-old Israeli who has gone from No. 45 to No. 25, defeated No. 6 seed Anastasia Myskina, the 2004 French Open champion, in three sets at Montreal.

Anne Worcester, tournament director of New Haven's Pilot Pen, saw it coming. Two years ago, she was approached by Octagon agent Micky Lawler, who represented Peer.

"She needed a break," Worcester said. "It was a Catch-22. She wasn't ranked high enough to get into the main draw of tournaments or their qualifying tournaments, which is, of course, how you raise your ranking. We gave her a [2004] wild card and I'll never forget how grateful the family was. It was one of the rare thank-you notes I've received for a wild card."

There is, naturally, a method to Worcester's madness. Peer, it should be noted, entered the 2006 Pilot Pen, but was forced to withdraw with a foot injury.

"When we started out with this tournament, there were two things I wanted to do: One, turn the tennis tournament into an entertainment event, and, two, make it my business to look down the rankings in search of the rising stars," Worcester said. "What you're hoping for is loyalty. If young players come to the Pilot Pen and have a good experience, in all likelihood, they'll come back. Between anonymity and top-five stature, there are a lot of years there.

"When I go out to recruit at the Nasdaq or Wimbledon, I spend a lot of time on the outer courts. Players and agents give me names of players to keep an eye on, and I'm out there watching 14- and 15-year-olds I've never heard of."

Just five years ago, Americans finished 2001 as the top three ranked women's players -- Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Venus Williams -- while Serena Williams and Monica Seles joined them in the top 10. Today, Davenport is the only one left in the top 10 -- and just barely, at No. 10.

"When I go out to recruit at the Nasdaq or Wimbledon, I spend a lot of time on the outer courts. Players and agents give me names of players to keep an eye on, and I'm out there watching 14- and 15-year-olds I've never heard of."
Anne Worcester, Pilot Pen tournament director

Five years ago on the men's side, Sampras and Agassi occupied spots in the top 10. Today it's James Blake and Roddick -- although Blake is No. 5 and Roddick's win last weekend in Cincinnati moved him back into the top 10. No American, man or woman, has advanced past the round of 16 in the year's first three Grand Slams -- that hadn't happened at Wimbledon in 96 years. Peter Bodo of Tennis Magazine, sees a trend.

"The game is booming," he said, "but in the wrong places if you're looking to keep it high profile. Europeans complain about Americans being xenophobic, but tennis has always been driven by American players. Baggy jeans and flip-flops -- that's not coming from Poland, is it?

"The depth in tennis is the best it's ever been, but if America loses interest in tennis, it will have repercussions."

Murray and his posse of international interlopers will be a continuing story at the U.S. Open -- if he can pull himself away from the sports pages, that is.

"When I took the job, the A's were a game under .500," Gilbert is saying. "Now, they're both taking off. I've actually got Andy rooting for the A's."

And, considering Murray grew up in Dunblane, Scotland, that might be Gilbert's finest coaching feat to date.

"He's probably the most positive guy I've met," Murray said. "He made me believe I could win the [Federer] match. I think now I'll have a bit more belief going into Grand Slams that, you know, I can really go deep."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.