Tuesday June 4th, 2013

Twenty-year-old Bernard Tomic has the skills to be a dominant men's player for years to come.
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Ernests Gulbis created quite a stir in the men's tennis community last month when he declared this so-called "golden era" devoid of character and personality. While properly reverential toward the Big Four's talent, Gulbis denounced them as "boring," too respectful of each other and essentially giving the same bland, tedious answers inside the tour's interview rooms.

If one is to believe Gulbis, and trust in the opinion of a reputable French newspaper, there is help on the way.

A recent issue of L'Equipe forecast the men's top 10 for 2018, and "boring" would hardly be the word to describe the likes of Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic, Benoit Paire, Jerzy Janowicz and Gulbis himself -- each projected to be part of the elite in five years' time.

Call it a pointless topic, perhaps bordering on the silly, but what the heck, let's jump in, anyway.

First, the list:

1. Dimitrov 2. Paire 3. Andy Murray 4. Milos Raonic 5. Novak Djokovic 6. Kei Nishikori 7. Tomic 8. Gulbis 9. Janowicz 10. Jack Sock

The first thing you notice is the absence of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer -- reasonable enough assumptions, considering that Federer will turn 37 between the 2018 Wimbledon and U.S. Open, and that Nadal likely will be "fishing in the sea," as he likes to say, having been driven to retirement by the physical pounding he absorbed for so many years.

Djokovic and Murray each turn 31 in 2018 -- within a week of each other -- and each has known his share of ailments, but it's hardly a stretch to see them on the list. Maturity is an overriding theme on today's tour, Djokovic is a physical marvel, and I'm sure Murray can't wait to make a run at the world No. 1 ranking with Federer and Nadal out of the picture.

The list assumes that today's second-tier players, notably David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych, Juan Martin del Potro and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, will have faded from view, if not disappearing altogether, perhaps without a single major title (save Del Potro's at the 2009 U.S. Open) among them. It also rules out Americans John Isner, Sam Querrey and Ryan Harrison, and to me, that is absolutely plausible. Good guys, reasonable talent, but none of them have what it takes to be final-weekend players when the majors come around, and that's not going to change.

Sock is an interesting study. He's a tremendous athlete with a big serve and huge forehand, truly exciting to watch when he's on his game. The results haven't been there with any consistency, but in the wake of the ponderous Isner and Querrey, Sock would be a refreshing U.S. entry in the top 20, if not higher. "He's finally figuring out how much work is required to play at this level," broadcaster Ted Robinson e-mailed from the French Open. "Probably the biggest upside of the young U.S. men."

Perhaps you'd wonder why the list doesn't include more up-and-coming players, but in truth, seasoning rules the tour. Within this week's top 50, the only under-25 guys (and therefore under 30 in 2018) really worth a mention are David Goffin, 22; Marin Cilic, 24, Alexandr Dolgopolov, 24, Martin Klizan, 23, and Ricardas Berankis, 22. Most everyone else has been around for years, relatively anonymous while maintaining a steady course.

What L'Equipe's list tells us, more than anything, is that the near future will be entertaining and highly unpredictable, raw talent mixing with radical behavior and elements of the burlesque. A closer look:

Dimitrov: Interesting call, possibly right on the money. He was schooled by Djokovic in their recent French Open showdown, and he's still dealing with the type of fitness issues that lead to late-in-the-match cramping, but his talent is beyond question. "Can't miss being a great player in my view," said historian Steve Flink.

Paire: Really? On what basis? He'll be 29 in 2018, and he hasn't shown anything close to the steely resolve and consistency required to win a major. He's an absolute treat to watch, but then again, so is Gail Monfils. So were Henri Leconte and Fabrice Santoro. I can't see Paire breaking through to become the first great French player since Yannick Noah.

Raonic: The top 10 seems inevitable, the way he serves even the best players right off the court, but he needs to find another level. Too many things go sour at the majors, and at times he seems a bit too content in defeat. Seeing him ranked ahead of Djokovic, even five years down the line, just seems wrong.

Nishikori: Wonderful player showing the way to countless young Japanese players, but he tends to get hurt a lot, and his lack of a significant weapon really shows up against the top guys. Perhaps things will change when those "top guys" aren't as formidable as we're seeing now.

Tomic: He probably belongs here, just for the mesmerizing quality of his shotmaking, but put me down for no major titles. He's way too flighty off the court, and his rudely oppressive father -- currently banned from attending tour events -- won't ever go away for good. Watching him on court, I wonder if sometimes (and I also feel this way about Dolgopolov) a man can have too many ideas.

Gulbis: He'll be out of tennis by 2018, living the good life in Latvia, regaling friends with tales of how he almost beat Nadal. I think we're watching Gulbis' prime right now, a fascinating blend of forceful attack, crucial mistakes and bizarre comments. If it helps, he does lead the world in "Not Boring."

Janowicz: You have to love a big, rangy guy who doesn't play that way, slicing feathery drop shots from all over the court and displaying a generally inventive nature. Colorful? Maybe a little too much so. We're all familiar with his "How many times!" tirade at this year's Australian Open. More disturbing was his interview with a local newspaper in Poland, calling Djokovic a "fake" who "shows off and acts" and that Federer "wants to be above everything." Could he ever crack the Top 10? "As Pancho Segura would say," noted historian Joel Drucker, "Questionable."

Here's what is beyond question: If the 2018 elite actually looks like this, Mr. Gulbis will have to come up with a brand-new theme.

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