Tennis: Five players to watch

By Dylan Cleaver

The Heineken Open men's tournament begins in Auckland today and Dylan Cleaver picks five players to keep an eye on.

DAVID FERRER (Spain)
Age: 29
Ranking: 5
Career titles: 11

You shouldn't need a reason to watch the defending champion, a world top five player and a man who ended last season beating the seemingly indomitable Novak Djokovic.

Yet Ferrer is the most under-the-radar great player in the modern game. He doesn't have the outrageous shot-making skills of Djokovic, the muscularity of Rafael Nadal, the artistry of Roger Federer or the bouffant of Andy Murray.

Instead he is a classic claycourt grinder who has adapted his game to be mighty effective on hardcourts too. Ferrer has never met a ball he doesn't think he can get back over the net and seeing him chase down the improbable makes for great viewing.

NICOLAS ALMAGRO (Spain)
Age: 26
Ranking: 10
Career titles: 10

To describe Almagro as mercurial would not come close to accurately portraying his status in the game.

It is not so much whether Almagro is running hot and cold, but whether he can be bothered.

Too often Auckland has seen the apathetic side of Almagro, the one that goes through the motions, hoping to pick up the odd appearance fee and win a match or two Downunder before the real business of the claycourt season kicks in. All his 10 titles have come on dirt.

However, he has made it through to the round of 16 in the past two Australian Opens and went all the way to the semifinal in the Heineken Open (admittedly, a first-round bye meant he only had to win two matches), indicating that both his hardcourt game and maturity have taken a giant leap forward.

Famed Spanish coach Jose Perlas summed up the complexities of Almagro best when he likened his charge's emotional investment in the game to atomic energy: "If we use it for war, then it is bad. But if we use it to make electricity then it is good."

KEVIN ANDERSON (SA)
Age: 25
Ranking: 32
Career titles: 1

A South African who came through the American collegiate system, Anderson had the sort of year last year that he had been threatening for some time without ever quite delivering.

Anderson won his first title in Johannesburg - beating Indian Domsen Devvarman in the final - and made semifinals in Brisbane and Vienna.

That saw his ranking leap from 61 to the cusp of a top 30.

It might take only a few good weeks to make those sort of jumps (see also Donald Young), but to crack the top 20 you need to string some results together at Grand Slams.

There are many who believe Anderson has that sort of potential, if only for one reason. It's the same reason why you take the opportunity to catch him while he's here.

Anderson has a booming serve delivered using all of his 2.03m that, when it's on, can be near impossible to return and worth the price of admission alone.

DONALD YOUNG (USA)
Age: 22
Ranking: 39
Career titles: 0

A classic example of a player who was probably pushed too far, too soon, Young now looks set to fulfil the potential that was noted by John McEnroe at age 10.

Young turned pro in 2004 and joined the tour full-time from 2007. He was the youngest player to win a junior grand slam but it took him a long time to feel comfortable playing among the big boys.

"You play men and you're just a boy. Boys against men can get rough," he told the Herald. "You don't expect a child to come in and win games unless it's a video game, but yeah, it was a big learning curve for me."

After a couple of years of unsatisfying struggle, Young started stringing some wins together last year, culminating in a round of 16 performance at the US Open.

He might have pushed his ranking inside the top 40, but Young knows he needs a title next to his name before he can say he has made it. Auckland would be a nice place to start for the American.

MICHAEL VENUS (NZ)
Age: 24
Ranking: 379
Career titles: 0

You could point to the local interest, a rare sighting of a Kiwi male trying to make a mark in the predatory world of professional tennis rankings, but really, the main reason is this: We've been hanging out to see a Venus for some time now.

- NZ Herald

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