The level of drama at the inaugural Next-Gen Finals in Milan this Italy was off the charts at times.
And in the end, the most stoic and consistent of all the rising stars, South Korea’s Hyeon Chung, will go home with the giant “X” trophy.
Chung defeated Russia’s Andrei Rublev 3-4 (5), 4-3 (2), 4-2, 4-2 to win the under-21 exhibition event without the loss of a match.
Chung went 3-0 during the round-robin portion, defeating pool mates Rublev, Denis Shapovalov and Italian wild card Gianluigi Quinzi. That earns him the maximum of $390,000 US, although he gets zero ranking points for the effort.
“I’m just really, really happy, because, I don’t know, I really don’t know how I won here in Milan,” Chung said. “Really tough match tonight against Rublev. He was better than the last time. So I was just trying to play my best,” Chung told the media in Milan.
The mercurial Rublev was up a set and 3-1 in the second set in the final, playing like a dream. But he stumbled just when he was poised to go up two sets to none.
And he never recovered.
His racquets paid the price. Coach Fernando Vicente wasn’t too forgiving about his attitude during one of the on-court coaching sessions.
Rublev’s emotions get the best of him
During the trophy ceremonies, Rublev was unable to even muster a slight smile for all the photographs, which will live forever in this first edition of what the ATP Tour hopes will be a long-running annual tradition.
He had been up and down through the week. But on Sunday, he couldn’t shake his anger at letting the early lead slip away.
In his press conference afterwards, he still hadn’t regained his bearings. But he did credit his opponent’s cool.
“Mentally he’s really strong. No matter what, he never gives up. He always fighting. If he feel he’s losing, he’s still always there. He never complains. He never shows emotion. That’s why most of the time he wins tough matches. When the matches are close, he always wins, because mentally, no matter what, he always there,” Rublev said.
“That’s what’s happened to me with us today. I was playing better, I was controlling the match, but in one point I let my emotion go out, and when he was losing he was still focused. And that’s it.”
Whatever the fans thought of all the new rules and innovations, you could argue that all the deviations from their lifelong routines had an effect on the players.
For one thing, being used to pacing themselves in a first-to-six, regular-format set, the urgency of the shortened sets seemed to add to the tension level.
So did the sudden death deuce points.
Most of the Next-Gen participants have played doubles at the ATP Tour level. So they’ve played with the deciding points before. But in this incarnation, it was the server’s choice, not the receivers’ choice as it is on the regular tour.
A lot of drama
Croatia’s Borna Coric, not the oldest of the eight players but the one with the most Tour experience, was a bit of a disaster by the semifinal on Saturday. It took Rublev barely an hour to eliminate him in three quick sets.
Whatever it was, it was enough that Coric bailed out of the third-place match Sunday that was to precede the final.
Coric had some cramping issues Saturday. Early on in the week, Russia’s Daniil Medvedev also had some major cramping problems, although he rallied later in the week.
In sharp contrast, Chung maintained a pretty even demeanour throughout.
And it wasn’t as though the 21-year-old didn’t have his challenges. He coughed up a two-sets-to-none lead to Medvedev in the semifinal before closing that out. And he nearly let a two-sets-to-one set lead slip away against a game, but exhausted Quinzi.
Quinzi needed to win a wild-card playoff tournament before the start of the Next-Gen finals just to get in.
He also went down a set to Shapovalov in their opening pool match before coming back to win.
No third-place match
In the end, the third-place match (the guarantee to fans that they wouldn’t just have one abbreviated singles match between two relative unknowns to watch, and the safeguard against a possible injury retirement), never happened.
Next in line to play that match (now downgraded to an exhibition) was Shapovalov. But the Canadian, who lost to both Chung and Rublev during the round-robin portion, begged off due to an injury that wasn’t really specified.
In the end, Medvedev played a set against 32-year-old Ross Hutchins, the British former doubles specialist who retired in 2014 and is the tournament director.
(We’ll have a thorough takeout on all the innovations at the Next-Gen Finals on Sunday: what worked, what didn’t, what might stick. Check back.)