Searching for the Next Federer

 

In many ways, Alex Lazarov is a big deal. The 17-year-old Bulgarian is a world-class junior tennis player, currently ranked 62 in the 18-and-under category. He's won a number of prestigious tournaments in Europe, and is being courted by several major U.S. university tennis programs.

But at Grand Slam tournaments, Lazarov and other talented juniors are little more than a sideshow. In fact, junior events have historically been unreliable indicators of future success. Scan the list of grand slam junior winners and you'll see some familiar names — Federer, Edberg, Wawrinka, Henin — but also many that don't register, significant great talents who, for whatever reason, could not make the jump to the highest rungs of the pro game.

Lazarov hopes to be one of the exceptions, and he had big hopes for the Open — which offered the chance to boost his ranking; catch the eye of potential sponsors; and avenge a a bitter loss in the Wimbledon juniors (he was up 5-2 in the third set and had a match point, but ended up losing.) Born in Florida to Bulgarian parents, Lazarov and his family returned to Bulgaria when he was barely a month old; he grew up and still resides in the capital, Sofia. His father, Krassi, played on the pro tour and has coached his son since he was 4. To get acclimated to the time change and the late-summer east coast weather, Lazarov and his father came to Delaware, where I live, to spend a few days with John Stocker, an old friend of Krassi's and a professor at the University of Delaware, prior to heading to New York.

IT WAS THE SOUND OF THE BALL THAT SEEMS TO CATCH THEIR ATTENTION — NOT THE KIND OF POP ORDINARILY HEARD IN THESE PARTS. 

On the Sunday before the Open started, I arranged for Lazarov to hit with a local teacher named Joel Irwin, 28, who coaches my 10-year-old daughter. Irwin played tennis in college, and I figured he could hold his own with Lazarov. The courts were busy that morning, but more than a few players put down their rackets when it became clear that the two people at Court Four were not your usual weekend warriors. It was the sound of the ball that seemed to catch their attention — not the kind of pop ordinarily heard in these parts. The thing that was most striking about Alex's game was the easy power he generated; the fluid, unhurried motion with which he struck the ball; and the pace he generated with that effortless swing. At one point, a friend came by with a radar gun; he clocked Lazarov's serve at 124 miles per hour. Irwin lost to the 17-year-old (6-1, 6-0, but it was honestly closer than it sounds), and by the end of the second set appeared ready to collapse. 

A few days later, Lazarov and I, joined by his father, stopped by a local coffee shop to talk about his future plans. Several American universities were dangling the possibility of scholarships. But Lazarov, a smart genial kid with a good sense of humor, told me that college could wait — his goal was to go pro. I asked Krassi what he thought of his son's prospects. "I think he can be top-10 in the world," he said matter-of-factly. Both father and son agreed that that would mean leaving Bulgaria — there isn't enough competition there, and the local tennis federation cannot offer the kind of support he'd need. Lazarov said that maybe the IMG Academy in Florida, Nick Bollettieri's home base, or The Good to Great Tennis Academy in Sweden, run by former world number two Magnus Norman (who now coaches Stan Wawrinka), could be his base.

I asked if he felt a lot of pressure heading into the Open. "Not that much pressure," he told me. "I felt a lot of pressure stepping on the court at Wimbledon, but I think I learned a lot. The Open is my favorite tournament, and I'm really looking forward to it. No pressure."

The US Open has a 64-player main draw for juniors and Lazarovo, who didn't automatically qualify with his ranking, would have to win two qualifying-round matches to get a place in the main event. I took a train up to New York to watch his first match, against a 17-year-old from Tulsa named Zeke Clark, who was ranked 153rd in the world. The match was played on one of the practice courts just outside the main gate to the Open. Lazarov started out well, winning the first set 6-2. The relatively diminutive Clark struggled with the pace and depth of the Bulgarian's groundstrokes, and he was further hobbled by a relatively weak serve. On the other hand, it was clear that he was a smart, steady player, and it was also clear that Lazarov was sufficiently inconsistent with his shot selection that the outcome was not a foregone conclusion.

Early in the second set, I was joined by Nick Bollettieri. I'd reached out to the legendary coach because I was curious to get his take on Lazarov's game. He noted, favorably, Lazarov's height (around 6' 1"), and was struck by his power and technique. He also swooned over his one-handed backhand, a rarity in junior tennis these days. But Bollettieri was concerned about Lazarov's serve: He felt that he wasn't taking enough time to gather his thoughts before launching into motion. Lazarov had moved out to a 4-2 lead in the second set, but the errors were starting to pile up. During one extended rally, Lazarov hit a tepid backhand slice that landed in the middle of the court just beyond the service line, a shot that instantly turned the point in Clark's favor. "Now why did he hit that?" asked Bollettieri.

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By this time, we had been joined by Carl Neufeld, the men's tennis coach at S.M.U. Despite Lazarov's struggles, Neufeld liked what he saw. During one point, Lazarov followed a deep approach shot to the net and played two sensational volleys. "You don't see many kids coming to the net these days," Neufeld said. I mentioned that Alex was intent on turning pro. Big mistake, Neufeld replied: Lazarov wasn't ready for the pros, he said, and would be much better off going to college and playing Division One. The age curve in professional tennis has shifted, he added — players now break through at a later age and do not peak until their late 20s. Bollettieri nodded in agreement and pointed out the hard economic realities of professional tennis. Even to play on the Futures tour — tennis's equivalent of Single A baseball — could cost well over $100,000 a year in travel and other expenses. Without money or a wealthy benefactor, the economics simply do not work. Neufeld and Bollettieri reiterated that Lazarov's time would be better spent in college, where he likely would get a full athletic scholarship. I asked Neufeld where Lazarov could expect to play on S.M.U.'s team as a freshman. "Maybe four or five," he said.

In the third and deciding set, Lazarov quickly fell behind. During one changeover, he asked to see a trainer, who examined his racket hand. He played on for a bit longer, but down 4-1 in the set, he told the chair umpire that he couldn't continue. It turned out he had fallen and landed on his thumb late in the first set and had felt himself increasingly hindered as the match went on. As Neufeld left the court, he asked me to give his phone number to Lazarov. He explained that he wasn't allowed to recruit on the grounds of the tournament but was eager to speak to him about S.M.U.

"I'VE HAD SUCH GOOD MOMENTUM, AND I DON'T WANT TO LOSE IT. I WANT TO SEE HOW FAIR I CAN GO IN THE NEXT FEW MONTHS." 

A few days later, I spoke by phone with Lazarov. He and his father were staying with some friends in Brookyn before returning to Bulgaria. He had already put the match behind him and was looking forward to a full roster of tournaments through the fall and winter. His schedule included several Futures events. He was not going to accept any prize money, which would make him ineligible for college; he simply wanted the experience and to gain some ATP ranking points.

 I asked if he was still inclined to turn pro or was giving more thought to college. He still had a year to decide, he said, but was still leaning toward going pro. "I've had such good momentum, and I don't want to lose it," he told me. "I want to see how far I can go in the next few months. If I don't get the results I want, I might go to college." He said he'd recently heard from a coach at Stanford, and had also received inquiries from the University of Miami, Wake Forest, and Mississippi State. "A lot of guys recently got interested in me," he said.