Actually there aren’t that many – more like two dozen or so.

You see, at the end of every year I like to pick a 10 to 20-person group of players outside the Top 150 to watch for in the next year. Players whose recent results show they might be on the brink of a breakthrough, even if they’re currently far outside the Top 150. Players who are under 22 years old and look like they’re going somewhere (generally: up). And, somewhat importantly for our purposes at this website, players who haven’t already received a ton of press and attention (i.e. Ryan Harrison, Bernard Tomic, etc).

Ideally, before choosing, I’ll have seen these competitors slug it out in person. A lot of these guys I get to see at the US Open juniors. But sometimes I’ll have to settle for video or pictorial evidence if the player remains relatively unseasoned and has yet to travel far in their young pro careers (and sometimes even that is lacking).

I then enjoy focusing on the results of that particular group all year long, win or lose, to see if I chose “the right bunch”. Usually I do a pretty good job of choosing, if I do say so myself (and I do); a vast majority shoot up in the rankings, and the ones who falter usually do so because of injury. Ricardas Berankis, Grigor Dimitrov and Adrian Mannarino were in last year’s bunch, to give a few examples of those who found great success (and yes, I am cherry-picking my best and cherriest picks here – if it makes you feel any better, Uladzimir Ignatik was also on the list, and Iggy stunk it up in 2010).

Regardless, it helps me get to know and regard some of the young guns as they try to make it up the rocky road of the professional ranks. I thought some of you might enjoy taking the journey with me right from the start this year. So, to help us through the remaining two weeks of the “off-season” (hey – there’s a Futures event in Brazil this week! Pro tennis is still going strong!), I’ll be doing two-a-day profiles of these up-and-coming hot shots.

And though this year’s group is already chosen, membership isn’t necessarily closed, so I encourage you to submit any players who fit the above criteria in the comments below if you have an idea of someone you’d like to see profiled and blog-stalked throughout the year.  Anyway, without further Freddie ado, here are the first two players in this year’s bunch:

Andrey Kuznetsov: The talented Russian Andrey Kuznetsov (not to be confused with the American Alex Kuzentsov) (or the Russian Andrey Kudryavtsev, for that matter) was the 2009 Wimbledon Junior Boys champion, of course (beating recent USTA Wildcard Playoff contestant Jordan Cox in the final).

And even though only 3 out of every 10 Wimby Junior Champs go on to make anything of themselves, I have high hopes for AnKuz. The 19 (and 9 months) year-old sported a fairly nifty 42/15 record in 2009 and attained an ATP Ranking of #364 in the world.

This year, the lanky lad had a bit of a rougher go of it, posting a 35/21 season but still moving up 133 places on the table to his current position at #231. He reached the finals of the Poznan Challenger, losing to Denis Gremelmayr, and not only qualified for Eastbourne but beat Kei Nishikori in the first round before almost beating Gilles Simon in the next, finally succumbing 1-6 7-6 (3) 6-7 (2). He is currently the fifth-youngest player in the Top 250.

The skinny right-hander packs a surprisingly powerful punch, particularly off the backhand wing – somewhat reminiscent of Gilles Simon in that regard. He’s also not afraid to come to the net, and his proficiency across all surfaces speaks to his ability to both attack and defend with equal success.

But enough of my yammering, let’s get some words and see some shots of the young man himself. I now leave you, temporarily, in the capable hands of Jason Goodall (oh, and a warning first: though Kuznetsov only appears in the second half of this video, I encourage you to watch the first part too, if only for the hilarious bouncy-racquet stylings of Potito Starace):

That vid is about a year old, but it’s the best quality one I could find of Kuznetsov actually swinging a racquet. As Andrey said then, he thinks he’s headed for the Top 100. And though I’m certainly not sure of it, I think he might be right about that this year. The only thing I am sure of is that I’ll be following his results closely this year. So stay tuned.

edited on the Third Day of Challenger Tennis Christmas to add the following AnKuz footage, which was found in a darkened side alleyway of YouTube where he’s known as “Andrey Kuznetcov” (you will do well to note the impossibly hilarious racquet toss at :52, btw):

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