Doha, QATAR – Men’s water polo has changed a lot since Tony Azevedo made his US Olympic debut at 18 at the 2000 Sydney Games. But youth still shines. In Doha in February, he was announcing world championship games and keeping a keen eye on Generation Next. Between medal matches, he highlighted five young players to watch.

First, though, he acknowledged that players are different today than they were during his 2000-2016 Olympic and world championship run.

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“Players are much stronger, bigger, faster than they used to be,” he said, not only due to better nutrition and training but largely because the rules have changed.

“They're trying to make the game less physical but the irony is, it's actually created MORE physicality,” Azevedo said. “There are more reasons for a referee to call an exclusion. The original idea was that by making more areas that you can get excluded, players will be less physical. But it's turned into, ‘Well, we're gonna get excluded anyway. Let's just be more physical.’

Given all that, who is the biggest young talent you've seen at this tournament?

Thomas Vernoux of France, 100 percent Vernoux.

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I think he’s going to change the sport. No one has ever seen somebody with the capabilities that he has. He's 21 and he’s one of the fastest in the world. He shoots the ball maybe the hardest in the world. And he's maybe the strongest in the world. All three of those, together, creates a very difficult player to guard. With time, he’s going to come into his own and understand when and how to make an impact. Right now, I think he's just reacting instead of really implementing his imprint on the game. But with time, he's going to change it. Watch. I think you’ll see more people like him who have the diversity to play any position.

What did you think of Vernoux’s standout moment in this tournament?

France has never been in the final four at the world championships, and in the quarterfinals here, they were playing Hungary, the 2023 gold medalist just seven months ago in Fukuoka. Hungary was winning 7-3 at halftime and France came back, off of Vernoux’s five goals in the second half, including three in the fourth quarter to win the game. He scored the goal to tie [9-9, go up 10-9] and the goal to win [11-10]. At the Olympics, France hasn’t been in the final four since 1936. To put that in perspective, I played in eight world championships and I was in the final four once, in Rome 2009 (fourth). That's how difficult it is to get through against the top European countries. And he's already been in the final four here, at 21.

Who’s the next stand-out to you?

Francesco Condemi from Italy.

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He's not just one of the best young players, he's one of the best players in the world right now. He played the gold-medal game here against Croatia. He's barely 20 years old and he's leading the Italians to the gold-medal game. He was just bought by the most successful club in water polo, Pro Recco, where he now plays. And he just turned 20 [in December]. He does everything. He's scoring. He's earning exclusions. He's playing defense. In water polo’s plus-minus system, you get a number value for every positive statistic (assist, steal, shot block, turned exclusion) and a negative value for a negative statistic (turnover, exclusion) so when it comes to: who's successful? It's him because he does all those little positives that create a high plus-minus in a game.

Who else? 

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Ryder Dodd from the US.

He just turned 18 in January. Even though the US finished ninth in Doha, he was still one of the best players out there. In big games, he was scoring the big goals. He's extremely fast, extremely strong, and has an unbelievable shot. The two things in him that remind me of are his passion. He loves the game. You can see it when you talk to him. And he's a pool rat. He’ll watch water polo and talk water polo all day long. And his shot! He just has a really good shot that is very difficult to block. He has this fake that the shot blocker literally can't block. You rarely see him getting shot blocked. It's just his shoulder movement; his release points are hard to find. And he has such great legs – good, strong water legs, meaning the flexibility, proper technique, and strength. We used to do a water polo festival called the Aquatic Games, before COVID. He was 10 and he was already a star. And he just kept going.

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Bernat Sanahuja, No. 4 from Spain who won the bronze medal here in Doha.

He's 23. That's still young. Watch that [14-10] bronze-medal game [against France] if you want to see him score four goals, get ‘Player of the Match.’ Look at his shot. He has such a long arm that the ball almost disappears before he shoots. That flexibility makes him extremely rare and difficult to block – and his water polo IQ. He's extremely smart. He's in the right place at the right time. He's a good defender.

Any young goalies?

Yes, Unai Aguirre, goalie from Spain.

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He is 21. He is phenomenal. He flies to Rome and trains with the famous Umberto Panerai a goalkeeper from Italy [and 1976 Olympic silver medalist]. I mean, this guy is a student of the game. I'm friends with Umberto. He tells me how hard he studies. He asks for video of himself to critique his legs, everything. He studies every single shooter. He has a book for each shooter, or for each team, he plays against. And he started the bronze-medal game here at such a young age. Already, he has a world championship bronze medal and gold at the 2024 European Championships.

What happens when a prodigy hits 42? What’s your involvement in the game now?

I announced four games a day here in Doha. I’ve pretty much seen every game, or team. Also, three years ago I created 6-8 sports with [three-time Olympic gold medalist and five-time world champion] Maggie Steffens

Maggie's No. 6. I'm No. 8. We're trying to take water polo out of the medieval ages by collecting statistics over time and focusing on athlete and coach development. It's basically two apps that give coaches and players three things. Exposure, to show the world their games. Development, to see results of your games and how to improve, for example, using plus-minus to show what you can do to improve. And a drills test that about 40,000 people around the world have gone through, which helps athletes understand where they're strong, weak, and how to get to a level like their idols.