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American Hope – Is Men’s Tennis in the US on the Rise?

taylor_fritz_def_benjamin_becker_qf_memphis_12feb2016_13

A few years ago I wrote a couple blog articles on the sad state of American tennis, one a bit more straightforward—Houston, We Have a Problem—and one a bit more mythological: American Men’s Tennis and the Cycle of Ages. At the time of those writings, August of 2013, there wasn’t a lot to be excited about.  Andy Roddick had retired and the last truly great American men’s player, Andre Agassi, had retired in 2006. The top American players at the time of the former article were (with their ages at the time in parentheses):

14. John Isner (28)
29. Sam Querrey (25)
87. Jack Sock (20)
92. Michael Russell (35)
97. Ryan Harrison (21)
100. James Blake (33)

Sock and Harrison looked vaguely promising, but Harrison (now 24) continued to stagnate and is ranked #90, and Sock (now 23) slowed his development and seems to have peaked as a top 20-30 type.

Here’s an update, the 2016 year-end top 100 Americans:
19. John Isner (31)
23. Jack Sock (24)
31. Sam Querrey (29)
33. Steve Johnson (26)
76. Taylor Fritz (19)
88. Donald Young (27)
90. Ryan Harrison (24)

As you can see, it doesn’t look much better than three years ago. Isner remains the top American and he’s just barely hanging on to a top 20 ranking. There’s a bit more meet in the middle, with four Americans in or close to the top 30, where three years ago there were only two. And there’s Fritz, who is the brightest young American player in years. On the surface it looks like Sock was only a year older but ranked similarly to Fritz, but in actuality he was almost two years older, so Fritz’s ranking is far more impressive.

But the top 100 only tells part of the story. Let’s compare the top ranked Americans age 21 and under in 2016 with those in the year-end in 2013:

2013
100. Ryan Harrison (21)
102. Jack Sock (21)
114. Denis Kudla (21)
306. Bjorn Fratangelo (20)
437. Christian Harrison (19)
476. Mitchell Krueger (19)
573. Marcus Giron (20)
594. Evan King (20)

2016
76. Taylor Fritz (19)
105. Jared Donaldson (20)
108. Frances Tiafoe (18)
116. Stefan Kozlov (18)
141. Ernesto Escebedo (20)
198. Michael Mmoh (18)
200. Noah Rubin (20)
204. Reilly Opelka (19)

I picked eight players for each to give a sense of the depth of 2016′s field. As you can see, there is much more to be excited about now than there was three years ago. Looking solely on my “Pace of Greatness” theory, Fritz and Tiafoe have already accomplished the first benchmark: ranking in the top 100 as 18-year olds. Kozlov is very close, and Mmoh has an outside chance. But the main point is that even if none of these eight players become true greats, there is a lot more talent there than in 2013.

Let’s go back a bit further. Starting in the late 90s and into the early 00s, there was a talented group of young Americans: James Blake, Andy Roddick, Taylor Dent, Mardy Fish, and Robby Ginepri. Ginepri and Dent had decent but unspectacular careers: Ginepri won an ATP 500 and reached the 2005 US Open semifinal, ranking as high as #15, and Dent won four titles and ranked as high as #21. Fish was better, finishing 2011 #8 in the world and reaching several Slam quarterfinals and Masters finals, but never winning more than an ATP 250 level tournament (he won six); his career was marred and shortened by a heart condition. Roddick was a Slam winner and #1, and perhaps the player who suffered most from Roger Federer’s dominance. James Blake had some good years, peaking in his late 20s, and was probably slightly better than Fish, and thus the distance second behind Roddick among this group.

After the group who came of age in the early 2000s, you get to players like John Isner, Sam Querrey, Brian Baker, and Donald Young. Isner is the best of the bunch, a third tier player who has spent many years in the top 20 but only just barely sniffed the top 10. Querrey is something of a disappointment, looking promising in his early 20s but stagnating; Baker never amounted to much, and the fact that I used Young as the emblematic player of the generation of players born from 1989-93 should speak volumes. I think we can safely say that the current crop of young Americans is the best such group that we’ve seen in at least fifteen years.

Going back before Roddick’s era, the mid-to-late 90s also didn’t see much in the way of American talent, with players like Vince Spadea, Jan-Michael Gambill and Justin Gimelstob being the top ranked young Americans.  Gambill and Spadea were solid players who spent some time in the top 20, but never in the top 10 or with major titles.

We have to go all the way back to the early 90s to find a generation of truly great young Americans. Check out the American men age 21 and under in the top 100 in 1990:

1990
4. Andre Agassi (20)
5. Pete Sampras (19)
15. Michael Chang (18)
25. Jim Courier (20)
27. David Wheaton (21)
93. MaliVai Washington (21)

Sampras and Agassi are, along with Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, two of four truly great American men’s players of the Open Era. Jim Courier won four Slams and remains the youngest player (at age 22 years and 11 months) to have appeared in the finals of all four Slams, and was #1 for 58 weeks; Michael Chang was also a Slam winner and perennial top 10 player, with 34 titles and 7 Masters to his name. Even David Wheaton won the prestigious Grand Slam Cup title and ranked as high as #12, and Washington is known for his run at the 1996 Wimbledon (he lost to Richard Krajicek in the final). Overall we probably haven’t seen a crop of this kind of talent coming up at the same time from any country.

In Conclusion
Let me be clear: I am not predicting that the current crop of young Americans is on par with that group from 1990, but what I am saying is that we have to go back to 1990 to find a more promising group of Americans in terms of youth and rankings. If you go back to that 2016 21-and-under rankings list, there probably isn’t an Andre Agassi or Pete Sampras in that group, but there could be an Andy Roddick, a Michael Chang, even a Jim Courier, or at least several players akin to Todd Martin or Mardy Fish. In other words, American men’s tennis is on the rise and looks more promising now than it has in at least 15 years, and possibly more like 25 years.

There is hope!

Cover photo from Wikimedia Commons courtesy of the Creative Commons License.

 

 

 

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About Jonathan Northrop

Jonathan Northrop is the resident in-house analyst of numbers, trends and how they can be applied with an eye on tennis history. You can contact Jonathan via: eldude@tennisfrontier.com
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