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A Renaissance of American Tennis

Like a steadily rising tide, fresh generations are taking the reins of US tennis

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Taylor Fritz at the 2022 BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells (image via Image via https://twitter.com/BNPPARIBASOPEN)

by Kingsley Elliot Kaye

The all-American final in Houston caps the positive trend of American Tennis in the last months. The pinnacle was Taylor Fritz’s triumph at Indian Wells, but a fresh generation of young American players has been making the headlines day after day with their results and performances. Is it too hasty to speak about a resurgence?   

 

The US has always shaped the history of Lawn Tennis. From its outset, with champions like Bill Tilden, Donald Budge, Jack Kramer, to the open era: players like Connors, McEnroe, Sampras and Agassi still stand out as icons of our sport.

American players have often left a technical legacy, bringing innovation to the game. Just to mention a few: Big Bill Tilden was the first to employ perfectly executed dropshots and to lay special focus on tactics and even psychology. In the 50s Jack Kramer brought in power, a key asset of the game.   

Connors with his aggressive anticipation can be considered as the forerunner of a gameplay which later was implemented by Agassi and has become a feature of contemporary tennis. Jim Courier proved how powerful and incessant groundstroke drilling can lead to the very top. McEnroe stands out as an unprecedented genius. 

A Tennis movement is not just defined by its most glittering stars. Its consistency and durability rely on a plurality of players who constitute the bearing frame.  They may not be regulars in the top 10, or even top 20, but will enjoy a career on the tour reaping consistent results and occasional breakthroughs to the highest.

Swedish tennis, for instance, inspired by Borg, in a few years was able to deploy a manifold cluster of young and eager players, not only following in the footsteps of their father, with his revolutionary double-handed topspin backhand and a rock-solid mental, but also venturing out in the serve and volley area. Names like Stefan Edberg and Anders Jarryd ring a bell for many.

German champions Boris Becker and Michael Stich were joined by a vivacious bunch, whose ranking ranged between top 20 and top 50: Steeb. Jelen, Kuhnen. In their wake came the Kiefer and Haas and Schuettler generation. 

Instead, a world No. 1 from Brazil, Guga Kuerten, who enlightened the passage to the new millennium with his charismatic and joyful personality, remained a lone runner.   

In the seventies American tennis averaged 30 players in the top 100, which often meant 3 in the top ten and 8 in the top twenty. The decade which followed witnessed a staggering peak of 45 in 1982, with 10 players in the top 20, and 25 in the top 50. Ivan Lendl is included in the count, but this does not cast a shadow on such figures.

The nineties were marked by the Courier/Chang/Agassi/Sampras generation, but showed some signs of decline beneath the golden surface, with a decreasing number of players in the top 100.    

Andy Roddick was a valiant flag bearer of Stars and Stripes tennis in the first decade of the New Millennium, with his US Open victory in 2002, three Wimbledon finals and one US Open final, 5 ATP Master Series and 13 weeks at the top spot of the ranking. Yet US tennis definitively started dropping behind its history. The last ATP Ranking in 2005 featured Roddick (No.3), Agassi (No. 7) and Ginepri (No. 15) in the top 20, and only five other players in the top 100.

After Roddick retired in 2012, now and then American players succeeded in coming up with spotlight performances. Long John Isner for instance with his Miami triumph in 2018 and, in the same year, his unforgettable Wimbledon semi-final in which after 6 hours and 36 minutes, he eventually surrendered to South African Kevin Anderson 26-24 in an epic fifth set. 

Jason Sock won the 2017 Paris Bercy Open, which allowed him to reach his best ranking, No. 8.  

Sam Querry reached a Wimbledon semi-final in 2017 shattering British hopes for glory when he stunned Murray in quarterfinals, a notch above his 2016 run when he had knocked out Djokovic in the round of 16.

However exciting these results could be, they still had a somewhat sporadic flavour. Rankings are a truthteller, if not on sheer talent, on consistency: those years only Isner and Sock broke into the top ten and there was a low point in 2013, with no American in the top 20, worsened in 2021, when at times no US player was ranked in the top 30.  

In spite of a still disappointing 2021 US Open, during the months which followed there was something in the air, something rising. Isner, Opelka and Fritz back in the top 30. Tiafoe, Korda, Paul in the 50; Brooksby, McDonald, Giron, Nakashima closely chasing. In fact, the last 2022 ATP ranking featured 12 American flags in the top 100. 

And then this array of results in 2022, with Tiafoe’s final in Vienna in October 2021 as a prelude. Fritz triumphed at Indian Wells Open, Opelka in Dallas and Houston. Brooksby was runner up in Dallas and best Tsitsipas in Indian Wells. Cressy too made the final of the Melbourne Summer Set as Isner did in Houston yesterday. Speaking about performances, Korda was one point away from defeating Nadal in the second round at Indian Wells.     

Often a tennis movement embodies a style. When we think of the Swedes, our memories rush back to beautifully geometrically conceived groundstrokes. Or the Spanish, traditionally born on clay courts, formidable baseline players determined to scurry and retrieve any ball, gradually evolving and adapting to the times.

American tennis, indeed, has always been characterised by variety, which is not surprising, considering the amplitude of the nation and its heterogeneity. And now it is just the case.

This new wave of US tennis is currently captained by Taylor Fritz, a solid all-round player, whose self-confidence surely will be boosted by his win in Indian Wells. Big serve (with some volley) is represented by Reilly Opelka. Sebastian Korda is an emblem of variety (his father’s genes may have had their say!), just as Jenson Brooksby, who is a strategy master too. Frances Tiafoe represents an all-offensive tennis. Tommy Paul, McKenzie McDonald and Brandon Nakashima are endowed with strong groundstrokes, excellent footwork and propension to attack. Maxime Cressy has revived pure serve and volley. Experienced players Isner, Giron and Kudla contribute to the team’s overall strength and consistency.

Some still may say that this cluster of American players may not appear as overpowering as in the past. It may be conceded. But times are different as well. 

From 2005 to 2022 the cake of Majors was divided for the most part among Federer, Nadal and Djokovic, with Murray and Wawrinka getting their fair share (3 each) and outsiders Del Potro and Cilic, and more recently Thiem and Medvedev getting one bite. 

Over the next few years the tennis scenario could be quite different and resemble the 1995-2003 period, with 17 different winners in the Majors. If competition gets as tight once more, with several top players standing a chance of winning a Major, these fresh US players will be in the number.    

The clay season is about to get underway. The last American triumph at Roland Garros dates back to 1992, and Chang reached the final in 1995 proving that his win in 1989 was no stroke of luck. Despite meagre harvests in the recent years a few breakthroughs do stand out: Isner’s quarter-final in Madrid 2021, Opelka semi-final Rome 2021. At Roland Garros in 2020 Korda lost to his idol Rafa Nadal in the 4th round and Isner reached the same stage in 2018. 

This time the feeling is that a new cycle has started, and this Renaissance is capable of breaking many boundaries.

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It’s Unfair, Rafa Is Too Good In Roland Garros Final

James Beck reflects on Nadal’s latest triumph at Roland Garros.

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Rafael Nadal - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Dell'Olivo)

This one was almost unfair.

 

It was like Rafa Nadal giving lessons to one of his former students at the Nadal academy back home in Mallorca.

When this French Open men’s singles final was over in less than two hours and a half, Rafa celebrated, of course. But he didn’t even execute his usual championship ritual on Court Philippe Chatrier of falling on his back on the red clay all sprawled out.

This one was that easy for the 36-year-old Spanish left-hander. He yielded only six games.

 It certainly didn’t have the characteristics of his many battles at Roland Garros with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

It must have been a bit shocking to the packed house of mostly Rafa fans.

RAFA DIDN’T MISS ‘HIS SHOT’ OFTEN

Nadal didn’t miss many of his patented shots such as his famed reverse cross-court forehand. He was awesome at times. Young 23-year-old Casper Ruud must have realized that by the middle of the second set when Rafa started on his amazing 11-game winning streak to finish off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory.

Ruud is good. The Norway native will win his share of ATP titles, but probably not many Grand Slam titles. If any, at least until Rafa goes away to a retirement, certainly on his island of Mallorca.

Rafa already has his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros. Perhaps, Mallorca should be renamed Rafa Island.

RUUD COULDN’T HANDLE RAFA’S PRESSURE

Ruud displayed a great forehand at times to an open court. But when Rafa applied his usual pressure to the corners Ruud’s forehand often  went haywire.

Rafa’s domination started to show in the third set as Ruud stopped chasing Nadal’s wicked reverse cross-court forehands. 

Ruud simply surrendered the last three games while Nadal yielded only three points. Nadal finished it off with a sizzling backhand down the line. In the end, nice guy, good sport and former student Ruud could only congratulate Rafa.

JOHNNY MAC: RAFA ‘INSANELY GOOD’

The great John McEnroe even called Nadal’s overall perfection “insanely good.”

If Iga Swiatek’s 6-1, 6-3 win in Saturday’s women’s final over young Coco Gauff was a mismatch,  Iga’s tennis idol staged a complete domination of Ruud a day later.

It appears that the only thing that can slow Rafa down is his nearly always sore left foot, not his age. He won his first French Open final 17 years ago.

For Nadal to win a 22nd Grand Slam title to take a 22-20-20 lead over his friends and rivals Djokovic and Federer is mind-boggling, but not as virtually unbelievable as winning a 14th  French Open title.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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At The French Open Rafa and Novak Lived Up To A Battle For The Ages

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Rafael Nadal (photo @RolandGarros)

Rafa Nadal is simply amazing.

 

His herd of fans couldn’t have been more pleased with their hero on this day just hours from his 36th birthday. He was never better, his patented reverse  cross-court forehand a marvel for the ages and his serve never more accurate.

The presence of his long-time friend and rival on the Court Philippe Chatrier that he loves so much made Nadal’s victory over Novak Djokovic even more special. The 59th meeting between these two warriors was a match for the ages, marvelous play by both players. Some games seemed to go on forever, with these two legends of the game dueling for every point for nearly four hours in a match that started in May and ended in June.

NADAL HAS NEVER PLAYED BETTER

The 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory sends Nadal into his birthday on Friday to face Alexander Zverev for a spot in Sunday’s final of the French Open. Win or lose now, Rafa will remain the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles titles until at least Wimbledon due to his current 21-20-20 edge over Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Nadal played like he could go on forever playing his game, but he is quick to remind that his career could end at any time. The always painful left foot remains in his mind.

But the Spanish left-hander has never played better than when he overcame a 5-2 deficit against Djokovic in the fourth set. Nadal sparkled with energy, easily holding service, then fighting off two set points with true grit, holding easily to get back to 5-5 and then holding serve at love for 6-6.

A 6-1 TIEBREAKER DEFICIT TOO MUCH FOR EVEN NOVAK

The tiebreaker belonged to Rafa for six of the first seven points. That was too tough a task for even Novak to overcome.

Rafa’s podiatrist must have felt relieved at least for now. If Rafa was in pain, he didn’t show it for the first time in quite awhile.

If Nadal could pull off the feat of taming the big game and serving accuracy Zverev displayed while conquering potential whiz kid Carlos Alcaraz, and then taking out whoever is left in the battle between Denmark’s young Holger Rune, Croatia’s veteran Marin Cilic, Norway’s Casper Ruud and Russian Andrey Rublev, Nadal might own a nearly unbeatable lead with 22 Grand Slam titles.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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The Next Group Of Hopefuls To Replace The ‘Great Trio’ May Be Beaten Out By Youth

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Carlos Alcaraz - Roland Garros 2022 (photo Roberto Dell'Olivo)

What is it with this supposedly great crop of newer and younger players groomed to take the places of the “Great Trio” of  Roger Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic at the top of the men’s game?

 

Only Daniil Medvedev and Dominic Thiem have won Grand Slam titles, both at the U.S. Open. And that’s about it. Medvedev just fell to Marin Cilic in the French Open round of 16.

Who?

You remember the 33-year-old hard-hitting Croatian who won the 2014 U.S. Open. Cilic had hardly been heard from since the 2018 Australian Open where he was runner-up . . . until  Monday when he needed just 45 minutes to conquer Medvedev.

THIEM JUST ANOTHER PLAYER THESE DAYS

Thiem? He looked like the real deal in 2020 when he won the U.S. Open. The Austrian is now 28 years old and an injured right wrist in 2021 has pushed Thiem far down the ATP rankings.

Then, there was the next presumed superstar: Stefanos Tsitsipas. The aggressive potential superstar came up empty on Monday against a virtually unknown teenager. Holger Rune was fantastic in his four-set domination of Tsitsipas.

The just-turned 19-year-old Rune appears to have it all: speed, quickness, power and touch. A 40th ranking isn’t too bad for a teen-ager, especially when it will zoom higher as the result of his advancement to a Grand Slam quarterfinal.

ARE MEDVEDEV, THIEM AND TSITSIPAS REALLY THAT GREAT?

Maybe Medvedev, Thiem and Tsitsipas aren’t really as good as they once appeared to be. They are certainly not in the category of all-time greats. They have had their chances to become household words.

Maybe the members of this group weren’t meant to be the superstars to replace Federer, Nadal and Djokovic as fan favorites.

Maybe, it’s the next group of younger players, even teenagers. Yes, it appears that Carlos Alcaraz may outshine the likes of Thiem, Medvedev and Tsitsipas in the next few years.

MAKE WAY FOR CARLOS ALCARAZ?

It just happens the 19-year-old Carlos Alcaraz may become one of the eventual replacements for Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

Carlos Alcaraz is one week younger than Rune.

Alexander Zverev might have been ahead of the others if he hadn’t blown so many chances for stardom the last few years. Still, he is the Olympic champion and probably has more potential than Thiem, Medvedev or Tsitsipas.

A HERD OF PLAYERS WAITING TO MAKE THEIR MARKS

There is a herd of virtually unknown players waiting to make their mark. For instance, take Casper Ruud, 20-year-old Jannik Skinner and Matteo Berrettini. They have the potential to beat anyone.

But Alcaraz and Rune look like the best of the new young guns of tennis.

Of course, it really doesn’t matter who wins the Nadal-Djokovic quarterfinal showdown in Paris. They are two of the greatest players ever. Nothing is going to change that, not in Paris or anywhere else. Their place in history is written in stone, alongside Federer.

WOMEN’S GAME UNPREDICTABLE

The women’s game is even more unpredictable than the men’s game. One reason is because the WTA no longer has superstars the likes of Venus and Serena Williams, and Ashleigh Barty.

Top-ranked Iga Swiatek looked ready to take over the women’s game with her long string of consecutive wins. But in the last two rounds of the French Open, Swiatek has looked like just another good player at times.

That may be due to the fact that the Polish sensation is going for her second French Open title while taking a 31-match winning streak into the quarterfinals. But it happened in the third round against 95th-ranked Danka Kovinic and then again Monday in round of 16 against 74th-ranked Qinwen Zheng.

Swiatek suddenly looked very average, but then bounced back to take both matches in the cool weather once she put on a white jacket in each match. She aroused her game early enough to avoid losing a set against Kovinic, but not against Zheng.

PEGULA MAY TEST SWIATEK

Swiatek now will face newlywed Jessie Pegula in the quarterfinals. Pegula is now playing the best tennis of her career and has rocketed to No. 11 in the world. Like Swiatek, Pegula is a fighter. She won’t go down easily and may be Swiatek’s toughest test remaining in Paris.

The 28-year-old Pegula called Charleston her home while she trained for a couple of years at the then Family Circle Cup complex, which is now the home of the Credit One Charleston Open stop on the WTA Tour. Pegula was married in last October at the famed Biltmore Estate in Asheville, N.C.

Pegula also is having doubles success in Paris. She teamed with Coco Gauff to reach the third round in doubles, hoping for a victory there to advance to the doubles quarterfinals as well.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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