Young Guns Poised to Save U.S. Tennis

As a child of the 1980s, I remember the United States dominating men's tennis. It seems as though fully a third of the draw of the grand slams were made up of Americans, and half the quarterfinal draw. While I look back at the records and see my mind exaggerated the landscape a bit with age, there were a couple of glorious years where Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, and even a twilight-of-their-careers John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors were all capable of winning a slam.

Those days are long gone. No American has even made the semifinal of a major since 2009, and Yanks have won one out of the last 51 majors (I speak only of the men, of course; the Williams sisters have kept the American flag hoisted high for the ladies). Do you realize Andy Roddick only won one grand slam event?

Things have been a real bummer for a real long time if you're a U.S. men's tennis fan, but I'm thrilled to report that help is on the way. Three of the four grand slam junior champions this year were Americans. Four of the top seven ranked ITF junior players are American. So it's high time to take a look at these players and be sure to remember their names so you can say, "I knew them when..." in 5-10 years.


Age: 18
From: St. Joseph, Michigan

Opelka won this year's Wimbledon Junior tennis tournament, for my money the most prestigious grand slam of them all. He is a classic American-esque player, with a dominating serve on a 6'10" frame. In other words, he's John Isner with a much higher ceiling than John Isner. He's currently the seventh-ranked junior player.


Age: 17
From: College Park, Maryland

He's the youngest player I'm profiling for this piece (except honorable mentions), but he doesn't qualify as a junior anymore. He's been too dominant. It started in the spring, when he racked up enough ranking points in challenger events to qualify as the American wild card in the French Open. What are challenger events? I'm tempted to call them the highest minor league of tennis, but even that doesn't quite do them justice. It is normal for players ranked in the top 70 to play in them, and they are certainly not junior or age-limited events.

In August, he won the U.S. Boys Under 18 National Championship, beating a field that includes everyone else in this piece. That got him into the U.S. Open, so while everyone else is playing junior grand slams, Tiafoe got into the main draw twice in this year's majors. Two years ago, he won the most prestigious international junior tournament not attached to a grand slam, Miami's Orange Bowl tournament. He was only 15 at the time and the youngest player ever to take the title.


Age: 18
From: Voorhees Township, New Jersey

He's my favorite name on this list. While it seems like every young emerging athlete has a name out of a Key And Peele sketch, here's a guy with a name that oozes Americana and rolls off the tongue — Tommy Paul!

Not only was Paul the winner of the French Open Juniors (only the second American winner since McEnroe in 1977), he was a finalist in the U.S. Open Juniors a few months later (his opponent in both finals was the same ... stay tuned). He's the sixth-ranked junior player in the world, just ahead of Opelka.


Age: 17
From: Rancho Santa Fe, California

If you remember only won name on this list, remember Fritz. He is the No. 1 junior player in the world, and was Tommy Paul's opponent in the French and U.S. Open junior finals.

But it's what he has done since winning the U.S. Open juniors that's truly remarkable. While I mentioned Tiafoe doing decently in Challengers, Fritz has been winning them as a wildcard. Two weeks ago, he won the Sacramento challenger, and last week, he won the Fairfield (California) Challenger. This week, he's gunning for three in a row in Las Vegas. I really can't emphasize enough how impressive that is at 17. These are tennis lifers much older than him, many ranked in the top 150, that he's beating. At this point, it'd be more surprising if he didn't win a major.


Michael Mmoh, 17, Bradenton, Florida (No. 2 ranked junior player in the world)

Stefan Kozlov, 17, Pembroke Pines, Florida (current Orange Bowl champ, runner-up in two grand slam junior events, and the man Tiafoe beat in the U.S. Boys Under 18 National Championship finals)

Jared Donaldson, 19, Providence, Rhode Island (ATP tour regular, highest-ranked American teenager)

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