Thursday, June 27, 2019

The State of American Men’s Tennis

By Kevin Beane

A little over three and a half years ago, I penned this piece entitled "Young Guns Poised to Save U.S. Tennis."

In fast-forwarding to today, I have two pieces of good news and two pieces of bad news to former self.

Bad News #1: None of those guys have saved American men's tennis.

Good News #1: None of them have been busts, either, except arguably one of the honorable mentions.

Bad News #2: Things are even worse today.

Good News #2: Some pretty great things happened between then and now.

Let me elaborate on those last two.

At the 2017 French Open, I lamented that only two Americans managed to squeak into the third round. In 2019, only one American managed to make it into the second round.

It was also set to be the first time since the '70s that a Grand Slam event went off with no seeded Americans, before an eleventh hour withdrawal from Milos Raonic allowed Frances Tiafoe to sneak into the seedings at #32.

There would have been an American comfortably seeded, but John Isner, the only consistent thing in American's men's tennis, pulled out himself. And that brings us to the bright spots of the intervening years.

ATP events are split into four categories: ATP 250 events are bog-standard events, ATP 500 events are fewer and more prestigious, ATP 1000 events are fewer still and more prestigious still, and finally there are the Grand Slams.

At the time of my first piece, an American hadn't won an ATP 1000 event since 2010 and an ATP 500 event since 2011 (both Andy Roddick). In 2017, however, Sam Querrey broke through with a win at the Acapulco ATP 500 event, and Jack Sock won the end-of-year ATP 1000 event in Paris. Querrey also made the semifinals at Wimbledon, the first American man to make that far in a slam since 2009 (Roddick, again).

Isner followed up Querrey's performance with a Wimbledon semifinal of his own in 2018, not long after he won the 2018 ATP 1000 Miami Open. He made it back to the Miami Open finals this year, too.

This is all a roundabout way of saying than Isner has been able to maintain his form. The other guys haven't. Querrey was ranked as high as 11th last year. Now he's 79th.

Sock has stumbled even harder. He won just 8 singles matches out of 25 in 2018, and has battled injuries that have seen him out of action for most of 2019. His ranking is currently 173rd. He was 8th less than two years ago.

Other American tour regulars have also fallen well off their ranking peak. Steve Johnson has gone from a high of 21st to 69th currently. Ryan Harrison from 40th to 128th. Jared Donaldson, one of the honorable mentions in my previous columns, has gone from 48th to 249th. Like Sock, he has struggled with match fitness.

So, again, the old(er) guard has shown flashes but only that. What about the other young guns I wrote about?

The best and brightest has been Frances Tiafoe. In 2018, he won his first ATP event. He followed that up this year with a quarterfinal run at the Australian open and cracked the top 30.

Following closely on his heels is Taylor Fritz. He has firmly entrenched himself as a tour regular and is ranked 42nd in the world at this writing, just two places off his career high.

Tiafoe and Fritz won junior slams, as did the other two guys I featured, Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul. It took Opelka a little longer to break through, but break through he has, with an ATP title at the New York Open in February.

Paul spent a couple years in the weeds, but looks poised to step up to the next level. He qualified for the ATP 250 main draw last month at the Netherlands event, and was a direct entry into the French Open.

Michael Mmoh stated the year well, winning a match in the main draw of the ATP 250 India event, but has struggled since. Stefan Kozlov, the last one mentioned in my piece, is currently ranked 405th and has not sniffed ATP Tour-level competence.

So have all these guys been joined by others?

A bit. Denis Kudla has been hanging around for awhile, and this year seems to maintain a ranking just high enough to get into ATP Tour draws. Mackey McDonald has come the closest to having a breakthrough year (besides Opelka), reaching the semifinals at Delray Beach and the quarterfinals at Acapulco. Bradley Klahn is ranked in the top 100, as well.

Is there help on the horizon? Yes and no. On one hand, there are no Americans in the Top 15 of players under 21. On the other hand, two American boys made surprising runs to the finals of the Junior Grand slams: Emilio Nava in Australia and Toby Alex Kodat at the French Open. Both forced a third set in the final before falling. Additionally, Sebastian Korda won the Australian juniors last year.

Still, as of today the song remains the same as it has since Andy Roddick retired: American men's tennis goes through John Isner.

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