American tennis is young and the public is restless

Posted Sunday, Aug. 25, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
More information American men in the top 100
RkPlayerAgeCareer high rk.2013 rec.
14John Isner289 (April 2012)32-19
29Sam Querrey2517 (Jan. 2011)19-17
87Jack Sock2084 (July 2013)7-10
92Michael Russell3560 (Aug. 2007)7-11
97Ryan Harrison2143 (July 2012)11-18
100James Blake334 (Nov. 2008)8-12
American women in the top 100
RkPlayerAgeCareer high rk.2013 rec.
1Serena Williams311 (present)60-4
17Sloane Stephens2015 (July 2013)27-17
25Jamie Hampton2324 (July 2013)28-18
35Varvara Lepchenko2719 (Oct. 2012)16-19
40Madison Keys1840 (July 2013)28-17
54Bethanie Mattek-Sands2830 (July 2011)28-17
60Venus Williams331 (Feb. 2002)11-7
70Lauren Davis2063 (April 2013)22-18
95Alison Riske2393 (Aug. 2013)32-20
97Mallory Burdette2268 (June 2013)19-16

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American men have been a fixture in the world of tennis for longer than most can remember, but when the U.S. Open begins Monday in Flushing, N.Y., most, if not all, will likely be a distant memory by early next week.

Men such as Bill Tilden, Don Budge and Jack Kramer inspired generations to come. Pancho Gonzalez and Tony Trebert passed the torch into the modern era. Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith handed a legacy to Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang continued the tradition in an almost unbroken succession of champions to Andy Roddick.

But since Roddick’s 2003 U.S. Open title no American has won a Grand Slam men’s singles championship. The sport has changed. The game has become truly international. A Serb stands at the top of the game and players from Argentina to China and Kazakstan are rising to the fore. The competition has never been more intense.

While American tennis fans have embraced the greatness of players such as Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal, there has been something missing. Americans love to cheer their own and there has been little to cheer about in recent years.

Only two American men are ranked in the top 30 — John Isner at 14 and Sam Querrey at 29 — and only six are ranked in the top 100. The next American is 20-year-old Jack Sock at No. 87.

Before Isner reached the finals in Cincinnati earlier this month, he had fallen out of the top 20, leaving no American man in the top 20 for the first time since rankings began.

No one has taken more heat for the decline than USTA’s head of player development, Patrick McEnroe. But McEnroe remains optimistic about the future.

“Obviously we’re in a little bit of a rough go with our top men at the moment,” McEnroe said during a conference call last week. “We’ve been well aware of that for a number of years, even before Andy Roddick retired. But we’re starting to feel some more optimism about some of our younger guys coming up. Obviously, overall, we need better athletes and more kids in the pipeline. We need to get the racquets into hands of more kids and more athletic kids just as a general statement.”

McEnroe’s optimism is fueled by the fact that 12 American men are ranked between 100 and 184, including fast-rising stars Denis Kudla at 105, Tim Smyczek at 109 and two-time NCAA champion Steve Johnson, who has shot up to No. 121 after turning pro in July 2012.

Results are already beginning to show in the women’s game, which would have been in even worse shape than the men’s game if it wasn’t for Serena and Venus Williams. And the sisters deserve credit for inspiring the next generation.

Sloane Stephens, a 20-year-old from Plantation, Fla., is the No. 2-ranked American at No. 17 and appears to be the vanguard of a new generation. Ten Americans are ranked in the WTA’s top 100 and all are in their 20s or younger, except Serene and Venus.

Stephens is the kind of athlete McEnroe would like to see coming up on the men’s side. Her father is the late NFL running back John Stephens, who played from 1988-1993 for the Patriots, Rams and Chiefs. Her mother, Sybil Smith, was the first African-American swimmer to be named an All-American.

In addition to Stephens, Jamie Hampton at 25, Vavara Lepchenko, 27, and Bethanie Mattek-Sands, 28, are playing the best tennis of their careers. And 18-year-old Madison Keys, along with Lauren Davis, Alison Riske and Mallory Burdette are in their early 20s and climbing. Plus, 17-year-old Victoria Duval, who played her way into the field through qualifying after receiving a wild card to the event last year, is one to keep an eye on.

“We think we’ve got a lot of really great young women coming up,” McEnroe said. “We would like to see the same in the men, no doubt. We’ve got some work to do, but we think we’re starting to see some signs with some of the younger guys and ... juniors that are in the pipeline that will be able to get double digit numbers of players in the top 100, too.”

Rusty Hall, 817-390-7816 Twitter: @RustyHall10s

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