Time running out for this generation of U.S. tennis players

Posted Saturday, Jan. 11, 2014  comments  Print Reprints
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Australian Open

Sunday through Jan. 26

TV: ESPN2 and the Tennis Channel

Players to watch

It’s an important year for some young Americans. Here are five men and women 23 years old or younger to watch in 2014.

Bradley Klahn: The lefty won the 2010 NCAA championship for Stanford ... Put together a string of successes that began in July and hit a peak during an Asian swing on the Challenger tour in October and November, which included a victory in Yeongwol, South Korea, and finals appearances in Traralgon, Australia, and Yokohama, Japan. … He also won a Challenger title in Aptos, Calif.

Jack Sock: The 2010 U.S. Open junior champion already has a Grand Slam title to his credit, winning the U.S. Open mixed doubles with Melanie Oudin in 2011. ... The Nebraska native has struggled to live up to expectations. ... He reached a career high of 78 and advanced to the third round of the U.S. Open the past two years. ... He won the Challenger event in Winnetka, Ill., beating Klahn in the finals.

Ryan Harrison: The Shreveport native moved to New Braunfels where his father, Pat ,was an instructor at the John Newcombe Tennis Academy. ... Reached a career high of 43 in July 2012, but has slipped outside of the top 100. ... In 2013, he lost to Rafael Nadal in the first round of the U.S. Open. Also made a first-round exit at Wimbledon, and second-round departures at the French and the Australian Open.

Denis Kudla: The Ukrainian-American moved to the U.S. at age 1. ... Reached the second round of the U.S. Open (lost to No. 5 Tomas Berdych), second round at Wimbledon (lost to No. 49 Ivan Dodig), and qualified for the main draw of the French. … Won the Challenger event in Tallahassee, Fla. and reached the finals at the Dallas Tennis Classic last year. … Climbed as high as No. 90. … Former U.S. Open junior finalist in 2010 (lost to Sock).

Rhyne Williams: Reached a career high 114. ... Started 2013 strong, including a victory at the Challenger of Dallas. … He also reached the semifinals at the U.S. Clay Court Championships in Houston in April. ... He found little success at the year’s four majors, losing in the first round in the Australian, French and U.S. Open. ... Failed to qualify for Wimbledon.

Women

Sloane Stephens: She had a breakout season in 2013 that included a victory over Serena Williams in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open before falling to eventual champion Victoria Azarenka in the semifinals. She reached the fourth round at the French Open, quarterfinals at Wimbledon and fourth round at the U.S. Open.

Madison Keys: The 18-year-old made the third round last year at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. ... Reached the second round in at the French and lost in the first round of the U.S. Open. ... Finished the year strong, reaching the semifinals in Osaka, Japan, and last week the semifinals in Sydney.

Alison Riske: After failing to qualify for the Australian Open and French Open last year, the 23-year-old advanced to the third round at Wimbledon after making the semifinals at the grass-court tuneup in Birmingham, England. She then made a run to the fourth round at the U.S. Open, including a victory over No. 10 Petra Kvitova.

Christina McHale: The 21-year-old has slipped from her career-high ranking of No. 24, but has shown the potential to be an impact player. She made the main draw of all four majors last year, but lost in the first round in Melbourne and at Roland Garros, reached the second round at Wimbledon and third round at the U.S. Open. ... Has advanced to the third round of a major five times, but has yet to make the second week.

Lauren Davis: The 20-year-old has won only one match in seven Grand Slam appearances, reaching the second round at the French Open in 2012. However, she put together some nice showings during the summer and fall last year, reaching the second round as a qualifier in Toronto and in Beijing. ... Won the $100,000 tournament in Midland. ... Also made the quarterfinals at Hobart, Monterrey and Quebec City last year.

More information

American men in Australian Open

RankPlayerAgeHometown
13 John Isner28Greensboro, N.C.
51Sam Querrey26San Francisco
90Tim Smyczek26Milwaukee
91Donald Young24Chicago
92Michael Russell35Houston
93Bradley Klahn23Poway, Calif.
95Jack Sock21Lincoln, Neb.
110Ryan Harrison21Shreveport, La.
113 (q)Denis Kudla21Arlington, Va.
130 (q)Rhyne Williams22Knoxville, Tenn.
139 (q)Wayne Odesnik28Weston, Fla.
147 (wc)Steve Johnson24Orange, Calif.
American women in Australia Open
1Serena Williams32Palm Beach Gar., Fla.
13Sloane Stephens20Coral Springs, Fla.
28 (wd)Jamie Hampton24Auburn, Ala.
36Madison Keys18Boca Raton, Fla.
38Venus Williams33Palm Beach Gar., Fla.
48Bethanie Mattek-Sands28Phoenix
52Varvara Lepchenko27Allentown, Pa.
55Alison Riske23Atlanta
65Christina McHale21Englewood Cliffs, N.J.
67Lauren Davis20Boca Raton, Fla.
71Vania King25Boynton Beach, Fla.
141 (q)Irina Falconi23Atlanta
196 (wc)Sachia Vickery18Hollywood, Fla.

wd-withdrew, injury; q-qualifier; wc-wild card

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With the exception of John Isner, the chances of an American man being in the mix in the later rounds of this year’s Australian Open are bleak.

Isner, ranked No. 13, is the only American ranked in the top 50, with Sam Querrey slipping to No. 51 in the most recent rankings.

U.S. tennis fans have never had so few countrymen to root for at the top of the game. Such is the global nature of a sport now dominated by players from places like the small island of Majorca off the coast of Spain, a city in northern Switzerland or the former war-torn nation of Serbia.

As grim as American prospects seem, there is hope on the horizon. For fans who scroll far enough down the ATP rankings, something eventually jumps out. Beginning with Milwaukee native Tim Smyczek at No. 90, there are five mostly young Americans in the top 100, all of whom are in the main draw of the year’s first major — the Australian Open, which begins Sunday in Melbourne.

Joining the 26-year-old Smyczek are 21-year-old Jack Sock, 23-year-old former NCAA champion Bradley Klahn and 24-year-old Donald Young, as well as ancient journeyman Michael Russell of Houston, who is ranked No. 92 at age 35.

Also in the main draw is 21-year-old Ryan Harrison, who has slipped to No. 110, and two-time NCAA champion Steve Johnson, who received a wild card.

Three more Americans reached the main draw through qualifying and are in position to make the jump into the top 100, including 21-year-old Dallas Tennis Classic finalist Denis Kudla, ranked No. 113, and 22-year-old Challenger of Dallas champion Rhyne Williams at No. 130, along with 28-year-old lefty Wayne Odesnik, who is ranked No. 139.

“I think it’s a huge year, or two years ... [not only for] the American players, but all of those guys [in their early 20s],” said Darren Cahill, a former player, coach and ESPN analyst. “They are not just capable of making the top 50, but they should be looking beyond that. They should be looking at the top 20 and beyond. All of those guys are capable of making the top 50.”

To reach the top 50 and beyond, these young players not only need to make the main draw at majors, but they must win matches, multiple matches, and they must make the semifinals to reach the top 20 and beyond.

However, Cahill said time is running out on this generation.

“All this next generation that we’ve been talking about for about the last five years, if they don’t make a big step up in the next one or two years, most of the big contracts these kids are under will disappear and everybody will start focusing on the next generation,” he said. “So this is a huge year for all of those guys.”

But that’s not the end of the hope for the future of American men’s tennis as Cahill sees it.

“You also have a bunch of guys in the United States who are 15-16 years of age who are outstanding, some of the best male juniors I’ve seen in a long, long time,” he said.

“A bunch of them were playing at the Orange Bowl [in Boca Raton, Fla.] recently, and they dominated. The group of kids coming behind this generation is outstanding, and they will leapfrog these guys in the next couple of years if they are not careful.”

It’s a situation that American tennis icon Chris Evert has seen play out in the women’s game. For several years, if not for Venus and Serena Williams, women’s tennis in the U.S. would have all but disappeared.

“There was a lot of criticism [about the lack of American women at the top of the game], but in the last few years, a lot have emerged.” Evert said. “This year, when you look at how Madison Keys played last year, Sloane [Stephens] and Jamie Hampton, I think that we could very well have five or six in the top 20 at the end of the year. And then you look at [Victoria] Duval and [Lauren] Davis, [Christina] McHale and Alison Riske, we have a whole stable of women now, and they are pushing each other.”

Eleven American women are in the top 100, with eight in the top 55. Serena Williams has a stranglehold on No. 1, but young players are stepping up to join her, including 20-year-old Stephens at No. 13.

Hampton, a 24-year-old from Alabama who will miss Melbourne because of a hip injury, is at No. 28, and 18-year-old Keys from Rock Island, Ill., is No. 36.

“I’m down in Boca Raton where the USTA is situated — it’s on the same property as my academy — and I watch these girls battle it out,” Evert said. “McHale is playing Madison Keys. They are all playing matches, they are all grinding it out, working hard, and they are competing against each other, and I think that’s what we didn’t have before.

“And I’m seeing the men, too. Ryan Harrison is down there. All the men are also grinding it out. I just think the men are two years behind, and I think it will happen. I think this year you are going to see some good matches.

“It’s all cyclical. The world has dominated the sport. It has become more global. The Americans have kind of slipped through the cracks the last five years, but especially on the women’s side, I see a real emergence.”

Cahill said it has been unusual for this generation worldwide to have so few young players making an impact on the game.

“I don’t think tennis has ever seen an era when we haven’t seen 19- and 20-, 21-, 22-year-olds coming through and making Slam finals or winning majors,” Cahill said. “You go back through every single generation, and there were youngsters pushing to win majors. The game has changed a little bit where it’s become more physical, but we’re either overrating this generation ... [or] they haven’t done much or not much at all.

“The next year or two is going to be incredibly important for this generation to start making waves on the tour, start busting into the top 20, pushing on into the top 10, making the semis of majors. Otherwise this next generation is going to leapfrog them.”

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

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