January 11, 2014

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

American men facing long odds of winning the Australian Open.

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.”

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