A closer look at the state of American men’s tennis
Ever since Andre Agassi’s retirement in 2006, there has been rising concern over the state of American men’s tennis. Sure, Andy Roddick won a US Open title in 2003, but the next Sampras, McEnroe or Connors has yet to surface. As the decade progressed, it became clear that the country was lacking in top tennis talent. Now that Roddick has retired, there are no American men ranked inside the top ten.
Ranked eleventh, John Isner is the only one inside top twenty. Though Isner has had his share of big wins, he is by no means the panacea for the American game. In addition, the United States, which holds 32 Davis Cup titles, the last of which was in 2007, has not reached a final since. Ostensibly, the prospects for the resurgence of American men’s tennis seem grim. However, there are several aspects of American tennis that casual fans of the game tend to overlook. Those concerned about the lack of current male singles superstars actually have much to be excited about.
Two young Americans, Jack Sock and Steve Johnson, had highly encouraging results on the Tour this year, ending with rankings of 26 and 32, respectively. Despite missing the beginning of the 2015 season due to hip surgery and seeing his ranking drop to as low as 58, Sock was able to climb all the way back to the top 30, and soon reached a career best of 25. He won his maiden title in Houston this year, upsetting two top twenty players, Roberto Bautista Agut and Kevin Anderson.
Confirming his place at the top of men’s tennis are his seven top twenty wins over players like Isner, Gilles Simon, Richard Gasquet, and Grigor Dimitrov. He was also just one win away from taking the last spot in the World Tour Finals in doubles with partner Vasek Pospisil. Unlike most American players, Sock’s self-proclaimed best surface is clay. His maiden title was on the dirt, and his best result at a slam (in singles) was his fourth-round appearance at the French Open this year.
Meanwhile, Steve Johnson, who dominated college tennis at USC by winning 72 matches in a row his junior and senior years, is also starting to break through. He made the final in Vienna, a competitive 500 series event, and the semi-final in Valencia at the end of this year. This run included wins over Kevin Anderson and Feliciano Lopez, both of whom are ranked inside the top twenty. He also secured wins over Ivo Karlovic, Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic, and Jo-Wilfred Tsonga en route to two other semi-final berths. Both Sock and Johnson have shown that they are more than ready to make a significant impact in 2016.
Arguably more exciting are the up-and-coming American juniors, many of whom have just recently turned pro. In the ITF Junior rankings, three of the top five and five of the top ten men are American, including the number one junior, Taylor Fritz. The last three junior Grand Slams have been won by Americans. At both the 2015 French and US Open, Fritz and Tommy Paul, the second highest ranked American at number three, contested the final. Paul won the first final in Paris but Fritz won their meeting in New York. After his US Open victory, Fritz then won back-to-back challenger titles and made the final of another. He is one of the few players to have done this under the age of 18. He joins the likes of Djokovic, Nadal, Berdych, and Del Potro, who are currently or have been ranked inside the top ten.
Other recent teen challenger winners include Noah Rubin, Tommy Paul, and Stefan Kozlov. In fact, Americans won the third most challenger singles titles of any nation this year. Despite not winning any titles, 17-year-old Francis Tiafoe has also been considered a top prospect after posting consistent results all year. The United States now have a whole crop of teenagers to train, compete against, and motivate each other. They all have the potential to reach the top of the game.
Men’s singles is currently the only ranking list without an American in the top ten. However, this should not overshadow the dominance of Serena Williams in singles and the success of doubles specialists Bob and Mike Bryan and Bethanie Mattek-Sands. In reality, American tennis as a whole is just fine. While the scarcity of top American men appears concerning, American men’s tennis is poised to return to dominance.
All statistics courtesy of atpworldtour.com
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