Big Things Ahead
for American Tennis
Sally Milano | July 3, 2017
The United States holds a unique place in the tennis record books, with a host of champions and all-time greats ranging from the 19th century to the present day. Still, it’s been 14 years since Andy Roddick won the US Open men’s title and claimed the No. 1 ranking in the world. And while Serena Williams has been at or near the top of the women’s rankings for almost two decades, many have questioned the current state of tennis in the U.S.: Who is going to be the next American champion? When will we have our next men’s No. 1? Will an American man ever win another major?
Well, if the results of U.S. players in recent months mean anything, that time could be coming soon.
Sixty American players competed in the qualifying or main draw at Wimbledon 2017 – almost twice that of the second-place home-country United Kingdom, which had 38. ADVERTISEMENT The U.S. currently has nine men and 13 women ranked in the world's Top 100. And 11 men and 13 women ages 23 and younger are now in the world's Top 200 – again, the most of any nation.
Taylor Fritz, who won the US Open boys’ title at the 2015 US Open and went on to finish that year ranked No. 1 in the ITF World Junior Rankings, was the first of a strong group of young American men to make a name for himself on the ATP World Tour. Last year, he reached the Memphis final in just his third ATP event, became the youngest player to finish 2016 in the Top 100 of the ATP rankings and was named the 2016 ATP Newcomer of the Year.
Along with Fritz, Jared Donaldson, Ernesto Escobedo, Stefan Kozlov, Michael Mmoh, Reilly Opelka, Tommy Paul, Noah Rubin and Frances Tiafoe (pictured above) are also making a splash on the men’s tennis scene. They are all 21 years old or younger and are part of the ATP’s #NextGenATP campaign, which touts players as the "Next Generation" of stars on the ATP World Tour.
“You're looking at the present and the future of it right here, for starters,” said U.S. Davis Cup Captain and former world No. 1 Jim Courier, a member of the acclaimed generation that produced Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang and Todd Martin. “The even better news is that we have a cluster of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds that are starting to make their way onto the tour, starting to get through the Challengers, move up to tour level.
“I was lucky enough to come through a generation that pushed each other. We had a cluster back then. We were able to push each other to great heights. It can only benefit American tennis if we have this young group here.”
Tiafoe, Donaldson and Escobedo are all currently ranked in the ATP's Top 100. Nineteen-year-old Tiafoe, now at a career-high No. 63, won back-to-back Challenger singles titles in May and picked up his first Grand Slam win in January at the Australian Open. Donaldson, 20 and ranked 67th, reached the fourth round at Miami earlier this year and advanced to the third round of a Grand Slam for the first time at the 2016 US Open, upsetting then-No. 14 David Goffin for his first Top 20 win. No. 74-ranked Escobedo, also 20, broke into the Top 100 in April after advancing to his first ATP semifinal in Houston, defeating John Isner in the quarterfinals.
“The likes of Frances Tiafoe and Ernesto Escobedo remind me of the time when Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Michael Chang came along and rocked the tennis world,” said renowned sportscaster and former tennis pro Mary Carillo. “Sons of immigrants, playing with something to prove. It's exhilarating to watch Tiafoe and Escobedo. So much physical talent and court smarts – still raw in some ways but also so much ambition and desire. Such different paths from the massively talented son of privilege, Taylor Fritz, whose mother (Kathy May) was a Top 10 player herself. Those three, as well as the cool 7-footer, Reilly Opelka, are destined to do terrific things on the tour. And it seems that there's plenty more in the American pipeline.”
CiCi Bellis, 18, who made her Top 100 debut last year and is now at a career-high ranking of No. 40, advanced to her first WTA semifinal last month at the Mallorca Open and reached the third round of the US Open last year as a qualifier. And Jennifer Brady, Louisa Chirico, Danielle Collins, Samantha Crawford, Lauren Davis, Kayla Day, Nicole Gibbs, Sofia Kenin, Jamie Loeb, Grace Min, Shelby Rogers, Taylor Townsend and Sachia Vickery are all under the age of 24 and ranked in the world’s Top 200.
"It’s so exciting," says USTA Lead National Coach and U.S. Fed Cup Captain Kathy Rinaldi. "When you have a great group of players coming up, they push each other. That gives the younger players an extra belief, and then they start pushing each other.
“You see people like Kayla Day and CiCi Bellis and Jenny Brady and Shelby Rogers. There are so many. There’s 15-year-old Amanda Anisimova coming up and players like Taylor Townsend almost back inside the Top 100. It goes on and on. You see juniors, like Caroline Dolehide and Whitney Osuigwe, who is younger than she is, and Alexa Noel, who is even younger than her. There’s a whole chain of young American players."
At the junior level, U.S. players have thrived in recent years. Just last month, 15-year-old Osuigwe defeated 17-year-old Claire Liu to win the first all-American girls’ singles final at Roland Garros since 1980 and the second in the tournament's history, dating back to 1953. Overall, four of the eight quarterfinalists in this year’s French Open girls' draw were from the U.S. – Liu, Osuigwe, Caty McNally and 2016 finalist Anisimova, also 15, who made her Grand Slam main-draw debut in Paris this year after winning the USTA Pro Circuit's French Open Wild Card Challenge.
The girls’ successes at Roland Garros are just the latest for American juniors at majors. Last year, Day took home the US Open girls’ trophy and was one of 10 Americans to reach the round of 16 at the US Open Junior Championships. At Wimbledon 2016, Usue Arconada and Liu captured the girls’ doubles title. In 2015, three of the French Open boys’ singles semifinalists were American, with Paul beating Fritz in the first all-American French Open boys’ singles final, dating back to 1947. A month later, 6-foot-11 Opelka became the second consecutive American boy to win at Wimbledon, a year after Rubin defeated Kozlov in the 2014 all-American boys’ final.
“We’re really fortunate because I think it’s the most talented group that we’ve had in about 15 years,” said Martin Blackman, General Manager, USTA Player Development. “But where we’re really fortunate is that when [this group] came through, we actually had the right system in place to help them maximize their potential.”
The system Blackman refers to starts with recognizing the important role of a player’s private coach. He describes Player Development’s philosophy as a three-phase approach that began eight years ago with the development of Regional Training Centers throughout the country, giving players the opportunity to train close to home and have their training subsidized.
The second phase kicked in four years ago, when Player Development, then led by Patrick McEnroe, started the Team USA initiative, an even more inclusive and collaborative approach to working with private-sector coaches. During this time, Player Development began bringing coaches to camps and symposiums, making sure they were interacting with USTA national coaches and sharing the latest training techniques and information, which then would allow the private coaches to get the most from their students.
The third step, initiated under Blackman’s leadership, was the creation of a new department called Team USA – Pro, which provides players ranked between Nos. 100 and 500 with coaching assistance, training and financial resources. Whether it’s mental skills training, video performance analytics, travel coaching or strength and conditioning support, resources are made available for players who do not work directly with Player Development coaches.
Blackman also said the opening of the new USTA National Campus at Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla., in January has played and will continue to play a huge role in the development of American players. The new facility features hard, Har-Tru, red clay and indoor courts, as well as a gym and training room, café, study hall, beach volleyball court, basketball hoop and a player lounge.
The campus, Blackman said, has given Player Development the opportunity to be more inclusive than ever before of the top U.S. players at the junior, collegiate and pro levels, opening up the facility not just to players that Player Development works with directly but to all of the top U.S. players who train with their own teams there.
“It’s just a huge benefit in the support we're able to give our players but also the culture that we're able to cultivate at the campus,” Blackman said. “A culture of excellence, a culture where we can facilitate mentoring connections between our juniors and older players, where we can create a really dramatic demonstration effect where younger pros can train alongside older pros and just benefit from that interaction, and also have some of our past champions come in to some of the training blocks and camps and get that reconnection to make sure the bar is set where it needs to be set.
”When you've got Jim Courier spending time with those players and Mary Joe Fernandez, Lindsay Davenport, obviously our Fed Cup Captain Kathy Rinaldi, that's really the type of team environment we're trying to create. We want these players to really feel that their identity as an American player is something that's very special.”
Overall, with the current system in place, an inclusive team environment and the results showing success, it looks like great things are ahead for American tennis. The numbers certainly speak for themselves.
“We're in the beginning stages of seeing some nice transition from juniors to professional tennis from a big group of players. That will be very fun to watch,” Courier said. “It will be fun to see everyone pushing in the same direction, to try to get a few more names on the sports pages for American tennis. That would be a good thing, for sure.”