Best of 2016: Young U.S. men break through
As 2016 draws to a close, USTA.com is taking a look back at the top storylines, headlines and highlights from the year in American tennis.
The future of American tennis is looking bright, with several young U.S. men breaking through on the pro tour in 2016.
Leading the way is 19-year-old Taylor Fritz (pictured above), who was named the “ATP Star of Tomorrow” after ending the season as the youngest player ranked in the Top 100 (at No. 76). In February, Fritz became the youngest finalist at an ATP event since 2008, when he finished runner-up to Kei Nishikori at the Memphis Open; it was just Fritz's third career ATP tournament.
The 6-foot-4 Californian, who won the 2015 US Open boys' title, skyrocketed up the rankings, soaring 600 places from No. 673 in September 2015 to a career-high ranking of No. 53 in August.
He was joined in the Top 100 by fellow teen Frances Tiafoe. The 18-year-old won his first Challenger tournament in Stockton, Calif., in October and reaching the quarterfinals or better at 10 USTA Pro Circuit Challengers overall in 2016. In addition, he competed at the ATP events in Memphis, Houston and Indian Wells, where he defeated Fritz to reach the second round, and also received a wild card into the 2016 US Open, losing a five-set thriller to John Isner, 3-6, 4-6, 7-6 (5), 6-2, 7-6 (3), in the first round. Tiafoe is currently ranked No. 108 in the ATP rankings after reaching a career-high No. 100 in October.
Like Tiafoe, Michael Mmoh won his first Challenger title this year, claiming the championship at the $50,000 event in Knoxville, Tenn., in November. That win propelled the 18-year-old to a first-place finish in the USTA Pro Circuit’s Australian Open Wild Card Challenge and earned him a wild card into the 2017 Australian Open – his first Grand Slam tournament outside of the United States.
Mmoh, who turned pro in 2016, made his Grand Slam main-draw debut at the US Open in September after receiving a wild card into the tournament as the USTA Boys’ 18s national champion. He also qualified for the Memphis Open, competed in the main draw of the ATP event in Miami, reached the final of the $100,000 Tiburon Challenger and won the $25,000 USTA Futures event in Bakersfield, Calif.
The season finished on a strong note for two up-and-coming American players. Reilly Opelka, 19, and Stefan Kozlov, 18, won their first career Challenger titles in November, with Opelka claiming the title in Charlottesville, Va., and Kozlov winning the championship in Columbus, Ohio. Opelka also made some noise in the ATP ranks, stunning Donald Young and Kevin Anderson en route to the semifinals of the Emirates Airline US Open Series event in Atlanta.
Rounding out the standout performances from American teens this year was Jared Donaldson, who upset No. 12 seed David Goffin and former Top 15 player Viktor Troicki en route to the third round at the US Open. Donaldson was the only teenager to advance to the round of 32 in men's singles at Flushing Meadows.
In all, seven U.S. men age 20 or under finished the year ranked in the ATP’s Top 200 – Fritz (No. 76), Donaldson (No. 105), Tiafoe (No. 108), Kozlov (No. 116), Ernesto Escobedo (No. 141), Mmoh (No. 198) and Noah Rubin (No. 200).
If the past is any indicator, this could bode well for American tennis. The last time this many Americans under the age of 21 were ranked in the year-end top 200 was in 1991, when Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang – all Grand Slam winners – played on tour.