By David Zakhodin
Almost two years ago, The Fan’s Country Club launched its first ever piece with an unfiltered view of the sad state of affairs that was and still is American tennis. No consistent stalwarts to fill the shoes of Roddick, Blake, and Fish, and certainly no sign of transcendent stars to bring back the glory days of 90’s tennis with Sampras, Agassi, and Courier. Two years later, we see a fresh inventory of next gen stars and hopeful prospects emerging alongside the disappointment of the status quo. But are we really better off today than we were two years ago?
Before diving into the aforementioned next gen stars, we have to pay our respects (or lack thereof) to the current top American men in the rankings. Where else would we begin if not with the highly polarizing Jack Sock? Since winning the Paris Masters and reaching the semifinals of the World Tour Finals last November, the top-ranked American has very much regressed to the mean. That mean includes losing in the first round of Grand Slams and not seeming to be especially invested in winning on a level expected of a top ten player. Sock screwed around in his exhibition match against Federer at the Hopman Cup and lost first round in Melbourne. According to our sources, he didn’t seem to be taking his preparation for Delray Beach too seriously and proceeded to lose second round in a tournament he won last year. Say goodbye to the top eight, Jack. I know I’m probably coming across as a Sock hater, but I honestly would love for the guy to succeed and make us American tennis fans proud. It’s just unbelievably difficult to get behind someone who treats his profession as a part-time celebrity gig rather than a mission to maximize an immense level of talent and athleticism (the talent part obviously does not apply to his backhand). Perhaps Sock could take a page out of the book of his coach Jay Berger’s son, Daniel Berger, who has a funky looking golf swing but yet has burst onto the scene by consistently competing for top ten finishes at every PGA Tour event. I’d love to think that Sock will play with a greater sense of urgency in the upcoming Acapulco – Indian Wells – Miami hard court swing considering points will be hard to come by once the clay court season begins. But who can guarantee that he won’t tank his first Indian Wells match so he can get to a TV to watch his beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers attempt to win their first ever NCAA tournament game? Maybe he can donate his winnings from the Delray Beach doubles title to help them land some big name recruits.
Sam Querrey and John Isner: The top two Americans for what feels like ages are now both north of 30 and showing little signs of returning to their peak form. Querrey was fun to cheer for during the second half of 2017 with his semifinal and quarterfinal appearances at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open, respectively. He then fell apart when the Race to London heated up and has little to show for in 2018 outside of a final appearance at the New York Open. My two cents on the New York Open: what was the point? The ATP took away a storied tournament with deep roots in Memphis just to put a tournament in the New York Islanders’ old stadium. Patrick McEnroe was all excited about bringing professional tennis back to Long Island, and instead we went from having a full house at the small Memphis country club to an empty Nassau Coliseum from start to finish. Were the tournament organizers so naïve to think that residents of the Hamptons would flock to watch Kevin Anderson play Sam Querrey? Or that they would be super excited to see the bizarre return of Kei Nishikori? You could hear a pin drop in that arena. With regard to John Isner, the Big Fella has been serving big but struggling to find his form in 2018. He’ll be back in action this week as the eighth seed in Acapulco, but a resume with recent early round losses to Peter Gojowczyk, Radu Albot, and Matt Ebden is pretty rough.
Stevie Johnson and Tennys Sandgren: Stevie had a solid showing by reaching the semifinals of Delray Beach this week. But his brief stint as America’s number one seems as if it occurred ages ago. Since that strong summer of 2016 and his questionable switch from Babolat to Yonex, Stevie just hasn’t been the same guy. We know there are circumstances in his personal life that have put a great deal of mental strain on Stevie, but it would be very nice to see if he can get back to that top 30 level ranking where he can potentially be in the mix to reach the second week of a Grand Slam. Speaking of reaching second weeks of Grand Slams, let’s check in on Tennys Sandgren, the only American man to reach the second week of the Australian Open. After his disappointing performance against Hyeon Chung and spat with the media, Sandgren ventured to South America to play the clay courts of Buenos Aires, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paolo. Maybe he’s already got his sights set on being the only American to reach the second week of the French Open because he probably won’t have to worry about the rest of his compatriots accomplishing that feat. However, Sandgren has lost in the qualifying and in the second round of his first two clay events and may perhaps be showing that the attention and recognition that came with unprecedented success in Australia may have been too much to handle.
Ryan Harrison and Donald Young… why can’t we just all get along? I’m not going to weigh in on the semantics of their encounter at the Failing New York Open, but you can hear Harrison’s account by listening to Jon Wertheim’s podcast (as an industry rival, I would heavily discourage you from doing that and instead ask that you to subscribe to The Fan’s Country Club Podcast). What I will say is that whenever either of these players loses, it’s never quiet. With Young, it’s always the weird facial expressions (as if it’s some huge shock that he’s getting destroyed by Djokovic in the first round of the Australian Open), the open palm to the box, and rushing in between points. With Harrison, you’re just in for a dropping of F-bombs (that is directed at both himself and his opponents), an occasional racquet smash (although he’s cut down on that one), and a series of really intimidating head shakes. Young hasn’t shown much in 2018, but it’s a shame that this whole controversy occurred because it might have done enough to derail Harrison from his strong start to the season, which included a final appearance in Brisbane.
And finally, it’s time to get to those beloved next gen stars. Personally, in the immensely stupid question that is “which of these guys will be the first to win a Grand Slam?”, my money was on Jared Donaldson. His maturation process from being a kid in the juniors who lost his mind any time a call didn’t go his way to being a threat during the American hard court season was very impressive. However, now is not a good time to own Donaldson stock. He’s 59 in the world but has won a grand total of three matches in the last five months, not to mention getting swept at the Next Gen Finals.
How about Taylor Fritz? The great tennis.com writer Steve Tignor (in)famously proclaimed him the next Pete Sampras after he lost in the final of Memphis to Kei Nishikori two years ago as a 17-year-old. It’s hard to say anyone digressed as a teenager playing professional tennis, but 2017 was a disappointment for Fritz as he failed to even qualify for the Next Gen Finals. Nonetheless, he is back in the race this year and played some solid tennis in Delray Beach last week prior to losing to the Canadian next gen star America wishes it had, Denis Shapovalov. Fritz has a big serve but needs to develop more consistent weapons from the back of the court if he wants to return and surpass his previous success, all while handling the difficulties that come with being a 19-year-old dad.
Michael Mmoh? Stefan Kozlov? Haven’t seen enough of them on TV (or shady live streams for that matter) to make any early judgments on their potential. Mackenzie McDonald has won a few matches this year, although UCLA does not seem to be doing too badly without him. He also inexplicably puts balls in his right pocket, something you will never see a righty do on a tennis court. Noah Rubin hasn’t shown much in what feels like a year. The last I remember of Rubin is seeing him nearly taking a set off Roger Federer in the second round of the 2017 Australian Open. Ernesto Escobedo, despite his funky strokes, looks like he has the potential to have a big game and compete at a high level, yet he missed almost every no-pace forehand he got in the middle of the court against Kevin Anderson several weeks ago. Still not sure how high his ceiling is with that kind of technique. Reilly Opelka looks like the John Isner Part II with a bigger forehand; he would probably take Isner’s career accomplishments in a heartbeat. And let’s not get too hyped about Tommy Paul taking Kei Nishikori to three sets last summer in Washington. Let these young kids develop and then re-evaluate them after they’ve had several years on tour. Unless your name is Markelle Fultz, no NBA insider is going to deem your career a failure for having a slow rookie season. The same exact logic should apply to the potential next gen American tennis stars.
Lastly, we arrive at the man of the hour: Frances Tiafoe. Tiafoe defeated the likes of Del Potro, Chung, and Shapovalov this past weekend en route to his first career title at Delray Beach. Despite only being ranked 90 in the world last week, Tiafoe has shown signs of promise. Whether it be pushing an albeit injured Roger Federer to five sets at the U.S. Open or getting valuable experience at Laver Cup, Tiafoe has smelled the big stage more than any of these other guys. Even with that previous experience, Tiafoe still acted like a rookie who let the moment get the best of him when he dropped to his knees after soundly defeating Peter Gojowczyk, someone who has never tasted the top 50. On the other hand, our sources noted that Karen Khachanov, who captured his first career title this weekend against an actual top caliber player Loucas Pouille in Marseille, simply put his hands in the air after a monumental victory. Tiafoe needs to act like he’s been here before and not like a 20-year-old who is overwhelmed by high expectations. The problem with having had that experience and won a title at such a young age is that immense pressure comes with it. If people weren’t already hyping him up to be the savior of American tennis after they read about his upbringing at the JTCC Academy in College Park, Maryland, then they certainly will be after this weekend’s victory. To ALL the American tennis media out there, PUMP THE BRAKES. In no way am I trying to diminish what Tiafoe accomplished this week; his wins exhibited energy, grit, and mental toughness that we frankly haven’t seen much of from anyone in the rungs of American tennis recently. But one of the best ways to stunt the growth or development of a young star is to set expectations too high and anticipate greatness after one strong performance. Steve Tignor’s characterization of Fritz as the next Pete Sampras (which Tignor would surely now call an exaggeration) is a prime example of the adverse effect such expectations can have on young players.
So let’s not make the same exact mistake with Tiafoe and allow the results to take care of themselves. Remarkably, the Tennis Channel Live crew was already discussing earlier in the Delray tournament how he successfully qualified for two consecutive ATP quarterfinals. Why does every single miniscule stat need to be nitpicked? How many more case studies of media creating artificial pressure on players from their country do we have to read before we get it right? Tsonga never winning a Major and never reaching the final of Roland Garros. Kyrgios and the Aussie gang underachieving at the Australian Open and throughout the calendar year. Andy Murray was perhaps the only recent example of a player who overcame a long nationwide tennis drought in spite of the pressure placed on him by British fans and media who not only expected him to win any Major but to specifically win Wimbledon. And Murray accomplished that feat not because of that pressure but because he is simply one of the fifteen best players to ever pick up a racquet.
Let’s not start bringing up the numbers that always seek to tell an underlying narrative. “15 years since an American was number one or won a Major” or “Who’s the next American to win a Grand Slam?” America has a large pool of young tennis players who have certain capabilities to do what the current faces of American tennis have failed to do. And until we as the media stop putting ankle weights on their progress by glorifying or ridiculing their every move, the state of the union for American tennis will be weak.