The rise, fall and hopefulness of American men’s tennis
- Bill Connelly is a staff writer for ESPN.com.
The early May ATP rankings were revelatory for reasons both obvious and subtle. The big, screaming headliner was Daniil Medvedev becoming the first player from outside of tennis’s long-term Big Four — Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Andy Murray — to crack the top two in nearly 16 years. The second revelation, however, was about who wasn’t on the list. For the first time in the history of computerized tennis rankings, there were no American men in the top 30.
American men’s tennis hasn’t been in great shape
On the women’s side, the U.S. player pool remains exciting, with seven players, ranging from 17-year-old Coco Gauff to 39-year-old Serena Williams, in the top 30. Williams made two Grand Slam finals in 2019, 22-year-old Sofia Kenin made two in 2020 (winning the Australian Open) and 26-year-old Jennifer Brady reached the US Open semis in September and the Australian Open final in February.
On the other hand, it has been 18 years since Andy Roddick’s 2003 US Open title, his lone Slam and the last for an American male. It has been 12 years since an American finals appearance (Roddick at Wimbledon in 2009), and in the 2010s, only two Americans reached a semi: Sam Querrey (Wimbledon 2017) and John Isner (Wimbledon 2018). They are also the only two active Americans to have spent even a minute in the ATP top 20.
At the end of 1982, his rookie season on tour, Brad Gilbert ranked 54th in the world. That would currently rank sixth among American men; four decades ago, it ranked 24th. Americans occupied five of the top nine spots at that point, led by a top two of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, and eight others above Gilbert would crack the top 10 at some point in their careers. (That list doesn’t even include third-ranked Ivan Lendl, who would change his nationality from Czech to American late in his career.) That year, Americans had occupied seven of the eight spots in the Wimbledon quarterfinals, five more at the US Open and, the week after McEnroe and Gene Mayer had led the U.S. over France in the Davis Cup final, six in December’s Australian Open.
Even as the globalization of the sport took hold, Americans remained dominant well into the 1990s. In July 1991, seven Americans were in the top 20, and 21 were in the top 100. Jim Courier was at his peak, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were approaching theirs, and the U.S. once again reached the Davis Cup final against France.
Returns diminished, however. By July 2001, only Agassi remained in the top five. Sampras was 12th and approaching his last hurrah, and while Roddick was rising, he was one of only three others (along with Jan-Michael Gambill and fading veteran Todd Martin) in the top 40. Ten years later, in 2011, it was Roddick, a peaking Mardy Fish and Isner.
“We just had so many guys in my era,” Gilbert, now an ESPN analyst, said of his time in the pros. “If you were one of the best Americans, boom, you’re going up quickly. If you were a top college guy” — Gilbert was an All-American at Pepperdine — “it was a quick transition.
“The game has become so global. You have players coming from all over the world. But we had such a long period of time with great players, and we keep expecting that to happen. And then when it stops, you have to ask, what aren’t we doing?”
So … what isn’t the U.S. doing?
“If you have a world ranking for practicing,” Craig O’Shannessy said, “the U.S. is No. 1. The ability to go, ‘Let’s hit the practice court, let’s hit the gym, let’s hit the track, let’s get strong.’ The USTA” — United States Tennis Association — “has done a great job of that. But there’s no world ranking for being No. 1 in practice.”
O’Shannessy is a coach and consultant and the man behind Brain Game Tennis. He has worked with players like Novak Djokovic and Matteo Berrettini, and he has provided analytics-based analysis for The New York Times and both tour websites. He has recently worked with the Italian tennis federation during its climb — there are currently 10 Italians in the top 100, including rising 19-year olds Jannik Sinner and Lorenzo Musetti, and four in the top 31 — and he has done as much as anyone to advance the field of analytics and opponent analysis. His website and newsletter reveal his core tenets: that players should serve and volley more, that matches are decided by points lasting four or fewer shots, that certain patterns of play have higher win percentages, etc.
O’Shannessy believes that coaching in the States hasn’t quite been connected enough to strategy. “The traditional USTA practice session [is] where we get out there and we hit 100 balls crosscourt to start, then we do our patterns and we throw in some serves at the end,” he said. He thinks it’s easy for actual point construction to take a back seat.
Gilbert, meanwhile, believes a lot of the American style has become one-dimensional — big serve, big offense, iffy movement and defense — in part because it’s mostly played on one surface. “My theory on this has been the same for a while, and it won’t change,” he said. “We need for our young players, when they’re 13, 14, to embrace playing on clay way more. Until we do that, we’re gonna struggle.
“Clay just teaches you so much growing up, from discipline to footwork to working the point, and so many of the kids play one or two tournaments a year on clay in the States. They don’t practice on it. I think it hurts your movement, I think it hurts your ability to develop your game.”
To an extent, O’Shannessy agrees. “In order to enhance the construction of a point, the chess moves of a point, clay is obviously going to help you a little bit more than the hard court,” he said. But a lack of clay exposure alone shouldn’t hurt a player’s ability to craft strategy.
O’Shannessy pointed to research he did about point length and how, in 2016-18, there was a higher percentage of points lasting zero to four shots at the clay-court French Open than there was at the hard-court US Open.
“If you’re coming from a standpoint that is strictly saying, you’re gonna have a lot longer rallies on clay, well, certainly I can disprove that,” he said. Plus, in the 1980s and 1990s, “American tennis did have a heyday, and they didn’t really practice on clay. There’s nothing wrong with being good on hard courts — there’s no reason that hard-court success cannot parlay itself on clay.”
Regardless of the surface, the key to tennis in the 2020s is something the American men’s player pool has lacked for a while: elite-level movement. “A lot of guys play different,” Gilbert said, “but speed kills. If you look at the athleticism and movement of Rafa, Djoker, Fed, Murray, so many of these guys, it’s insane the level of movement. And I do think that comes at a young age. If you’re not a great mover, you don’t all of a sudden become a great mover at 25.
“I watched Rafa play at 15. I watched Djoker play at the French when he was 17 and instantly thought, ‘Jesus, this guy moves unbelievable!’ You can’t be great if you can’t defend, and a lot of our guys in this generation don’t defend as well as they need to.”
Hope in the next gen?
As discouraging as the last decade-plus may have been for the American men, it’s not hard to feel at least a little bit of hope for the future. Of the seven Americans currently in the ATP top 60, five are 24 or younger — No. 32 Reilly Opelka (23), No. 40 Taylor Fritz (23), No. 50 Sebastian Korda (21), No. 52 Tommy Paul (24) and No. 57 Frances Tiafoe (23) — and in a sport in which the average age of the top 10 players is currently 28.7, they have quite a bit of time before they reach their respective peaks.
Even if you’re unsure of the ceilings of players like Opelka or Tiafoe, however, one thing appears nearly unanimous: Korda is the real deal.
“Korda’s definitely the one,” O’Shannessy said. “He doesn’t beat himself, he doesn’t go bananas on the court, he strokes it clean, the balance is great, nothing flusters him out there. There [are] no holes, there’s no weirdness in any of the strokes, and he’s just gonna get better.”
Korda was born to a particularly athletic family. His father, Petr, is the 1998 Australian Open champion and former world No. 2; his mother, Regina Rajchrtova, was a top-30 player; and sisters Nelly and Jessica are currently the Nos. 1 and 13 golfers in the LPGA’s Rolex Rankings.
“His dad knows all of the potholes in the road,” O’Shannessy said. “He can help guide his son around those potholes and give some advice and accelerate the learning. Every time I see what’s going on with him, whether it’s a win or loss, or how he’s handling himself, or how he’s speaking to the media, everything is done correctly.”
The 6-foot-5, 170-pound Korda was grinding away on the Challenger Tour before the coronavirus stopped play worldwide. Over the past 11 months, he has surged.
He upset Gilles Simon to qualify for the Cincinnati Masters in August, then took a set off of Denis Shapovalov in their first-round matchup at the US Open.
He knocked off early 2021 breakout star Aslan Karatsev to qualify for last fall’s French Open, then rolled to the fourth round before losing to Rafael Nadal.
He beat both Isner and Paul on his way to the Delray Beach finals in January, then beat Fabio Fognini, Karatsev again and Diego Schwartzman on the way to the Miami Masters quarterfinals.
Back on clay, he beat top-seeded Lorenzo Sonego, then Paul again, to reach the finals in Parma. He suffered a frustrating, straight-sets loss to unseeded Pedro Martinez Portero at the French Open, but he moved straight to grass and beat Roberto Bautista Agut and Kei Nishikori on his way to the quarterfinals in Halle.
At Wimbledon, he reached another fourth round, knocking off both No. 15 Alex De Minaur and No. 22 Daniel Evans in four sets before falling to No. 25 Karen Khachanov in a wacky five-setter.
“When you go and look at the prototype of the modern player,” O’Shannessy said, “you start with Novak and this slender, tall build. The taller you get, there comes a point where it can make it more difficult for movement around the court, but for how today’s game is, to be tall and skinny means you’re really quick. You don’t have to carry a lot of muscle — your long levers can get you all the power you want. So Korda’s literally got the perfect tennis body for today’s game.”
Korda’s game needs just one more piece, according to Gilbert. “Korda’s easy on the eyes. He’s really relaxed, and he carries himself really well. But for his size, he doesn’t have a huge serve yet,” he said, with emphasis on that last word. “At 6-5, it’s almost like a cardinal sin not to have a big serve if you’re a big guy. If he can develop a bomb serve, if he fills out and he’s 185 to 190 pounds by 23 or 24, he has top-five potential.”
Both Gilbert and O’Shannessy believe in a theory of cycles and rising tides. “These things are cyclical,” Gilbert said. “It helps when you have four to six to seven guys [rising in the rankings] around the same age.”
“There is a natural cycle that happens,” O’Shannessy added. “When good players come along, they come in waves. They get to practice with each other and push each other; there’s competition between them to see who gets to be the top dog.” The hope, then, would be that a rise by Korda would push both the Opelka/Fritz/Paul/Tiafoe class and other youngsters like 20-year old Jenson Brooksby, a particular Gilbert favorite. (“He plays kind of like an Andy Murray style — defends unbelievably, and he’s unbelievably fast for 6-4.”)
The Wimbledon loss to Khachanov illustrated that Korda still has some experience to gain. After winning 17 of his first 20 service games, he grew cautious late, serving too safely, winning only 35% of his first-serve points and suffering seven broken serves. He broke Khachanov six times himself and almost pulled off a win all the same, but fatigue, errors and frustration did him in, 10-8 in the fifth. Development takes time.
Korda takes momentum and confidence into the ATP’s hard-court swing, and the coming months could mean positive things for a number of young Americans for whom it is their best surface. It bears mentioning, though, that both Korda and Brooksby are currently well-positioned in the Race to Milan, the 21-and-under competition that will end in December’s eight-man Next Generation ATP Finals.
The competition has served as a launchpad for Stefanos Tsitsipas in 2018 and Jannik Sinner in 2019, but in the first three years of the competition, only four Americans have qualified — Jared Donaldson in 2017, Tiafoe in 2018 and 2019, and Fritz in 2019 — and they went a combined 4-9. Heading into Wimbledon, Korda ranked third in the points race, Brooksby seventh and 19-year old Brandon Nakashima 11th.
“I am more hopeful than I probably was a couple of years ago,” Gilbert said. “Our stock is going up. Korda could be our first top young guy in a while.
“All of the years behind us don’t matter. It’s what we can do to move forward.”
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