Following American Pro Tennis

Following American Pro Tennis

Friday, December 13, 2013

Why Does American Men's Tennis Suck Now?

I admit, the subject line is harsh. And as much as I follow tennis and have my fingers on the pulse of the grass roots youth movement, I know there is hope for the future. So it's not all glass half empty. Still, there is no denying American tennis is at its worst, ever, in 2013. John Isner is the highest ranked American at 14, Sam Querrey is barely in the top 50, and then you've got a handful of other guys between 89 and 110. That's the current state of American men's singles tennis. Sure, it was probably never going to be as good as the Agassi/Sampras/Chang/Courier era, but none of us ever saw it getting THIS bad.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

American Tennis 2014 Preview

2013 was a year we just assume forget in a lot of ways for American tennis. There is no question the state of our country's game is in a state of crisis and transition. As always there's two ways to look at it: glass half full or glass half empty. Either way, it's undeniable that while you make the convenient narrative statement that "tennis is just a worldwide sport these days" or that "the world has caught up"; we as American tennis players on the ATP tour can get a lot better. For starters, the fact that our #2 ranked player is 46 and our #3 ranked player is 89 are a problem. Currently there are 7 American players in the top 100, but 5 of them are between 89 and 100. The good news is there are some young guys knocking on the door.

We might be a year or two away from having 4-5 guys in the top 50 again, but while we may never regain the golden age of Sampras-Agassi-Courier-Chang dominance I got to enjoy as a kid, things will be a lot better in the future than they are now. I'm convinced of it. The problem with American tennis is we are taught to hit big serves and forehands, and come in. That has always been the blueprint to success. As strings got better, balls heavier, courts slower... it's all benefited legs and consistency over shotmaking. Not only is it harder to hit through the court, underdeveloped weaknesses are easier to expose. So all those youngsters that spent all their formative years not worrying about a backhand because they were running around it and bombing every shot? They are paying for that now. And it's much easier to pass them when they are at the net. The classic clay courter game is now the universal game, and that's what having success. Guys like Raonic, Tsonga, Isner and Berdych are the exception because they are freaks of nature. But unless you are a freak of nature, you better be able to run, defend, keep the ball in the court and have endurance. That's how you survive in the modern game. It's why a guy like Smyczek is ranked so much higher than Steve Johnson, say, despite having much less "game". We're getting there but years of one dimensional teaching has to be undone. Anyway, this could take up an entire blog post so I'll leave it at that for now.

The players:

Thursday, November 21, 2013

USA Men's Doubles Year in Review

The guys that have been carrying the flag of American men's tennis for a couple years now all on their own now are of course Mike and Bob Bryan. Most special perhaps of their 11 titles in 2013 was their second ever French Open title (pictured) and first in 10 years. The Bryans reached 15 finals in 2013 going 11-4, winning three grand slams (Australian, Wimbledon and French) and ending the year #1 by a country mile. This was arguably their most dominant season yet and they are showing no signs of slowing down. It wasn't a perfect season, though, and perhaps their biggest disappointment was a loss at the US Open that cost them the calendar Grand Slam, and an 0-2 record in Davis Cup. Doubles starts and ends with the Bryan brothers and it will hopefully remain that way for years to come.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

USA Men's Singles Year in Review

You could argue that 2013 was the worst year in the history of American tennis, at least as it related to men's singles. With only six men in the top 100 and the third best ranked #89, it's safe to say the state of American men's tennis is at a low point. I hope it never gets worse than this. While the way the season ended gives some hope for the lower ranked guys, the bottom line is American tennis remains too much about the serve and forehand. The modern game is about legs, slow courts and slow balls. A big serve and forehand cannot survive on their own in today's game unless you are John Isner. We will see some improvement when we develop players with better all around games that have legs and fitness. Tennis these days is about durability and defense, not shotmaking. Sad but true.

Only two titles were won by an American on the ATP tour this year, both by John Isner. Isner captured the titles in Houston and Atlanta and he was also able to make it to his second career Masters final in Cincinnati. No other American was a finalist on the ATP tour in 2013 (Isner was also a finalist in Washington).

That said, here is my year in review:

Monday, November 18, 2013

Tennys Sandgren Progressing Upstairs

Tennys Sandgren finished the year in epic fashion by winning his very first challenger in Champaign, IL, a run that will vault him to a career high ranking of 187 to end the year. It wasn't the most challenging run we've seen on the challenger tour but the path to 80 ATP points don't factor in degree of difficulty. And that's not to say there weren't some impressive wins along the way, even if most guys in the draw were already thinking about the offseason.

Here was his run:

1st Round d. F. Peliwo 6-0, 6-1
2nd Round d. J. Sock 7-6 (8), 6-1
QF d. J. P. Smith 6-2, 6-0
SF d. D. Smethurst 7-5, 6-3
F d. S. Groth 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (4)

By late in the first set of the semis Sandgren was running on fumes as a result of the tax that is a year long tennis season, but he was able to dig deep and find that extra gear. You might ask how he survived a buster in the 3rd the next day, but fortunately for him a match against Sam Groth means short points.

I've been able to watch Sandgren play the last few weeks and let me first say potential was never the issue. The dude is built thick and he can pop the ball as good as anyone on tour. For Sandgren the issue has always been upstairs, like for so many American players. But he's a hard worker and he's got a big game that would lead one to believe he's good enough to have a good career.

What immediately jumps out at me the last month is Sandgren's transformation, both physically and mentally. Compared to this time last year he is much stronger and physically imposing. He's always had that thickness to him, but you can tell he has worked extremely hard to enhance durability. From a fitness standpoint that obviously paid off and he was able to stand long enough to hoist a title after a 3rd set breaker in the finals. But it's mentally that Sandgren has made the biggest strides. Instead of the outbursts and high strung court demeanor I'm used to seeing, I've seen a composed and collected tennis player, focused on his gameplan. What Sandgren is doing is not rocket science... it's first strike tennis. If he can focus and commit to it, it's not a terribly involved plan... he just has to execute. And execute he's been doing. He echoed as much in a short twitter exchange below:

There is no doubt he will face much more frustrating tournaments and matches in his future, so the question will be if he can maintain that same even keel mental approach consistently. If he can, he's absolutely a player to watch in 2014. As good as the crop of Ryan Harrison, Donald Young, Jack Sock, Tim Smyczek and company are potential wise, Sandgren is a player that has the tools to be in the mix. And he's already a step ahead of most of those guys upstairs based on what I've seen in the last month.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Bradley Klahn Continues Rise to Top 100

When Bradley Klahn ended last year at 248 I didn't really view him as a prospect that could rise into double digits in ranking. Sure, he had some game coming out of Stanford and looked like a guy that could make a little noise in challengers, but not making it past a quarterfinal in a challenger in 2012 doesn't scream top 100. He did have a signature win at the first round of the US Open over Jurgen Melzer, though, which suggested he had potential.

This year has been a different story. He won his first future title (USA F8), made the final of Winnetka challenger (l. to Sock), the final of Binghampton challenger (l. to Kuznetsov), the semis of Lexington and he won his first challenger in Aptos. That furious run was followed up with another first round win at the US Open, and he gave Feliciano Lopez a big run for his money in the 2nd round losing in 4 tough sets.

His consistent effort and fitness each week is paying off. On this run in Australia/Asia in the last month he was a quarterfinalist in Melbourne and a finalist in Traralgon.

This week in Yeongwol, South Korea, Klahn posted the following results:

d. Klein 6-4, 6-1
d. Chen 6-1, 6-3
d. Gigounon 3-6, 6-3, 6-4
d. Wu 6-4, 6-3
d. Daniel 7-6, 6-2

You might argue the degree of difficult in South Korea challengers is smaller and I'd agree... but I've seen Taro Daniel play and he's a very good tennis player. He's long and lean, runs down a tons of balls and has a really impressive baseline game. I was impressed to see Klahn work him over in straights despite having a ton of tennis in his legs over the last three weeks, combined with travel from the US to Australia to South Korea.

The title will put Klahn, by my calculations, around 101 in the world, knocking on the door of the top 100 and a direct entry to the Aussie Open.

Props to Tim Smyczek, as well. It's not often we get two titlists in the same week these days. Smyczek had this run in the Knoxville Challenger:

d. Wolmarans 6-4, 6-4
d. S. Johnson 5-7, 7-5, 6-4
d. Kuznetsov 6-4, 6-3
d. Sandgren 7-5, 7-6
d. Polansky 6-4, 6-2

Monday, November 4, 2013

Michael Russell's Charlottesville Title Mimics Career

Michael Russell at 35 years young has found a way to win the 75k challenger in Charlottesville this week. By virtue of the points he's up to 76, good for the #3 ranked American in the world right now. Who would have thought Russell would be the third ranked American at 35? That is nuts. And don't look now, but with Querrey shutting it down for the year due to injury the US will have to think long and hard about who might be the #2 singles player behind Isner in the next Davis Cup tie. The rumor is they might pick clay against England, and if they do, Russell may not be a bad choice. Anyway, back to Charlottesville... Russell found a way to win the title despite not playing anywhere close to his best tennis.

After an impressive 6-3, 6-2 dismantling of John Patrick Smith in round 1, he mostly relied on Tennys Sandgren breaking down physically in round 2 for a 6-4, 6-2 win. In the quarters, Russell stumbled to a 6-3, 7-6 victory over Jarmere Jenkins. It was very sloppy and ugly from both sides, with a really poor serving performance in particular. In the semis, he was fortunate to face an injured player in Jesse Levine and was handed a retirement win after just 10 games. In the finals, after a good first set over Polansky (7-5) he lost the second 6-2 and was down 5-0 in the third. Yes, you read that correctly. Then, he was down 5-2 in the 3rd set tiebreak before reeling off 5 straight points and winning the match and title. If you look at this week, in no way would you say Russell played his best tennis throughout. Not even close. But that's just Russell. His fitness helped him outlast much younger guys in three of those matches, and he was just solid enough to handle his business. That, and he showed what I wish more American players could tap into: the ability to dig deep. You're not always going to play your best, and Russell spent a lot of this week struggling with his game. But instead of losing his mind like a couple of other guys this week (Rhyne Williams and Donald Young come to mind) he stayed the course and continued to grind. When you do that and trust in your hard work and fitness, sometimes good things happen even when you are down 5-0 in the 3rd. He stayed the course.

And that just embodies Russell's career. The hardest worker on tour and a maximizer of talent. Russell's game and natural ability will never be confused with a top 20 player, but while the very elite raw ability was never in the cards his work ethic is top 5 in the world. Maybe the best. And his mental approach is also top 20. And so he's been able to overcome so much because of this. Both in this tournament, and in his career.

At 35 he's now 76 in the world, and he's only been better than that for ~45 weeks in his career (career high is 60). So he's close to his peak ranking at 35. I wouldn't use the cliche "like a fine win he gets better with age" because he doesn't really get better. He just stays the same. Every single year he sustains the same top 100 level. And at 35 that's pretty damn impressive. He continues to be a pain in the ass for all the young guns scrapping for money and points out there by taking the points the challengers have to give him.

Rumor is that Russell will call it quits after the US Open next year. And he'll leave quietly like he came in, grinding behind the scenes. But American tennis will lose one of its biggest heroes, a shining example of how digging deep, working hard and staying the course can take you to places no one ever thought you could.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Fitness is what is holding back Jack Sock

A couple things were clear in the past week with Jack Sock's stints in Stockholm and Basel:

1. He's ridiculously loaded with talent
2. Fitness is still holding him back

The young American phenom that possesses a nice serve and a huge ground game with a heavy forehand and a decent ability to grind for his big size. He has all the tools to be successful in this modern game, even with slower balls and slower courts. It's funny, I look at a guy like Steve Johnson who has a huge serve and a big flat forehand and I feel like he's got no shot to progress because he has no backhand and no grinding ability. The courts are too slow for him these days. Johnson would have been a good ATP player in the 90s. Even though his forehand is huge, it's flat and the margins are small. Not Sock. Sock has tons of action and a lot more margin on his shots, and when he's not playing well he can play a little defense and grind. His assets can get him to the top of the game.

So what's holding Jack Sock back? You'll notice he put on a ton of weight when working out with Agassi and Gil Reyes in Vegas last year. The idea was to load up on calories and gain a bunch of weight that he could then turn into power. As he's trimmed down a good bit since then it seems the Agassi camp gave him a good baseline of strength. Endurance and cardio remain a question mark, though.

In Stockholm, Sock took out a listless Bernand Tomic 6-4, 6-2 before losing to David Ferrer 6-4, 3-6, 1-6. Now one 6-4 set with Ferrer will take a more significant physical toll on one's body than a lot of two long sets against other opponents. But there is no denying Sock faded down in the stretch.

In Basel this week Sock wasn't playing nearly as well but still managed to grind out an impressive 7-6, 4-6, 7-6 win over Stephane Bohli in quallies. He then collapsed in the qualifying round against Tobias Kamke, 0-6, 4-6.

So Sock has the game and ability to compete. He beat Tomic and took it to Ferrer for over a set. Even the win over Bohli, a much weaker opponent, was impressive as he showed the ability to stay the course when not playing as well. What was disappointing was how quickly he faded fitness wise against Ferrer, and in the match after the Bohli win. Ultimately the ATP tour isn't about potential, it's about recovery. Winning one round is great and all, but how quickly can you get yourself ready to show the same physical effort for the next one? That's why Smyczek is climbing up the rankings - he's adopted the Mike Russell school of giving the same exact effort each time out. We're not seeing that from Sock yet.

This offseason will be critical for Sock. He needs to have the endurance and fitness to string several matches together. That is the last remaining hurdle to him getting in the top 40 rather quickly.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Smyczek is America's #3

I never thought in a million years I'd be writing this, but the third best ranked American is Tim Smyczek. He's up four spots to 87 this week which is a career high for him. He's had a nice run at challengers the last few weeks (semis, finals, semis) which has given his ranking a good shot in the arm. Most notable this past week is that he took out Donald Young, ending his compatriot's 12 match winning streak on the challenger circuit with a 6-4, 4-6, 6-4 victory.

I guess it wasn't an accident when we were watching the US Open earlier this fall and he was the last American man standing in the singles draw, just a couple games away from 4th round. So is Smyczek peaking right now, or can he go higher?

At 25, you'd think he's just entering his prime with the way men's tennis is these days. No longer are we seeing teens burst on the scene. Instead, it takes years of grinding, learning the ropes, and tightening up your body to make it able to withstand the wear and tear each week. And "Smee" is definitely a grinder. But at 5'9" 160lbs he's a bit of a talent maximizer. Can he get hot and continue to excel on his way to the top 50? Of course. Steve Darcis got up to 44 (5'10" 161lbs) and the ~5'7" Rochus brothers topped out at 24 and 38. Of course I had to pick on Belgium.

But one thing playing to Smyczek's strengths is the direction of the game. The guys with big shots aren't the ones consistently doing well each week. It's the ones that can physically withstand the beating and keep showing up. The ball are too heavy, the strings are too advantageous and the courts are too slow. Most of the guys in the top 20 just happen to have both big games and endurance, but below that it's a hodgepodge mixture of big games without durability, grinders, and other.  That plays into Smee's game. So while I think he's close to playing as well as his physical limitations will allow, he can keep plugging away and get into the top 50 without a doubt. Ultimately, though, he just doesn't have the game to be a perennial top 20 guy like Querrey or Isner, or even Harrison. But for right now the USA's tennis game is in a bad place and it's guys like Smyczek that will force the more talented but undeveloped youth to rise to the occasion. He has tremendous value to our country in today's game. I look at him like a younger version of Mike Russell in some ways. Russell has been a pain in the ass to young Americans for over a decade, but it's forced Russell's opponents to diversify their game.

Kudos to Smee on the ascension and his continued rise. Based on how hard he competes it is very well deserved.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Player of the Week: Sam Querrey

So Sam Querrey earned 90 points this week while Donald Young earned 100 on his way to another challenger title and a 10 match challenger win streak. But for Querrey it was more about who he beat to get to the quarterfinals that makes him the week's best performer.

Querrey lost badly to the eventual champion, Novak Djokovic, who oh by the way became the first man in 2013 to beat Rafael Nadal on a hardcourt. So no shame in that. Before that loss by Querrey, though, he took out the following:

d. Mikhail Youhzny 7-6 (3), 6-3
d. Stanislas Wawrinka 6-3, 7-6 (2)

That's a couple big time wins for Querrey in desperate need of some confidence. In fact, I'd argue those are his two most impressive wins of the year, back to back. And make no mistake it's all between the ears for Querrey, although he seems to be dealing with arm issues of somekind as well as stamina problems.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Player of the Week: Donald Young

I'm a little late on this but I wanted to start this blog with a post about last week and the run Donald Young had last week. He's rocketed up to 125, up 17 spots, thanks to a title run in the 50k Napa Challenger. How did he do it? This was the run he went on:

d. Greg Ouellete 6-3, 6-2
d. Samuel Groth 6-3, 6-1
d. Rhyne Williams 6-2, 7-5
d. Tim Smyczek 6-3, 6-2
d. Matthew Ebden 4-6, 6-4, 6-2

He mowed through the field in his first four matches, most notably with quality wins over Williams and Smyczek in straights. In the finals, I was impressed to see him overcome a set deficit and keep it together. Maybe DY is headed back to the ATP tour on the regular?

Also a quick shout out is in order for Eric Butorac, who along with his South African partner Raven Klaasen, won the ATP 250 doubles title in Kuala Lumper. "Booty" is up 4 spots to 48 in the world in doubles after that title.