Following American Pro Tennis

Following American Pro Tennis

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.