America's next generation still in making
Some offseason sooner rather than later — perhaps heading into the 2014 tennis calendar — Serena and Venus Williams as well as Andy Roddick will have retired and America will be looking for new high-level talent to carry its flickering torch.
As it stands today, no young American male or female is a sure bet to begin winning majors, even if top-20 males John Isner and Sam Querrey have proved themselves to be very good players on the men's side, and Melanie Oudin and CoCo Vandeweghe have shown themselves at least on occasion to be able to win big matches on the women's side.
There isn't one high level coach in the United States who is convinced that any of the aforementioned foursome is a lock to win a major and in tennis circles, snagging Grand Slam titles is what makes you a well respected household name. Yes, some of the coaches will say, with the right amount of improvement, it's easy to see the big serving Isner, Querrey or Vandeweghe taking home a big trophy, but a lot of things have to go right for that to happen and at this point, none of them have a look of a Serena in 1998 or a Roddick in 2002 — hungry, super-confident players with huge weapons who never shy away from the battle.
In fact, while the United States does have its fair share of promising young players, only a few of them are even seen to have top-20 potential at this point, and only two — the 19-year-old Vandeweghe and the 18-year-old Ryan Harrison — are viewed by some to have top 10 stuff. What that may mean is that in 2014, the United States — which is without question the most successful tennis nation in history — could become a second rate tennis power.
But the USTA Player Development staff — which includes chief Patrick McEnroe, coaching legend Jose Higueras, two-time U.S. Open champion Tracy Austin and Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez — are going to try their hardest not to let that happen.
All of them have discussed making changes to the American tennis culture, where U.S. kids learn to work the points more and aren't going for outright winners too early. There's a key, newly popular term being bandied about, called "shot tolerance." Too many U.S. kids don't have enough of it, while the Spanish men and Russian girls have loads of it.
The U.S. coaches want the kids to learn to stay in points and to hold their court positions — wild shots from way off the court when on defense are not tolerated. They want the youngsters to learn to live more in the middle ground, being consistent when necessary and only being hyper-aggressive and going for a winning shot when it's the right ball to hit.
"In tennis, the winners are very important, they look better, but the unforced errors count the same," said Higueras, who coached both Jim Courier and Pete Sampras, among others. "The Spanish teach to be consistent without pushing. I wouldn't say that Nadal is a pusher. He has an extremely heavy ball. They're great movers, great percentage players, and very aggressive with very good shot tolerance."
Thankfully, for U.S. fans, the average age of the top 100 is going upwards, not downwards, which will allow players more time to develop before they are expected to put up big results. That both the ATP Tour and the WTA Tour named as its newcomers of the year a 24-year-old German male (Tobias Kamke) and a 22-year-old Czech female (Petra Kvitova) shows that the ownership of the tours has fallen out of teenage hands, even if the WTA's Slam-less No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki, is only 20.
If Serena and Venus do as expected and stay around at least until the 2012 Olympics, then the younger U.S. women's set will be protected from being expected to have big results for at least another two years. But then Oudin, Vandeweghe and the slew of others will be put under the microscope and there will be no room to hide.
As Roddick said when the last of the great generation of American men, Andre Agassi, retired in 2006: "The training wheels have come off."
Today, there are only seven U.S. women in the top 100 and ranked No. 61, the 19-year-old Oudin is the only young player amongst them. Christina McHale, who is only 18, is ranked No. 109 and there are slew of 20-year-olds between No. 100 and 200 like Alison Riske, Jaime Hampton, Irina Falconi and Madison Brengle.
Former U.S. Open quarterfinalist Oudin is game yet very small, and Vandeweghe is super athletic, has weapons and is also ambitious, but her results have been very up-and-down and she has yet to show the composure of a true champion. McHale is considered a very hard worker with a substantial forehand, but she has yet to put up a super impressive result. And despite the fact that like the men the average age of champions are increasing, two players of similar ages to Oudin and Vandeweghe — the 20-year-old Wozniacki and 19-year-old Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova — hold the No. 1 and No. 21 rankings, respectively.
"CoCo can get to the top 20, but she needs to get a little fitter and more disciplined, but you can see she has the talent," McEnroe told FOXSports.com. "I think you'll see her take some big strides next year, but she'll be a little up and down until she finds her way around the tour. McHale competes very well and gets a lot of balls back and that still means something."
Then there are U.S. junior girls who hold reasonable ITF junior rankings such as Lauren Davis, Beatrice Capra, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Krista Hardebeck. All have had impressive victories at times, but all have question marks whether it is a lack of size, lack of big weapons, or lack of maturity.
Veteran journalist Colette Lewis, who covers the juniors as closely as anyone for the respected web site Zootennis, likes a number of the U.S. juniors' potential, but as of yet does not see any of the girls as surefire top-20 players.
Davis, 17, has come out of almost nowhere to put up huge results this fall, recently winning the prestigious Eddie Herr title. However, even though she is praised for her grit, quickness and world-class backhand, she's only 5-foot-2 and no player of that stature outside of former Roland Garros semifinalist Dominika Cibulkova has had any measurable impact over the past few years.
Stephens has a gigantic forehand and went fairly deep in three junior Grand Slams this year, but can be very erratic. Capra has performed well on clay, an unusual feat for any American these days, but is more or less a grinder, while the tall and strong Keys, who is only 15, has the size and power to go far and is considered by some to be a future top-5 player, but she's still fiddling around with her stokes.
"The one thing I can say about our girls is that we have a lot of depth there and I'm sure that in the next couple of years we'll have a lot more top 100 players," McEnroe said. "Plus, there are also some younger teenagers who are loaded with talent whom could really make a big impact, but most people haven't seen yet."
There are only five American guys in the ATP top 100, which is certainly an Open Era low. Three of them are veterans (Roddick, Mardy Fish and Michael Russell) and two are fairly young, Isner and Querrey. There are a decent number of U.S. men ranked No. 100 to 200, but only two of them are somewhat young — the 23-year-old Ryan Sweeting and Harrison, who is ranked No. 173.
Sweeting has been on tour long enough to indicate that he's not going gangbusters any time soon. But Harrison is another matter, as he's still very young and has enough all-around tools to go far — if his game comes together. He's fairly mature for his age, upset No. 15 Ivan Ljubicic at the U.S. Open and gave 36th-ranked Sergiy Stakhovsky of the Ukraine everything he could handle in a dramatic five-set loss. He reached the final of the Tiburon Challenger and qualified and won a match at the tournament in Bratislava.
"I'm comfortable saying that Ryan can go top-20, but he still has work to do," said McEnroe. "He can be a little more aggressive from the baseline, but he's very committed and competitive and is very serious about his tennis. Once he learns to manage his game more, he's going to be very tough."
Harrison receives more attention due to his U.S. Open drama, but there are two other 18-year-olds who bear watching: Jack Sock and Denis Kudla. Sock beat Kudla in the final of the U.S. Open juniors, and that they even got to the big junior dance in New York shows they have at least top 100 material, as almost every kid who has reached a Grand Slam junior final has made a run at the pros.
Sock is tall and they are both all-court players who aren't afraid to mix it up and charge the net.
"Jack is very athletic, moves well but he could use the court better and work harder," McEnroe said. "Denis is a real grinder and hard worker. The test for both of them will come next year when they are out playing Futures and Challengers and taking their lumps from some of the more experienced players. That's a real mental test for anyone."
It's possible that the next great U.S. generation is largely hidden from view. Andrea Collinari, who last year switched national allegiances from Argentina to the U.S., reached the final of the French Open juniors, while collegiate standout Bradley Klahn of Stanford and the 6-foot-7 Alex Domijan, a freshman at the University of Virginia, both have upsides.
This week at the prestigious Orange Bowl in Miami, a 16-year-old American boy, Alexios Halebian, upset top seed Juan Gomez, and 13-year-old American Gabrielle Andrews upended former junior No. 1 Irina Khromacheva on the girls' side.
Maybe it's too soon for U.S. fans to panic, and maybe the next great generation is right around the corner. In 1986, when four Czechs reached the U.S. Open finals, American officials all but panicked, but a few years later, Agassi, Sampras, Courier and Michael Chang came busting through the door and more than replaced the accomplishments of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
That possibility exists, but it's also conceivable that U.S. fans could be in for a decent-sized wait like they were after 18-time Grand Slam winner Chris Evert in 1989 and no American-born woman was able to haul in the U.S. Open crown until Lindsay Davenport did it again in 1998.
"We have some really promising kids from 13-16," McEnroe said. "I believe in our philosophy and we're going to do everything we can to make sure that the U.S. is major factor in tennis from here on out."