American tennis has been waiting for years for the next great star to arise. Ever since the decline and retirement of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, American fans have been eagerly awaiting someone to return American tennis to its traditional position among the tennis elite. Andy Roddick has been the mainstay for the last ten years, only falling outside the top 10 for 10 weeks since 2003. Roddick has qualified for the World Tour finals each of the last 8 years. The only other person who can say that is a man by the name of Roger Federer.
Federer. He has been, perhaps single-handedly, the downfall of Andy Roddick’s career. The Swiss owns a 20-2 career record over Roddick. 8 of those have been in Grand Slams, with 3 of those being in semifinals and 4 being in finals. While we cannot guess who else could have been there or what would have happened, it is not too hard to say that Andy Roddick would have won at least three Wimbledons (2004, 2005, and 2009) instead of losing to Federer in the final. Roddick looked unstoppable on grass in those years; his only problem was that Federer was more unstoppable. Through in a Wimbledon semifinal loss to Federer in 2003 and a US Open final loss in 2006, and we could be looking at a 6-time Grand Slam champion Andy Roddick instead of a 1-Slam wonder. Roddick has still had a great career by any standards, but he has not been the elite player that American fans are accustomed to. And we can blame it all on one man.
James Blake had a pretty good run in the middle of this past decade. He even reached the top 5 for a few weeks in 2006. Still, he has been hampered by injuries his whole career and never really matched up well with the other top players. He never got past the quarterfinals of a Slam and his career-best result in a big tournament would probably be his loss in the bronze-medal match at the Beijing Olympics in 2008.
Mardy Fish has had an up-and-down career. He managed to be in the top 30 for a good chunk of time but was always held back by injuries and being a little overweight. He has experienced a resurgence in his career after losing 30 pounds while recovering from injury in 2010 and is poised to crack the top 10 for the first time in his career, at the very latest right after Wimbledon. Still, at the age of 29 he is probably a little past his prime and while he can now compete with the top players, it doesn’t seem like he has the consistency or enough time left in his career to be America’s next great tennis hero.
Sam Querrey and John Isner both were America’s next hopes when they shot into the top 20 in the past couple of years. However, both have their issues with moving higher. Querrey has had motivational problems and at times just seems to lack effort on the court. Isner has a massive serve but has little-to-no return game, as evidenced by the incredible number of tiebreaks he plays and by his marathon match at Wimbledon last year. Isner has moved up the rankings much more quickly, which usually indicates more potential, yet Querrey’s game seems to have more of an upside. Still, neither has shown in any high-level tournament even a flash of brilliance that could give us hope. Both look like solid, top 30 players, but neither looks like a Grand Slam champion.
Donald Young was supposed to be the next great star for all of tennis, let alone America. His incredible success in the juniors ranks put high, if not unreasonable expectations on his shoulders. He turned pro at the incredibly young age of 15. But a poor work ethic and an unwillingness to find a coach other than his parents has stagnated his career. He has shown beginnings of moving up the rankings a few times and the talent is definitely still there, but even though he is still at the young age of 21 it seems like Young is not destined to be anything higher than a fringe top 100 player.
And, of course, Ryan Harisson has shown some extreme potential in the past few months and we hope to see great things from him, but he looks to be at least a few years away mentally. Other potential up-and-comers include Jack Sock and Devin Britton, who have both done very well in the NCAA and have had some success in Juniors. However, neither seems to be anywhere near competing on the main tour yet.
And so I turn our attention to Ryan Sweeting. At the age of 23, he is a little older than the average player to rise to prominence. Still, he did win the US Open Junior title in 2005 and was the #2 Junior in the world for a while. And while the scoreline of his match against Nadal at the Australian Open this year was very lopsided (2-6, 1-6, 1-6), for anyone who watched the match the talent is there. He managed to stick with Nadal and make the World #1 work for a lot of points, even though in the end of the day Sweeting was completely outclassed.
The 23-year-old right-hander plays with a two-handed backhand. He doesn’t have a massive serve or forehand, but he is accurate and both are very solid. He has a slice backhand that stays very low and even annoyed Nadal a little in Melbourne but he doesn’t play it enough. Perhaps most importantly for an American, he looks comfortable on clay. He also has a bit of a showboating streak which can hurt him. On at least two occasions in Houston Sweeting chose to not completely run down a ball and hit a tweener (when someone hits the ball between his legs) when he could have actually had time to turn around and hit a better shot. Both tweeners excited the crowd, but he lost both of those points. When coaching and maturity finally catch up to his talent he should be a force to be reckoned with on tour.
Over the past several years it is very easy to track Sweeting’s progress. He has gone from competing well and winning Challengers in 2008 and 2009 to trying much more to qualify and compete in main draws on the World Tour for most of 2010, to finally winning his first ever tournament on the main tour just a few weeks ago in Houston and bringing him to a career-high #67 in the world. And while Sweeting has not shown the early meteoric rise in the rankings that usually classifies elite players, he definitely has the talent to compete with them if he continues to grow over the next few years. And while Sweeting may not be the next Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi, we hope that he can be among the elites for just a few years while we continue to wait for the next American who can dominate the world for his whole career.
What to Watch this week:
There are a bunch of smaller tournaments this week, which is both good and bad for fans. We will not see the top-level competition match-in match-out that we have seen these past two weeks or at other Masters events or Slams. Still, these smaller tournaments let us check out players who would usually just be outclassed in bigger tournaments. Seeing how a player does at these 250 level events lets us see which mid-range players (20-60 ranked) are playing hot and playing well on clay right now and therefore could make a deep run at Roland Garros. These are just a few players to keep an eye on this week:
Novak Djokovic-he is playing in his hometown Serbia Open and should be a prohibitive favorite to win and bring his season-starting winning streak to 28. It will also give us a chance to see how he looks on clay this year and how he looks physically (he did pull out of Monte Carlo with an alleged “knee injury”).
Kei Nishikori, also playing in Serbia, continues his trek up the rankings, breaking into the top 50 for the first time. He looks solid on clay, reaching the Houston final, and hopes to continue to bring Japanese tennis to new heights.
The player to keep an eye on in Munich is Andrey Golubev. The 23-year-old Kazakh burst into the top 40 last year by winning the 500 even in Hamburg and has hung around there ever since. He has the potential to be a great clay courter and this will be a good chance to see how he is shaping up this year.
Juan Martin del Potro is playing his first clay tournament of the season in Estoril this week. He has had success on clay in the past and even was up a break on Federer in the fifth set of their 2009 Roland Garros semifinal meeting. His comeback from wrist surgery has been strong this year and he hopes to continue that on clay.