For the entire Open Era (and before), there really has always been at least one American at the top of the tennis world, usually two or more. The list of upper-tier elite American tennis players is staggering. There is John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, and Pete Sampras, just to name the absolute upper echelon of American tennis since 1970. Americans have always been present in the top 10 and an American has always been a threat to win almost every Grand Slam.
Unfortunately for American fans, there has been a sharp downturn in American success recently. Since Sampras retired in 2002 and as Agassi aged (though he was still very much a threat until he retired in 2005), Andy Roddick became the standard-bearer for American tennis. And he carried it well. We cannot deny that. In an era dominated by Federer, who was always a bad matchup for Roddick to begin with, Andy really did a great job keeping American tennis on the map. He was always competing, always towards the top of the rankings, and everyone knew that he would be a top threat if Federer ever slipped up. What could have been for Roddick if Federer had played ten years earlier or later will always be something to wonder about, but I think it’s fair to say that the phrases “Wimbledon champion” and “multiple Slam winner” would apply.
These past 18 months, since Indian Wells and Miami in 2010 really, have seen a sharp decline in Roddick’s play and ranking. He is on the verge of not qualifying for the World Tour Finals for the first time since 2002. That shouldn’t diminish anything from what was a stellar career. But it is far past the time for other Americans to step up. I would be remiss not to mention that James Blake helped keep America even more relevant for a few years. There have been too players with potential come and disappoint. But three players, whose careers at one point looked done for, are now back and improbably rising in the rankings.
The first and most obvious example is Mardy Fish. Fish, as we detailed in an earlier article, has made a tremendous comeback in his career after losing 30 pounds while injured in late 2009. He has been a much more consistent player since then, able to play defense much better which in turn has helped his attacking game. His game at the net has also greatly improved and he constantly seems to be hitting incredible volleys now.
Honestly, it’s a bit sad to consider now what might have been of Fish’s career had he lost this weight and gotten in shape ten years ago. He was always injury-prone and that probably would have affected him regardless, but one still has to wonder. His talent, net play, and attacking game would have been very good, especially in the first half of the last decade when a lot of the courts were still faster than they are now. He is probably half a step or so slower now than he would have been at the age of 22 or 23. We can only wonder what he could have accomplished, especially from 2002-4 before Federer really hit his prime. Fish is on the verge now of qualifying for the World Tour Finals for the first time in his career at the age of 29.
The second amazing story in American tennis this year has to be Alex Bogomolov Jr. Bogomolov was a very successful player in Juniors and a mildly talented professional. He had a bit of success on the lower circuits but never really did anything on the World Tour. In 2008, he actually mostly retired after an injury and became a tennis coach.
He returned to the Challenger tour around 6 months later and really played the same as he always had. Then, some time within the past 12 months, his level of play started skyrocketing. I really can’t explain why, though a happier family life (he got married) is often cited as a potential cause. Whatever the reason, Bogomolov has become an incredibly consistent player. He rarely pulls off a major upset (though he did beat Andy Murray during Murray’s abysmal spring) but he beats everyone he should beat and really troubles a lot of players with consistent, solid play. He has yet to even reach a final on the World Tour but with his consistency he has broken into the top 40 and may very well be seeded at the 2012 Australian Open.
The third American enjoying a good rise in the rankings, and a tremendous rise in level of play, is Donald Young. He may be 6 years younger than Bogomolov (7 younger than Fish), but his career was in just as much trouble as either of their’s for quite a while. Young was an up-and-coming Junior and annointed as the next great tennis player at the age of 16 even. Unfortunately for Young, it just never panned out.
There are a lot of people we can blame Young’s lack of success on. He turned pro far too early. He never got himself a real coach. He let his parents direct his tennis life, which was really never to his benefit. They all had his best intentions in mind, but very little was actually conducive to him growing as a tennis pro. Once seen as one of the most talented youngsters on the planet, Young barely entered the top 100 and was a disappointment throughout his young career.
Things came to a head with Young this spring, when he unleashed an expletive-filled rant against the USTA on Twitter. He apologized for the language and shut down his Twitter account, but said that he believed that his message of being messed over by the USTA wsa valid. Since then, Young seems to have matured a great deal, both on and off the court. He seems to be utilizing his talent properly now and has fewer tantrums on the court than he used. He has really settled down and plays a very balanced game with excellent shotmaking ability. His results began picking up in Challengers around June, he reached his first ATP 500-level semifinal in Washington in early August, and has just looked better and better since. It would be unfair to him at this point to once again expect Grand Slam-winning ability, but Young is flying up the rankings, looks very solid, and is also on pace to be seeded at the 2012 Australian Open.
Novak Djokovic has officially clinched the year-end #1 ranking. It will be his first year-end #1 and the first time since 2003 that the year-end #1 is not Federer or Nadal.
Andy Murray is now they World #3 with his win in Shanghai. The last time Roger Federer was outside the top 3 in the World was before Murray had even earned a single ATP point.
David Ferrer qualified for the World Tour Finals with his runner-up finish in Shanghai.
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