Sunday, August 2, 2015

Ranking the Zoo crews

In which I rank the Top 8 USTA Boys 18s fields of the past 30 years.

The 2015 USTA Boys 16s and 18s national championships have gotten started in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where they've been held continuously since the founding of this country in 1776, give or take a few years. I'm pleased as spiked punch to be going for the second straight year to take in a few days of top-notch junior tennis on the lovely courts of Kalamazoo College.

Last year, I mused whether the batch of boys playing The Zoo might be among the best in history. That tournament took place a few weeks after the historic 2014 Wimbledon Junior tournament, at which 7 American boys made the Round of 16. But this year, the field could be even better. Certainly in terms of accomplishments prior to the tournament, the 2015 crew is unparalleled: 2 junior major titles, 3 additional junior major finals, and 5 additional Grade A titles; at the pro level, they've reached 2 challenger finals and have 5 Futures titles. They currently hold 5 of the Top 13 junior ranking spots.

It's a remarkable field already. And no doubt they will achieve much, as a group, in the pro ranks.

Stefan Kozlov and Noah Rubin receiving their USTA Boys 18s
doubles trophies, 2014 Zoo. (c) Jonathan Kelley
The excitement surrounding the past two year's Zoo crews made me wonder: how does they stack up in hindsight with other Kalamazoo fields? Specifically, which fields had the best pro results?

Ranking past Zoos: How did they do in the pros?

To examine this question, I went through past Boys 18s draws and tried to take stock of how those players ended up doing in the pros. Now, there are several things to keep in mind here.

A.) I only went back to 1985, which is as far back as the draws go at I have zero doubt that the 1956 field (winner: Rod Laver) would rank in there pretty high, but without any published draw that I've seen, it's not fair.

B.) I only started following junior results in the past few years. Which is a big reason I didn't try to rank the fields as they stood at the time. Thus the rankings being based solely on pro achievements to date. 

C.) For the most part I only looked at players who made the Rounds of 32, since I didn't have the patience to investigate all 200+ players in every single year. Some of the posted draws don't include first names so I'm not 100% sure of the accuracy of all of these. 

D.) I'm also only looking at singles, even though some of the best doubles players in history (cough Bryans) played the Zoo.

With those explanations, below is my Top 8 list of Zoo fields. Please let me know if I'm missing anything!

1. 1987: 6 Top 100 players including 3 2 World #1 and 3 major winners (and members of the International Tennis Hall of Fame): Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang. The other 3: David Wheaton (Career High #12), Jonathan Stark (CH #36), and Jeff Tarango (CH #42). (Also: Todd Martin, future major finalist and one-time world #4, was in the draw.) Gotta be the best ever. Just gotta be. Winner: Chang.

2. 1999: At least 4 Top 100 players. I don't have the full R32 draw but Andy Roddick (world #1, US Open winner) and Mardy Fish (world #7, 6 ATP titles) both reached the QFs and Alex Bogomolov (CH #33) and Amer Delic (CH #60) were in the back draw R16. So yeah, pretty great. Winner: Phillip King (HKG).

3. 1997: At least 4 Top 100 players. James Blake reached #4, 10 ATP titles, and Tennis Masters Cup final; Taylor Dent got to #21 with 4 ATP titles; Brian Vahaly (top seed & back draw semifinalist) topped out at #64; and Jeff Morrison reached #85. Blake's career is the second best for Americans since the Greatest Generation, after Roddick. Winner: Rodolfo Rake (PER).

4. 20024 Top 100 ATP players (John IsnerBrian BakerRajeev Ram, and Wayne Odesnik (CH #77)). Isner has a CHR of #9 and likely to finish in the Top 20 for the 6th consecutive year. He just won his 10th ATP title.  Ram (CH #78) also has 2 titles, and Baker (CH #52) grabbed a final. Winner: Prakash Amritraj (IND).

5. 2005: 4 Top 100 players (Donald Young (CH #38), Tim Smyczek (CH #68), Jesse Levine (CH #69), and Sam Querrey (CH #17)). Sam reaching the Top 20 and grabbing 7 ATP titles helps elevate this class. Young has 2 ATP finals. Winner: Young.

6. 1994: 4 Top 100 players in Jan-Michael Gambill (CH #14, 3 ATP titles), Justin Gimelstob (CH #63), Paul Goldstein (CH #58), Cecil Mamiit (CH #72). Winner: Goldstein.

7. 2010: Only 2 Top 100 players so far but Jack Sock has an ATP title (first of any player younger than Querrey) and the first Top-30 ranking of any player born since Querrey. Denis Kudla is about to beat his CHR of #90. Both players reached the 4th round of a major this year. Bonus: Bjorn Fratangelo (CH #120 now #110) as well as rising star Dennis Novikov, and college stars Mitchell Frank, Marcos Giron, Clay Thompson, and Evan King. This group can certainly move up. Winner: Sock.

Note: In my original post, I accidentally conflated 2012 and 2010, and included Stefan Kozlov, Deiton Baughman, and Mitchell Krueger into this cohort. 2012 indeed was solid - it also had Noah Rubin, Mackenzie McDonald, Jared Hiltzik, and several other college standouts - but with no Top 100 players yet, the jury is still out.

8. 2008: 3 Top 100 players in Ryan Harrison (CH #43), Steve Johnson (CH #37), and Bradley Klahn (CH #63). None has hit the Top 30 nor reached an ATP final. There were a lot of other strong players in this group who went to college, and thus are still trying to find their footing at the ATP level, including Top 200 players Austin Krajicek, Rhyne Williams, Tennys Sandgren, Chase Buchanan and Jarmere Jenkins. Then there's still-improving Kevin King and Dennis Nevolo. It also had Wil Spencer and Devin Britton! If we were just looking at "best college careers of Zoo fields" this would very likely win. In any case, there's a strong chance we'll see a few titles and at least 1 or 2 more Top 100 rankings out of this group. Stay tuned. Winner: Krajicek.

How do the most recent 2 years look?

2014: 0 Top 100 players (highest ranking: Jared Donaldson, about to be #150). Just from a juniors perspective, though, some sparkling resumes in advance of the Zoo: Kozlov (Australian Open, Wimbledon, and Orange Bowl finalist), Frances (then Francis) Tiafoe (youngest Orange Bowl champion in history), Noah Rubin (Wimbledon boys champion as a qualifier), Michael Mmoh (Grade A Osaka champ), and Taylor (then Taylor Harry) Fritz (Roehampton and Wimbledon semifinalist). Plus defending finalist Collin Altamirano and Top 500 player Ernesto Escobedo. Nearly every other country on earth would have been thrilled to have 8 players aged 18 and under with those collective accomplishments and potential. But there were still more: Baughman. Logan SmithTommy PaulAlex RybakovReilly OpelkaWalker DuncanHenrik WiersholmNathan Ponwith. A few Top 100 players out of that 'B' crew is quite possible. A great, great group of kids. Winner: Rubin. 

2015: 0 Top 100 players (highest ranking: Tiafoe #274). Gone from 2014 are Rubin, Escobedo, Altamirano, and Donaldson. In are William Blumberg, Opelka, Paul, and Rybakov. In the past 12 months, Paul has the French Open title and 2 Futures titles, Opelka has the Wimbledon title, Blumberg reached the finals of Grade A Porto Alegre and the Wimbledon quarterfinals, and Rybakov has a couple of Futures semifinals. The four remaining 2014 quarterfinalists (Tiafoe, Kozlov, Fritz, and Mmoh) are undeniably better players than they were, with 2 challenger finals, 3 Futures titles, and an ATP match win between them in the past 12 months. In juniors over the past 12 months, those four have a major final, three major semifinals, and 3 of the 5 non-major Grade A tournament titles.

Already through two rounds, Blumberg (hampered by illness and the surprisingly unseeded Wiersholm's tenacity) is out of the 2015 Zoo. But #10 Ponwith, #12 Eduardo Nava, #13 Dennis Uspensky and unseeded Logan Smith and Wiersholm help fortify the still very, very strong draw -- all but Wiersholm have at least 1 ATP point. Winner: TBD


That 1987 field was remarkable. It has to be the best group of juniors from one nation in tennis history, doesn't it? 1999 was excellent but note how many of the players ended up representing other countries. Interesting. 2008 and 2010 still have plenty of upside. 

As for 2014 and 2015, initially I included them in the Top 10 but then realized that was ridiculous since they've achieved only 1 challenger title combined. But barring massive disappointment up and down the list, I see at least 4 Top 100 players in each field. If I'm wrong, sue me, but I firmly believe the 2014 and 2015 fields will move up substantially over the next decade. Hell, I guarantee it.

Anyway, let's all check back here in 10 years - same blog time, same blog channel - to see what the rankings look like then! Until then: Agree? Disagree? Let me know in comments!


  1. Wow, that 1987 field was incredible in hindsight. Gotta wonder if it got that much attention at the time. Hopefully this year's field will be just as successful one day. Also, did Chang ever get to No. 1? I thought he got stuck at No. 2

    1. YES omg thanks, Jared. Fixed - Chang got to #2

  2. You left Robby Ginepri out of the 1999 group - he won the 16s singles that year and had a pretty nice pro career!

    1. And he won the 16s doubles in '99 as well as the 18s doubles in 2000.

    2. yeah I should have added I was only looking at singles in addition to only looking at 18s. Robby is one of my favorites FWIW

  3. Going back a little further into the heydays (just looked at one year - 1969 for fun). 18s Kalamazoo players with career highs:
    Connors (#1)
    Gottfried (#2)
    Tanner (#4)
    Dibbs (#5)
    Stockton (#8)
    Van Dillen (#36)
    Austin (#52)
    Andrews (#64)
    Krulevitz (#74)
    Andrew (#76)
    Machette (#92)

    Winner: Van Dillen

  4. Looks like you're missing the best draw. Except it wasn't the 18s in 1987. It was the 16s in 1985. Very similar list as your number one choice w Sampras, courier and chang but a guy named Agassi played the 16s in 1985 as well.

    1. I have a piece forthcoming on 16s - appreciate the insight

    2. I have a piece forthcoming on 16s - appreciate the insight