Friday, October 30, 2015

A tribute to the Silver Generation

They're done now.

At around 12:23 p.m. on Wednesday, September 2, the last of them, Mardy Fish, fell to Feliciano Lopez in a tantalizingly close five-set match in the second round of the 2015 US Open.

Thus, somewhat fittingly, ended the (singles) careers of a great generation of American men. Not the Greatest Generation, of course, called by some the Golden Generation. Let's call them the Silver Generation -- in honor of Mardy Fish's silver medal at the 2004 Olympic Games, and the many high-profile losses (often to the GOAT) that helped define their legacy.

Here's the thing with those high-profile losses, though: in order to suffer those losses, they had to get into those high-profile matches in the first place. Tennis, after all, is a sport in which any given tournament ends with the winner getting all of the money and points at stake on that day, but the loser still getting a big trophy and his or her photo alongside the winner, along with plenty of points and a very nice check for the winnings compiled earlier in the week.

And hey -- plenty of times it was the Silver Generation members got the bigger trophy, and the bigger check, and the greater number of points on that final day.  In fact, their combined ATP finals record was 55-52. Not too shabby for any generation of players from a given country.

This is a tribute to Andy RoddickJames BlakeMardy FishRobby Ginepri, and Taylor Dent. Five guys, all born in the first few years of the 1980s (or 4 days before the 1980s, in Blake's case), who left a legacy of achievement that deserves the appreciation that, quite frankly, was often denied them for most of their careers.

In the shadow of the gods

Today it's a go-to line in any commentary about American men's tennis players: they haven't done this since 2003 or that since 2008 or much of anything since 2012. For many, such statistics are accompanied by a shake of the head or a wag of the finger. They signify the inexorable decline of the country that once ruled the sport. Some even take a perverse joy in noting that decline. But what if we look at it from a different perspective? What if we take such numbers to mean that between 2003 and 2012, some really great tennis was played by some really great American players?

Because really, that's what happened. And yet there was plenty of head shaking and finger wagging about the Silver Generation itself.

It didn't help that that group of Generation Y-ers stepped onto the scene at the tail end of the amazing exploits of the Generation X-ers before them. Michael Chang and Jim Courier and Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and their 27 grand slams and all that stuff. The new kids on the block were expected to carry on the uninterrupted legacy of American men's tennis, in which a maximum of only 5 years had ever passed without a grand slam champion. Ever!

But this is the thing: gaps in true greatness had existed before in the supposedly unbroken string of American male champions. For instance, did you know that only 2 American men born in the 1960s (Brad Gilbert and Jimmy Arias) ever achieved a Top 5 ATP ranking? And neither of them ever reached a grand slam final. In fact, it wouldn't have been foolish to wonder in the mid-to-late 80s if John McEnroe might have been the Last Great American Player.

But then came 1989 and Roland Garros and Michael Chang and his underhand serve and the rest is glorious history.

After them, though, came a deeper, if shorter, gap than the one involving the 60s babies. Again, did you know? No American man born between March 1973 and November 1979 -- 6.5 years -- reached the ATP Top 10. Only one player born in that stretch, Jan-Michael Gambill (born June 3, 1977), won multiple ATP singles titles (JMG had 5). Gambill and Vince Spadea each reached one major quarterfinal but otherwise it was pretty slim pickings. (Please disregard for now that the greatest doubles team in history was born in that stretch. I'm making a point.)  So lost were we in the success of late Sampras and even-later Agassi, the lack of that Next Great American Player could be overlooked.

So fast forward to 2003. Andy Roddick broke through with his U.S. Open title, ending the year at #1. That year, all five leaders of the Silver Generation finished in the ATP Top 40 and in the 2004 Australian Open they combined for 12 match wins, including a quarterfinal by Roddick and two other fourth round finishes. Things were looking great. The glory days would surely go on and on.

And then ... they didn't. As wonderful as they were, the Silver Generation didn't completely deliver on the legacy of the preceding generation - or even on their own initial promise - and they got asked about it. A lot. "What's wrong with American men's tennis?" you would hear increasingly frequently as the last decade progressed. Toward the end of the decade it became an article of faith that we were living in an era of underachievers.

What happened? Well for one, as Agassi said, we were spoiled as a country by our prior success. Merely being really good wasn't even close to good enough. For two, consider that the Silver Generation came along at a time when the rest of the world was about to explode with talent. First Roger, then Rafa, then Novak and Andy all took turns making it tough for players from every other country to make their marks. For three, notwithstanding Federer the game was moving away from the offense-oriented style that allowed the Golden Generation to dominate. For four, the "lost" generation after the Silver Generation made it tough to fill in the gaps as the Silvers started going gray. And for five, all that hard court tennis may took its toll on those guys. One by one, their bodies broke down and players began retiring even as their European peers were playing well into their 30s.

And yet now, in hindsight, many long for the Silver Generation's heyday. When of course there was at least one, and not infrequently two Americans in the ATP Top 10 and more in the Top 20. When challenging for big titles was a regular occurance. When a Davis Cup title was often in the crosshairs and, in 2008, achieved. When mere quarterfinal finishes at slams were considered disappointing. (The post-Silver American players have to date achieved that distinction just once -- John Isner at the 2011 US Open.)

They were never fully appreciated in their time, so let us take a moment now to appreciate these men for their efforts over a decade and a half of highs and lows, through thick and thin, keeping American men in The Tennis Conversation. You achieved much and gave us endless memorable moments (see below for some highlights). And comported yourselves well throughout your reign.

(Baseball) caps off, men!

And hugs.

Silver Generation Profiles & Highlights

Andy Roddick
Born: August 30, 1982
Career-high ranking: #1
ATP titles: 30
Signature shot: Serve

Andy Roddick was the undisputed leader of the Silver Generation, with his grand slam championship, 5 Masters Series titles, 9 consecutive Top 10 finishes (including #1 in 2003), and unmatched bravado. He's also among the most famous runner-ups in men's tennis history, losing 4 major finals to Roger Federer. (Again with the 2nd place theme.)

Roddick possessed one of the best serves in tennis history, with a motion that was less fluid than explosive. Early on it was uncertain whether his arm would survive the unorthodox delivery. But it sure did, and it put his opponents under so much pressure to hold their own serves. He also had a powerful forehand (especially at the start of his career), what became one of the better slice backhands in the game, and surprising speed around the court. Mostly he had an indomitable competitive fire, charisma, and hustle that made nearly every match of his worth watching, even if the rallies weren't always the most beautiful.

Career highlights: The 2003 US summer - went 27-1 (his lone loss to Tim Henman in a 3rd set tiebreak in the Washington, DC semifinals) including winning Montreal, Cincinnati, and the U.S. Open. That 2009 Wimbledon final. This 2011 championship point against Milos Raonic in Memphis.

James Blake

Born: December 28, 1979
Career-high ranking: #4
ATP titles: 10
Signature shot: Forehand

The only guy to choose the college route, James Blake was also the only person of color in this group. When Blake flattened out his forehand it was breathtaking. It was almost always the biggest weapon on any court on which he played. Perhaps it went out a bit too often, and many commentators encouraged him to reel it in but as he said many times, his all-out game style is what got him the success he achieved. He was also magnificently fast and had a one-handed backhand that could do its own damage. Blake had some issues closing out 5-set matches (most famously against Andre Agassi in the 2005 US Open quarterfinals) and he never did win a Masters Series title or reach a major semifinal. He also had a nightmare 2004 involving a broken vertebra, zoster, and the death of his father; but he returned from that an even better player and became the favorite of many, many fans (including yours truly).

Career highlights: 2002 Washington DC - his first career title including a win over Agassi. 2005 US Open - wins over Nadal and Robredo, and that classic quarterfinal match against Agassi. 2006 Masters Cup - wins over Nadal, Davydenko, and Nalbandian to reach the final and finish #4 on the year.

Mardy Fish
Born: December 9, 1981
Career-high ranking: #7
ATP titles: 6
Signature shot: Backhand return

The tennis pro's son with the silky-smooth two-handed backhand, Mardy Fish took a little longer than his peers to be the best he could be. But he committed himself in his late 20s and eventually took his turn as the #1 American, Top 10 player (topping out at #7 in 2011) and six-time ATP titlist in 20 total finals including 2 Masters Series finals. The latter part of his career was unfortunately cut short due to heart arrhythmia and subsequent massive anxiety. But he finished his career off in style by reaching the second round 2015 US Open and, through his honesty, he became a hero to so, so many (including yours truly).

Career highlight: 2004 Olympic silver medal. 4 Masters Series finals. Making the 2011 Year-End Championships.  This moment against Ryan Harrison in his first tour match back in 2015:


Robby Ginepri

Born: October 7, 1982
Career-high Ranking: #15
ATP Titles: 3
Signature shot: Backhand down the line

The son of a Luxembourgish immigrant had a magical run to the 2005 US Open semifinals that still stands as the best non-Roddick major run of any American man born since 1973. He beat Haas, Gasquet, and Coria in consecutive five-set thrillers before falling to Agassi in five sets. Ginepri was a hard court monster with an aggressive baseline game. He would trade as many groundies as you wanted until he found the right ball and then would rip a winner down the line or come in on a short ball and finish with self-assurance. He also won a title on grass (he in fact was 3-0 in ATP finals) and reached the Australian Open, Roland Garros, and Wimbledon fourth rounds. And he was one of the only players to truly pull off the mid-aughts sleeveless look.

Career highlights: That 2005 US Open run.  2005 Indianapolis title - came from a set down in the final 3 matches, including the quarterfinal win over Andy Roddick. 2005 Cincinnati semis - wins over Ferrer, Moya, and Safin. 2005 Madrid Masters semis - wins over Davydenko, Ferrer, and Grosjean. So ... 2005 generally.

Taylor Dent
Born: April 24, 1981
Career-high ranking: #21
ATP Titles: 4
Signature shot(s): Serve & volley

Dent was the only player of the bunch who didn't reach the Top 20 but this son of Aussie great Phil Dent captured 4 ATP titles between 2002-2003 and, had injuries not cut his career short, indubitably would have achieved more. With his serve-and-volley style, he was a threat to plenty of players (he beat then-World #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero in the 2003 Bangkok final), and came oh-so-close to the 2004 Olympic bronze medal, but fell to Gonzalez 14-16 in the 3rd set.

Career highlights: Beating Andy Roddick in the 2003 Memphis final - his only pro win against A-Rod, and the biggest title of his career. 2004 Olympics - wins over Hrbaty, Ljubicic, and Berdych (after Berdych had taken out Federer). 2009 US Open - despite long injury battles, reached the 3rd round with dramatic wins over Feliciano Lopez and Ivan Navarro (the latter 11-9 in a 5th set tiebreak). 2010 Wimbledon - Serving 148 mph against Novak Djokovic.

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