Thursday, October 1, 2015

No Foolin: US men's tennis on the rise

Exactly 18 months ago, on April Fools 2014, our fellow blogger Baseline Bagels posted a sobering blog about the state of American men's tennis: "No joke: American tennis sinks deeper." He noted that the second-ranked American guy at the time, #65 Bradley Klahn, had only 3 ATP wins in his career. He also noted that there were only 6 men in the Top 100, 14 in the Top 200, and that on the brink of the clay season, the rankings could "easily" get worse in the coming months.

"Having Isner in the top 10 is a great thing," he wrote, "but some of these guys behind him have to start making noise. Real noise. Someone, anyone."

I'm pleased to report that some noise has been made.

Not a terrible cacophony, mind you. There are still only 7 men in the Top 100, and still only 14 in the Top 200. Both are somewhat short of where USA would be in an ideal tennis world. (And Isner is no longer in the Top 10.) But it's louder than a murmur.

You can hear it in the number of ATP matches won and finals reached. In the second-week appearances at grand slams. And, slowly, in a big-picture improvement in rankings.

The part of the story that should most hearten American tennis fans is that the players who are making the most noise are, in the main, neither the old guard nor the remarkable teens touted as future saviors. They are guys in their early and mid-20s and they're coming into their own.

Here's the evidence:

ATP titles & finals: When Baseline Bagels wrote his post, US men's tennis was mired in the worst two-year period in its history. 2013 and 2014 will be looked at as the nadir of the sport in this country for quite some time (even while Serena Williams and the Bryans were doing amazing things). US men dropped from 225 match wins in 2012 to 145 in 2013 and a not-much-better 161 in 2014 (the year was saved by a strong fall finish from a few players). And combined, US men reached only 6 ATP finals in those 2 years - with 4 titles. The problem was, they were all John Isner finals.

So far in 2015, with 5 weeks left, American men already have equaled the number of 2014 ATP matches won (161) and surpassed the number of finals from 2013 and 2014 combined (7 vs 6). Jack Sock and Rajeev Ram both won titles (as did Isner), and Sam Querrey and Donald Young each reached finals (Querrey reached two). We're still nowhere near 2010 levels (226 match wins and 16 final appearances, including 4 all-American finals) but it's been a solid year in that regard.

Grand Slam runs: Okay, it's true: the USA hasn't had any men's major quarterfinalists since that April 2014, nor had they in the 18 months prior to the post (or in the 12 months prior to that). That said, four different men reached a major 4th round in 2015 (Sock, Denis Kudla, Young, Isner). Each lost to a slam champion in the next round (Nadal, Cilic, Wawrinka, Federer, respectively). Compare that to only one 4th round run in 2013 and 2014 combined (Isner at the 2014 French Open, where he lost to Berdych). It's been a veritable grand slam bonanza compared to the darkest days.

Rankings improvements: Yes, there are the same number of players in the Top 200 as there were 18 months ago. But the average ranking of those 14 players is up from 99.64 then to 91.86 now. Then there was 1 player in the Top 50; now there are 5.

Individually, Sock, Steve Johnson, Kudla, and Ram are all up substantially from then, as is Querrey. Isner, Tim Smyczek, and Ryan Harrison are near where they were. And while 5 players dropped out of the 4/1/2014 Top 200 (Michael Russell retired, Klahn and Rhyne Williams have been injury plagued, Alex Kuznetsov has had injuries and very poor results, and of course Wayne Odesnik was booted), they've been replaced by five players, all under 26 years old, who have had spectacular rises over the past 18 months.

  • Bjorn Frantangelo, 22 (ranked #119, up from #426 on 4/1/2014)
  • Austin Krajicek, 25 (#128, up from #211)
  • Dennis Novikov, 21 (#144, up from #616)
  • Jared Donaldson, 18 (#150, up from #587)
  • Alexander Sarkissian, 25 (#184, up from #900)
That's solid stuff right there.

An even brighter future

There have been a lot of career endings and massive injury layoffs over the past 3-5 years that have shaken up the American men's tennis landscape. And just ups and downs of various careers. That's the sort of thing can strike at any time, making confident predictions difficult.

That said, all signs point to that landscape being even better 18 months from now (April Fool's Day, 2017). Many of the collegiates - the Klahns and Williamses and Sandgrens and Buchanans and Jenkinses and Nguyens and Smiths of the world - will be healthy and in their primes and challenging for Top 200 spots (all have been recently ranked there), and several more solid players will be out of college and making their moves. The aforementioned teen "saviors" will be that much older -- it's hard not to see 2 or 3 or more of them joining Donaldson in the Top 200 by then. Sock and Kudla and Young and Johnson still have plenty of upside. And I'm calling it now: Andy Roddick will have come out of retirement and be back in his rightful spot in the Top 10.

(April Fools.)

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