Where Have You Gone John McEnroe?
As the US Open Series winds down, the Western and Southern Open signals that the final Slam of the year is just around the corner. This Masters 1000/Premier 5 event is the final tune up for the one that really counts — the US Open. This is also the time of year for US tennis fans to lament the decline of Western Civilization. In our own special version of “Mrs. Robinson” (my apologies to Simon and Garfunkel), we plaintively sing the chorus: "Where have you gone John McEnroe?"
“Where have you gone John McEnroe?”
Face it, the US is no longer dominating the tennis world as Connors and McEnroe or Sampras, Agassi, Courier, and Chang once did. Now the other McEnroe, Patrick, is leading the USTA efforts to turn around our country’s fortunes; but, while some well known coaches such as Tim Mayotte and Wayne Bryan aren’t too impressed with these efforts, the jury is still out on whether the USTA Player Development program will achieve its stated goal of developing world-class American players.
But alas as heated and interesting as it may be, I’m not here to participate in this debate. Instead this is intended to be a snapshot of where American tennis seems to be today. Now this snapshot may not be all that illuminating since the field at Cincinnati looks very different this year. As with the Rogers Cup last week in Toronto (men) and Montreal (women), many of the prominent players are either absent or leaving the event early. For the US, the highest ranked man John Isner withdrew from Cincinnati with back pain, and Andy Roddick suffered with the same problem in his first round loss to lucky loser Jeremy Chardy. But, hey, we definitely should have seen this coming.
By this time of the year, players are always suffering from a grueling schedule that starts in May with Masters Events in Madrid and Rome. These are followed by the French and Wimbledon played over a six week period. Then many players immediately head to the US for the Open Series that kicks off at Stanford for the women and in Atlanta for the men. This 6 tournament series is played over a 7 week period leading up to the US Open at the end of August. But this year, the Olympics just exacerbated the wear and tear of this already compressed schedule. Players went from the US to Europe to Great Britain to the US and back to the All England Club; from hard courts to clay to grass to hard courts to grass and back to hard courts in a matter of 4 months.
Perhaps the most worrisome omission in Cincinnati is world #3 Rafael Nadal. Rafa actually went down with a recurring knee issue on the heels of a shocking Wimbledon loss to Czech Lukas Rosol. Having missed the Olympics, Toronto, and Cincinnati — you have to wonder if Nadal will be able to play at all, much less at a high level, by the end of the month. On the women’s side, the top two ranked women — Sharapova and Azarenka — are sitting out this week.
But getting back to US tennis, the cupboard is not as empty as some would have us believe; and there are definitely some interesting stories out there. On the men’s side, I believe there are 4 to 6 players who are definitely capable of cracking the top 20 and maybe even the top 10. Although, some are getting a bit long in the tooth in tennis years, several should just be going into their primes. Among this group I would include John Isner (27), Mardy Fish (31), Sam Querrey (25), Andy Roddick (30) as well as Ryan Harrison (20) and Brian Baker (27). If Jack Sock and Denis Kudla live up to expectations, the US could be on the road to having a very strong contingent for years to come.
The women, on the other hand, have fewer players who have demonstrated they are ready for prime time; however, still boast the only legitimate superstar on the WTA tour. I have no doubt Serena Williams will be mentioned in the same breath with the best women players to have ever played the sport; and, while she turns 31 on September, she shows little sign of slowing down.
The US women also have a good collection of players who could blossom in the next couple of years. Here in Cincinnati, two teenagers (Sloane Stephens a wild card and Madison Keys, the 17 year-old qualifier) along with twenty year old Christina McHale all played in the main draw. Unfortunately, McHale had to withdraw with a gastro-intestinal issue, and only Sloane Stephens made it past the opening round. (she took out WC Camila Giorgi of Italy to reach the third round) Nonetheless, Christina has some very big wins over top players such as Kuznetsova, Bartoli, and then #1 Wozniacki last year here in Cincinnati; and, while Keys lost to #26 Roberta Vinci in the first round, she showed her potential by knocking off two top 100 players to qualify for the main draw.
Click photo: Perhaps the best story of the year for American tennis is Bryan Baker's remarkable comeback.
Americans to Watch
Brian Baker —Watch Brian’s interview with Matt Cronin from Cincinnati on TennisOne. Brian is an incredible story as I’m sure many of the members of T1 know. He has overcome 6 major surgeries and a long layoff to rekindle a promising career. Baker had a good win at the French against the X-man — Xavier Malisse; and then really burst on the scene at Wimbledon by reaching the round of 16 before falling to Phillip Kohlschreiber.
This week in Cincinnati, he turned the tables on Kohlschreiber and won a dead even 7-6, 7-6 match in which both players won 81 points. Baker displayed a very well rounded game while earning the W. He serves big enough and owns a good enough forehand to play first strike tennis; but at the same time he displays good touch and seems comfortable at the net even on big points. His ground game is very solid, and I think he moves better than he gives himself credit for. All in all, it makes you wonder where he would be had he not experienced the litany of medical setbacks. If he can stay healthy, it will give us a great underdog to pull for over the next few years.
Sloane Stephens —
Although Sloane is not as big as many of the women at the top of the sport, she is very athletic and plays an aggressive game. Tuesday she controlled her first round match against Svetlana Pironkova who seemed to have few answers and only got into the first set when Stephens briefly letdown.
Click photo: Sloane Stephens reached the third round of the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati with her win over Camila Giorgi of Italy.
Back in March, I had the opportunity to see Sloane play current #7 Angelique Kerber, and she had Kerber on the ropes (up a set and a break in the second) before she let it get away. But hey, most 19 year olds are going to have the occasional lapse in concentration; and judging by her post match interview, she is working on it. As she goes into the US Open, it will be interesting to see if she can be as effective on hard courts as she was on clay (4th round at Roland Garros) and grass (3rd round at Wimbledon).
At the risk of sounding a bit jingoistic, I too would love to see an American man rise to the top of the sport and dominate like Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic. However, it is extremely difficult to determine just why these players rise to the top while other very talented players fall short.
It seems extremely simplistic to say that the US has fallen behind due to poor coaching or the failures of the USTA. Currently, only Spain and France have more players in the top 100 men and women than the US; and it simply isn’t that great a disparity with Spain having 17, France 16 and the US 15. As recently as July, 9 men and 9 women from the US were in their respective top 100 lists.
So nationalism aside, I would encourage everybody to enjoy this Golden Age of tennis in which we have the opportunity to see four of the greatest players in the history of the game compete. If you simply have to have a US player to cheer for, get behind Serena and enjoy her beautiful game for as long as it lasts!
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From the Western & Southern Open
Crosscourt with Matt Cronin and Bryan Baker — After being away from tennis for seven years due to a string of sever injuries, Bryan Baker's return to form is nothing short of remarkable. Matt Cronin sits down with the comeback kid.
The Integrated Serve and the Last Coil
The serve is the most important shot in tennis, and perhaps the most difficult to master. The key to serving power lies in the coiling and uncoiling or the body parts in sequence. In the second of this two part series, Doug King addresses the last coil, and it's roll in creating a powerful pro type serve. This is a must for anyone who wants a more powerful service action because this last coil is where effortless power is produced.
Timing: The Right Unbalance
Anyone who has ever taken a tennis lesson has probably heard some variation of the phrases "get ready" and "out in front." So what do we do? We compensate by trying to hit the ball earlier and further in front. However, at the club level, most players who struggle with their timing are not habitually late at all. They try to hit the ball too early. In this article Jerôme Inen explains the interaction between timing and what he calls ‘the right unbalance’
ProStrokes 2.0 — Ryan Harrison, Forehand
American Ryan Harrison is a player who has the goods but has yet to really be a viable product on the ATP tour. The third youngest player to have won an ATP level match, (behind Richard Gasquet and Rafael Nadal), Harrison reached a high of #7 in the junior world rankings at the age of 15 before turning pro that same year and defeating #130 Pablo Cuevas in the 2008 U.S. Men’s Clay Court Championships at River Oaks Country Club in Houston Texas. An athletic 6-foot right-hander, Harrison plays with a solid semi-western forehand and conventional two-handed backhand. He also has an excellent slice backhand, levance. New this issue, Dimitrov's serve and net game.
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