Thoughts on '13: Which American Men Will Step Up?
This week, Peter Bodo and Steve Tignor will offer their thoughts on some themes for the 2013 season, which begins next week.
This article may be mostly for domestic consumption, but then fans in every nation are curious to know what the future bodes for its players. For the United States, this is a particularly critical question, considering the history and impact not just of American players, but of American public interest (the storied “tennis boom” began here) and the commercial impact the U.S. has had on the world game. We’ll take a look at the U.S. men today and the U.S. women tomorrow.
One of the main questions for American fans revolves around the issue of generational leadership. Bjorn Borg, Guillermo Vilas, Yannick Noah, Carlos Moya, Novak Djokovic, and many others have shown over the years just how important the influence of a single player can be. And in that regard, the misfortunes experienced by Andy Roddick’s fellow elder statesman and buddy, Mardy Fish, really hurt the national effort. Presently, the U.S. is a country without a leader, although many will be looking to John Isner (top-ranked among American men) to step into those shoes.
I’m going to focus on the 2013 prospects of men in the Top 100, leaving out only the now retired Roddick and that ageless, ultimate warrior/journeyman, Michael Russell. But props to Russell, who had a banner year in 2012, finishing No. 87 at age 34. That’s nothing short of remarkable—especially when you take into account that Russell hit his career-high ranking of No. 60 over five years ago.
John Isner (No. 14, age 27): The 6’9” tower of serving power, who broke through into the Top 10 in the spring of 2012 to become the top-ranked American, tailed off as the year went on. But he still ended up ranked four places ahead of his finish in 2011.
But the feeling that Isner spent too much time spinning his wheels was confirmed when he announced in late November that he was parting with the coach who orchestrated his dramatic rise in the rankings, Craig Boynton. He will now be coached by Mike Sell, who like Isner attended the University of Georgia. Sell had worked quietly but effectively with Monica Seles, and more recently rose to the position of lead national coach of the USTA.
One of the main reasons players change coaches is to re-kindle their motivation, and the move sends the signal that the player is looking to make a new push. Being the laid-back sort, Isner’s decision not to coast along with Boynton (the parting was entirely amicable) is probably a good one—even if it’s unlikely that at Isner’s age, his game will change much.
Two things would really help Isner: A more effective service return and the ability—and confidence—to compete at a high level for sustained periods. He lost five-set matches at all four majors this year, one of them an 18-16 epic at Roland Garros.
Sam Querrey (No. 22, age 25): Rebounding from the second major injury of his career (an elbow problem that required surgery), Querrey finished 2012 strong and may be poised to make a good run next year—if he remains healthy.
Querrey has a deceptive and at times almost goofy-looking game. He’s a big man (6’6”) who can play like a small one, mostly from the baseline despite being blessed with a massive serve. But lest that style seem like an enormous disadvantage, he’s an excellent ball striker and mover for a man his size.
Brian Baker (No. 61, age 27): Baker’s story is now the stuff of tennis history and legend. The big question is whether he can sustain the momentum that inspired him to craft such a marvelous and unlikely comeback saga. His game is wonderfully compact, and he’s one of those players whose anticipation is so good that he rarely appears to run, often using his opponent’s pace to his own advantage (think Milosav Mecir, if you’re of the old school).
But that style, like the serve-and-volley game, is increasingly difficult to sustain successfully under today’s conditions. Slow clay and hard courts dominate the tour, and a combination of great athleticism and a muscular power baseline game seems to be the winning ticket.
Mardy Fish (No. 27, age 31): Can it be fewer than 18 months since Fish hit a career-high ranking of No. 7, following a late-career awakening to the fact that lax training habits and sometimes suspect motivation had for years led him to waste much of his talent?
In doing so, he inched ahead of Roddick as the American flag-bearer, and U.S. fans could console themselves with the fact that even if “we” were no longer great, we were at least very good. But now Roddick himself is unexpectedly gone and Fish … well, Fish had very little time to smell the roses.
Anxiety and heart-related problems essentially ruined 2012 for Fish, and the fact that he’s pulled out of the upcoming Australian swing is a bad omen—especially for a man who’s already crossed that threshold of age 30.
Ryan Harrison (No. 69, age 20): It’s hard to be patient with a prodigy, which makes it conveniently easy to ignore that Harrison improved his year-end ranking by 10 places over the year. By that logic, Harrison should be No. 1 in seven years, but who wants to wait that long?—and we all know it doesn’t exactly work that way.
The 2012 season turned out to be another “teachable moment” for Harrison, especially at the Olympics, where the American embarrassed himself and his country with his petulant behavior. But the combination of Harrison’s all-around game, outstanding second serve, and unquestioned desire and determination bode well for him.
Among the players ranked between No. 101 and No. 200 are number of familiar names who obviously are struggling—tops among them being Donald Young, who tumbled to No. 189 from a career-high of No. 38 just this past February. And life has been anything but sweet for Ryan Sweeting. Ranked in the Top 70 just a little over a year ago, he’s fallen to No. 142.
The three names that jump out at you from the second hundred are those of James Blake (No. 127), Jack Sock (No. 150), and Steve Johnson (No. 175).
Blake’s situation is particularly interesting. He’s been largely written off as a broken-down, 30-something veteran, but he made a terrific surge to rebound from his No. 173 ranking in March—a drop-off partly caused by a right knee injury. And you don’t even have to look up as high as Roger Federer flies to see that in tennis, age 30 is more talking point than turning point. Just look at what Russell did at 34, or at what David Ferrer (No. 5) has accomplished at 30.
Blake, who turns 33 tomorrow, has been at Ferrer’s heights before (in late 2006, he was No. 4). If he’s healthy, committed, and confident (or if his newborn needs more one-zies) he could surprise us this year. As for Sock and Johnson, the former is a 20-year-old with a big, big game, while 23-year-old Johnson is a very intelligent player and an outstanding competitor who will have to overcome some technical and stylistic impediments, mostly related to a dearth of weapons in an increasingly weapon-driven game.
I’m not fond of making predictions, but I think the intentional or subconscious desire to be the top American, and a legitimate Grand Slam contender, will be a motivating force for U.S. players. And I’m looking for good years out of youngsters Harrison and Sock.
More Thoughts on '13
Bodo: Which Slam Will Surprise?
Tignor: Five Phrases To Leave Behind
Tignor: Players We Want To See More Of
Bodo: Who Will Regain Their Former Form?
Tignor: What's At Stake For The Big Names?
Tignor: Five Players With Something to Prove
Bodo: Which American Men Will Step Up?
Bodo: Which U.S. Women Will Step Up?