Switcheroo!

Friday, July 26, 2013 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

Have you noticed how completely the U.S. tennis landscape has been turned upside-down? Two or three years ago, it appeared that John Isner and Sam Querrey were understudies to Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish, the Twin Towers destined to replace those veterans in the U.S. hierarchy.

Okay, Roddick and Fish were no Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, and Isner and Querrey were not to be confused with Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Nevertheless, every nation has its standard bearers, whether they’re world-renowned champs or just guys doing the best they can. And Isner and Querrey, tall, rangy, ace-capable power players, both had adequate potential as generational leaders.

Meanwhile, over on the WTA side, the prospects looked truly bleak. In the-trenches types at the USTA were holding their collective breath, desperately hoping that the Venus and Serena Williams would somehow stumble upon that mythic fountain of youth that caused the Seminole nation and a host of others so much grief in their adopted home in Florida.

But in the interim things went topsy-turvy, and now the future looks far better for the U.S. women, and the men are in as bad a position as they were (albeit briefly) in the seam years right after McEnroe retired and the “golden generation” led by Sampras, Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang had yet to emerge. And it hasn’t helped the cause at all that any hopes for a quiet, orderly, even leisurely transition were shattered when Roddick abruptly retired last September and Fish developed a debilitating heart condition.

That sent everyone scrambling — or it would have, were the American not already in chaos. The crisis is continuing, as attested by the fact that yesterday in Atlanta, Isner barely survived an epic, three-set battle with the ATP No. 373, 19-year old Christian Harrison — himself an American.

That would be the brother of Ryan Harrison, who’s more or less emblematic of the current U.S. generation — and not in a good way. Harrison was never a “can’t miss” top 10 player, but U.S. pundits and coaches had high hopes for him. Those hopes may yet be realized; Harrison is still just 21, and he’s got what you would call “character” (as well as a wicked second serve). But in the past year, Harrison has gradually slipped from a career-high of No. 43 down to No. 132.

His slide mirrors, albeit in exaggerated fashion, the struggles of Isner and Querrey, with whom Harrison once was seen as forming a trio of tough impact players. Isner, ranked No. 9 just about 18 months ago, is down to No. 22.  You can’t accuse the 6-foot-10 ace machine of failing to give the ticket buyers their money’s worth; it seems that almost every match he plays these days is a titanic struggle.

In all fairness, Isner has also struggled with a series of unfortunate if not exactly career-threatening injuries. He had to retire with a mysteriously aching knee after just two games in his second-round match at Wimbledon. That extended what can only be described as a London hex when it comes to the tournament where Isner and his atomic serve were always expected to do the most damage.  It’s like some clay-court specialist is hiding in a closet somewhere, sticking pins in a little John Isner voodoo doll dressed in purple-and-green.

Querrey is faring the best of these three men; but even he’s down three notches from his career high (No. 17, January of 2011). He hasn’t won three successive matches all year, and the last time he was in the round of 16 at a major was the U.S. Open of 2010. In fairness, he too has struggled with injuries. But if you’re looking for a good demonstration of Sudden Sam at his baffling best — or worst — just check out his Miami result.

Querrey had a first-round bye, and then he got by No. 94 Lukasz Kubot in three sets. He then benefited from a walkover issued by Milos Raonic, but lost in the fourth round to ATP No. 6 Tomas Berdych, 6-1, 6-1.  That was at an American event, on the surface Querrey likes best — and thus a huge opportunity on which he utterly failed to capitalize.

You can’t judge a man by one tournament, or a generation by a  year or two. So let’s see how the men fare during the customary “American segment” in the coming weeks. At the moment, the third-highest ranked American after Querrey and Isner is No. 63 Fish. The four other American men in the top 100 are No. 85 Michael Russell, No. 91 James Blake, No. 93 Denis Kudla and No. 95 Jack Sock, who probably has the most up-side in his peer group of under-21 players.

Now look at the U.S. women: 11 of them are in the Top 100, led by No. 1 Serena Williams who appears to have located that mysterious fountain. Among them, only No. 36 Venus Williams is unlikely to provide much more help to the domestic cause. But then she’s already done more than her share of the heavy lifting.

Sloane Stephens, No. 15, has gotten back on track and she has a terrific knack for coming up big at major events. She’s the U.S.’s next best hope when it comes to Grand Slam champions. And No. 29 Jamie Hampton and No. 44 Madison Keys took long strides this summer. Hampton is 23 and surging, after struggling with recurrent back problems. Keys, built on a Lindsay Davenport-like platform, is just 18 and has tremendous potential. The other American woman in the top 50 is naturalized citizen Varvara Lepchenko, a left-handed Uzbek native who’s tough and presently going through a rough patch after hitting a career high of No. 19.

The really encouraging thing about the women is the momentum they’ve built as a group, and how — unlike the men — they constitute that proverbial tide that lifts all boats. With the exception of Lepchenko and Venus, every one of the women in the Top 50 is at, or within a negligible few weeks of, her career-high ranking heading into the hard-court season.

When it comes to U.S. tennis, it’s the women who have been wearing the pants lately. What do you say, boys?

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