Red, White, and Blink

Wednesday, January 08, 2014 /by
AP Photo
AP Photo

I think I’ve found a solution to the woes of American men’s tennis: Cancel the rest of 2014, effective immediately. Donald Young may have stumbled out of Auckland after gamely stretching top-seeded David Ferrer to three sets, but Bradley Klahn won a match yesterday, as did Jack Sock, John Isner, and Steve Johnson.

In fact, Johnson won two matches the other day—one over former Australian Open finalist and once-upon-a-time world No. 8 Marcos Baghdatis, the other over fourth-seeded Kevin Anderson. The latter has been fighting a viral bug for a few days, but the 6’8”, raw-boned South African can rain down havoc with his big serve. Thus, yesterday was about as good a day as Americans have had on the ATP in a good, long time.

This may be fit for domestic consumption only, but let’s take a quick scan of the landscape these lads inhabit, because one or more of them may be gone from view in the blink of an eye. We’ll take them in order, starting with the lowest ranked.  

Steve Johnson, ATP No. 160: I’ve been one of those people who’s always liked Johnson’s prospects, despite “weaknesses” so glaring that they make the former USC Trojan something of a throwback. Johnson doesn’t generate a great deal of power, and he relies heavily on a slice backhand. His is an old-school game driven by an acceptable present-day work ethic, grit, and determination.

Johnson has an excellent head for the game and, as his exemplary college record suggests, the ability to play at a consistently high level for long periods of time: The two-time NCAA singles champion ended his collegiate career with a 72-match winning streak. Is that good enough to allow “Stevie” to make his living as an ATP pro? The jury is still out on that.

Johnson improved by just 15 places in the ATP rankings since the start of 2013, during which he went 4-10 on tour. Judged in relation to his peers, that’s actually pretty good. Johnson lost a heartbreaker in the first round of the Australian Open—after qualifying—to then-No. 11 Nicolas Almagro in five sets. He also beat the likes of Andreas Seppi and Ivo Karlovic in ATP matches, so he has reason to hope.

There’s no point dwelling on Johnson’s weaknesses, which are somewhat mitigated by his attitude. Johnson’s game—one many feel is unsuited to today’s landscape—was shaped by his father, also named Steve, a tennis coach in California. Acknowledging his dad’s influence, Steve has said: “He taught me pretty much everything I know. Since I can remember, it’s always been me and him out there hitting balls, having a blast. It's really been amazing. I wouldn't change anything.”

Johnson must be hoping that his same-day wins over Baghdatis and Anderson are an indication of things to come. 

Jack Sock, ATP No. 100: Sock’s ranking is deceptive, for he has more upside than any other young American and is just 21 years old. This could be a pivotal year for the 6’1” slugger, whose style and attitude echo those of his childhood idol, Andy Roddick. 

Sock took out Adrian Mannarino in the first round of Auckland, and yesterday—impressively—polished off second-seeded Tommy Haas. Was it a shot fired across the bow of the 21-and-under set on the ATP? 

Sock played significantly more tour matches than his peers last year, winning 10 of 23. The highlights were his back-to-back wins over Milos Raonic and James Blake in Memphis, and a first-round win at Roland Garros over talented clay-courter Guillermo Garcia-Lopez. (Sock had previously won three matches in qualifying, and he lost in the second round to the aforementioned Haas.) 

Loaded with power, muscular and explosiveness, Sock seems perfectly designed for today’s game. That he can perform on both clay and hard courts also suggests that he’s got Top 10 potential. Sock has shaved 50 ticks off his ranking last year, and with some luck he’ll be able to improve by at least that many places in 2014.

Donald Young, ATP No. 96: It’s almost two years since Young last showed significant progress. A brilliant, unexpected burst earned him a career-high ranking of No. 38 in February 2012. Since then, though, he’s been backsliding—and not for the first time, as any fan of Young’s can sadly attest. Young managed to play only five main-tour matches in 2013, winning only two of those, one via retirement by Xavier Malisse in Memphis. 

But Young’s other, completed triumph was a good one. He qualified for the U.S. Open with a trio of straight-sets beatdowns and then demolished Martin Klizan—who has been to the fourth-round at Flushing Meadows—6-1, 6-0, 6-1. That match is an apt symbol for the endlessly mystifying career of Young, who’s still just 24. Can anyone imagine his return to the Top 40?

Bradley Klahn, ATP No. 95: This poor kid qualified for Auckland but had scant time to enjoy his first-round upset of No. 9 seed Daniel Brands. Like Johnson, he was obliged to return to the court to play his second-round match after finishing off the German, their match having been interrupted and postponed the previous evening due to rain.

Klahn put up a good fight, but ultimately fell to Yen-Hsun Lu in three tough sets, 6-7 (3), 6-2, 6-3. A left-hander ranked a career-high No. 95, Klahn was a pleasant surprise last year. He embarked on 2013 ranked No. 248, and while he won just one main-tour match (first round of the U.S. Open, against Kenny de Schepper of France), he’s managed to sneak into the prestigious direct-acceptance crowd for Grand Slam events. Given that Klahn is a late bloomer at 23, it will be interesting to see what more he has in store.

John Isner, ATP No. 14: You know all about him. Isner currently is just five spots out of his career-high ranking of No. 9. Seeded third in Auckland, he dispatched Lukas Lacko in the first round but must now contend with one of the tougher outs on the ATP, Philipp Kohlschreiber.

Isner made a big coaching change at the end of 2012, hooking up with Mike Sell. The fruits of that year-old relationship ought to be evident this season. We may see this year if Isner is content to slide around the Top 20 territory he’s been a part of for a few years now, or has the game and gumption to realize greater ambitions. 

Yesterday was a good day to be an American in Auckland. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

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