“American tennis is alive!” The phrase is something of an inside joke on Twitter, a parody of over-hopeful media pundits and TV commentators who take any win by a U.S. player as a sign that the country will soon be dominating the sport again.
The slogan—mock or not—has been given a pretty good workout over the last 12 days at the Australian Open. Danielle Collins, Frances Tiafoe, Amanda Anisimova, Taylor Fritz, Sofia Kenin, Reilly Opelka and McKenzie McDonald all made promising inroads Down Under. They joined an Aussie Open cast that once again featured Serena and Venus Williams, Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys in semi-starring roles.
Of course, U.S. fans have seen their share of promising developments over the last decade. We’ve hailed Melanie Oudin as the next big thing, watched Jack Sock crack the Top 10, and followed Coco Vandeweghe to a Fed Cup title. We’ve spent many hours with John Isner. We’ve seen the U.S. populate the ATP and WTA Top 100s with quality players, and we’ve seen the Williams sisters continue to fly the flag higher than any of them. Yet a post-Venus-and-Serena future has never fully taken shape among either the men or the women. Since 2003, Stephens is the only U.S. player outside of the Williams family to win a Grand Slam title.
Is there a reason to think that this elusive future finally came into view at the Australian Open? It’s certainly closer than many of us thought it would be so early in 2019. The success stories I mentioned above all came as pleasant surprises: At various points over the last year, Collins, Tiafoe, Fritz and Opelka have struggled to the point where it looked like they might be over-matched at the game’s highest levels, that they weren’t destined to reside inside the Top 20. But each brought a maturing game to Melbourne.
With her run to the semifinals, Collins showed off a world-class backhand that was the most consistently eye-popping shot of the tournament. More important, she showed a fierce, uncompromising, back-down-from-no-one competitive spirit. She willed herself back from the dead against Julia Goerges and Anastasia Pavlychenkova, and dismissed three-time major champ Angelique Kerber in less than an hour. The 25-year-old Collins had never won a match at a Slam before last week, but she obviously believes she can play, and even dominate, at that level. Which means she’s already won half the battle.
Tiafoe’s trip to the quarterfinals was equally impressive, in different ways. Everything about his game had improved, to the point where he looked and competed like an elite player. He had the bail-out bomb serve. He had the forehand that he could accelerate to the point of untouchability. Tiafoe’s unorthodox, racquet-face-down technique on that shot has been criticized, but his Aussie Open performance made me think, for the first time, that it may not matter. Match after match, when he faced Kevin Anderson, Andreas Seppi, and Grigor Dimitrov, I waited for Tiafoe to crack, to fail to come up with the right shot at the right time, to show that he didn’t believe he could win. He never did.
Opelka’s and Fritz’s performances weren’t quite as revelatory; they lost in the second round and third round, respectively. But each made it clear that, at 6’11” and 6’5, they have the physical presence needed to survive on tour, and the weapons to progress higher. Opelka, a towering ace machine, is particularly promising. Was his first-round win over Isner a changing of the big-man guard? If anything, Opelka appears to be the more natural athlete and, potentially, to have the more complete game.
As for the 20-year-old Kenin, she fell just short of beating top seed Simona Halep, and her 5’7” frame may keep her from scaling the WTA heights in the future. But she did win an Aussie Open tune-up event in Hobart, and she brings a must-watch energy to every match she plays. Fist-pumping, striding quickly from one point to the next, slamming her racquet in rapid bursts of rage, Kenin lets you know what it means to her, every second she’s out there.
But the most exciting U.S. player in Australia was Anisimova. Watching the 17-year-old New Jersey native and Florida resident pluck winners from thin air, from all parts of the court, against Aryna Sabalenka was a thrill in the same way that our first sightings of teen comets like Steffi Graf and Monica Seles had been a thrill. Here was someone who had magic in her racquet. (The fact that she plays quickly and doesn’t grunt should also make her popular.) Yes, Petra Kvitova took the magic out of Anisimova’s racquet in the next round, but now she knows exactly how much better she’s going to have to get.
If this is a new wave of U.S. players, it’s a fittingly diverse one, and one partially driven by children of immigrants. It’s a wave that also, in my opinion, has room for a woman who is not an American: Naomi Osaka.
Osaka was born in Japan and plays for Japan. And when she was young, tennis experts in the States didn’t recognize her potential. But the U.S. is where she grew up. It’s where her father, Leonard François, a native of Haiti, found a home, and where he trained Naomi and her sister, Mari. It was on U.S. public courts that she learned the sport, and the U.S. is where she still lives and practices. It’s where Osaka was raised in the mix of cultures—Haitian, Japanese, American—that define her unique personality, and where she learned her trademark self-deprecating, Millennial wit. Osaka isn’t American, but she’s America at its best.
Is U.S. tennis alive? It has, it seems safe to say, taken root again at the Australian Open.
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