By Christopher Clarey / New York Times
MELBOURNE, Australia—Wresting back control of world tennis remains a long-term project. For now, the American men at the Australian Open are delighted to have taken over Locker Room B, just off the transport corridor deep inside Rod Laver Arena.
“We pretty much own that,” said Bjorn Fratangelo, a 23-year-old from Pittsburgh. “We are all in there, and pretty much every American is in the same section of the locker room. We are seeing each other and wanting each other to do well, and I think it really helps us.”
There is strength in numbers, strength in camaraderie, and although the United States will almost certainly never again have as many top competitors as it had in the 1970s, when more than a third of the players in the major singles draws were American, there is definitely room for the country to become a much bigger factor.
Andy Roddick’s victory at the 2003 US Open remains the last time an American man won a Grand Slam singles title—at 14 years, the longest drought in American tennis history. And it has also been 12 years since an American woman not named Williams has reached a Grand Slam singles final (Lindsay Davenport, the runner-up at Wimbledon in 2005).
But the generation on the rise and, in some cases, already in prime position—see eighth-ranked Madison Keys, 21, now coached by Davenport—is particularly promising.
“I think it’s top-notch, your new American generation,” said Patrick Mouratoglou, the Frenchman who coaches Serena Williams and is a significant figure in player development through his academies in France. “Among the young men in particular, there is really a group of five, six, seven guys who play really well and have enormous potential.”
Seven American men 20 or younger made it into the main draw in Melbourne. The last time that had happened at a major tournament was at the 2006 US Open.
They arrived here by various routes. Taylor Fritz and Jared Donaldson qualified for direct entry on ranking. Frances Tiafoe, Ernesto Escobedo, Noah Rubin and Reilly Opelka came through the gantlet of qualifying. Michael Mmoh received a wild card.
The result was that the United States had more men competing in singles (14) than any other nation. The women also led the way with 18 representatives, and the country could have had 21 if Keys, Sloane Stephens and 17-year-old CiCi Bellis, the youngest player in the top 100, had not had to withdraw before the tournament with injuries.
The youngest player in the top 200, 17-year-old Kayla Day, who is five months younger than Bellis, was beaten in the first round by the German veteran Andrea Petkovic, 6-3, 6-2. But Day, a left-hander from California, still earned a rave review.
“I think she has tremendous talent,” Petkovic said. “I said it to you guys, if you remember in Carlsbad, when I played Sloane and I beat her easily, as well. But I’ve had the same feeling with Kayla because her ball is so heavy. You just feel it in the racket when the ball really has something behind it.”
For a longtime tennis writer, this year’s Open is a flashback to the days (and nights) when there never seemed to be enough time to track American progress in the first week because too many players were playing on too many courts at the same moment.
“That’s a nice problem to have,” said Opelka, a 19-year-old who, at 6 feet and 11 1/2 inches, could be the closest thing to a 7-footer at this level in tennis history.
Opelka, whose long limbs supply serious leverage on his booming serve and groundstrokes, made his Grand Slam singles debut on Tuesday, losing by 6-4 in the fifth set to 11th-seeded David Goffin of Belgium.
Fritz, 19, the highest ranked of the 20-and-under Americans at No. 93, was beaten by Gilles Müller of Luxembourg, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 6-3. Fritz will soon be headed home to Palos Verdes, California, to await the birth of his first child.
“Any day now,” he said, explaining that his wife pushed for him to make the trip to Melbourne. “She understood. She would be upset if I stayed, to be honest. She wants the best for my tennis career.”
But Tiafoe, 18, and Escobedo, 20, did win their first-round matches on Tuesday. The experience was particularly emotional for Tiafoe, who had come so close to his first Grand Slam singles victory at last year’s US Open before dropping a two-set lead against a fellow American, John Isner, who was seeded 20th.
Amid the sting of that loss, Tiafoe said, he promised himself that “the next opportunity, I definitely am going to take it.” He fulfilled that vow on Tuesday by defeating Mikhail Kukushkin of Kazakhstan, 6-1, 6-7 (3), 6-3, 6-2.
“Serving for it with two breaks, I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m getting broken,’” Tiafoe said.
In total, nine American men reached the second round, the most at the Australian Open since 2008, and it is not just the new arrivals who are feeling optimistic. Steve Johnson, 27, who reached the fourth round at Wimbledon last year, has changed his diet and dropped 15 pounds, to 183, since the US Open.
“It wasn’t fun having special meals prepared for me during Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I feel the best I’ve ever felt, and I’m moving the best I’ve ever moved,” he said.
Jack Sock, 24, just broke into the top 20 for the first time after winning a title in Auckland, and in the opinion of the US Davis Cup captain, Jim Courier, he is poised for a strong season with his improved fitness, his greater experience and his unconventional and thunderous forehand, consistently the fastest in the game.
Sock, who will face the young and promising Russian Karen Khachanov in the second round, arrived on the tour before the latest wave of Americans and is still getting to know them.
“There’s a group of us and then another group of young guys coming up, but at the end of the day, tennis is an individual sport, and I’m trying to do the best I can,” he said. “At the end of the day, I have got to worry about myself but hope that the group can do well.”
For now, the younger set in Melbourne sounds more interested in a collective approach, one the US Tennis Association is encouraging under its new general manager for player development, Martin Blackman.
Many of the Americans feel as if they have grown up together; Opelka said he considered Tiafoe, Fritz, Mmoh and Tommy Paul (an American ranked No. 282) to be among his closest friends. They often roomed together at the US Tennis Association’s (USTA) former player development complex in Boca Raton, Florida, and many players, including Fratangelo, are now training together at the new USTA National Campus in Orlando, Florida.
“It’s really changed the perspective for the players; we do feel as if we’re a small team,” said Fratangelo, a former French Open junior champion who lost to Rubin, a fellow American, in five sets in the first round in Melbourne. “The US is a huge market, and there are a lot of us. If one of us was from a smaller country, I’m sure things would be a little bit different as far as maybe endorsements or stuff like that.”
He added: “We are having a lot of young guys having some success. I think it’s good, and it’s even better that we are all supporting each other.”
Image credits: AP