Let’s be honest… other than the Williams sisters, American tennis in the past decade-plus has been, well, pretty terrible. As a huge tennis fan, I could personally name a ton of U.S. players, but the average sports fan probably couldn’t name someone off the top of their heads other than Venus or Serena that are currently on the tour.
It would shock most people to learn that there are currently 22 American tennis players (20 without the last name of Williams) that are ranked in the top 100 of either the ATP or WTA Tour. There are nine men and 13 women in the top 100, with five men and seven women inside of the top 45 as of Monday’s rankings.
As much as us tennis fans would love for it to happen, tennis in the United States will probably never come close to being as popular as it was in the 70s through the 90s, when we had superstars like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, and Andre Agassi (just to name a few) dominating the sports scene.
A Grand Slam win by an American player would definitely help the sport, and could add another name to the short list of tennis players that have transcended into household names. It has been close to 14 years since an American male won a Grand Slam (Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open), and it has been over 15 years since a woman other than Serena and Venus brought a major title back to the States (Jennifer Capriati – 2002 Australian Open).
With the hard court season in full swing (that’s a tennis pun… and the title is one too!), there have been several encouraging signs that an American player could make either a buzz-worthy run at the U.S. Open, or even contend for the final major of the 2017 season.
The biggest signs were in Stanford, where three American women – Madison Keys, Coco Vandeweghe, and Catherine “Cici” Bellis – made the semifinals in a mid-level event. Keys, who is currently ranked 17th but was in the Top 10 before two wrist surgeries in the past year, absolutely decimated reigning Wimbledon champion Garbine Muguruza in one semifinal, and Coco defeated Cici easily in what had to be the semifinal with the best combination of nicknames in tennis history, to set up an All-American final. Keys out-slugged Coco for the straight-sets victory, which was her first title in over a year, and her first crown on home turf (or actually home asphalt).
If healthy, which she finally seems to be (although she did pull out of this week’s Rogers Cup event in Toronto), Keys has the best chance to break the drought of non-Williams American Grand Slam victories. She has a big serve and a forehand that may be the most powerful on the entire WTA Tour, she has a former Grand Slam champion as her coach (Lindsay Davenport), and she’s seen success at other Slams prior to her injury.
It’s easy to envision the torch being eventually passed from the Williams sisters to Keys, but the recent runs of Coco and Cici show that the top of the U.S. mountain could get real crowded soon. Vandeweghe is right behind Keys in the WTA rankings, as she has vaulted into the Top 20 after her final in Stanford. She also has tremendous power and plays an extremely aggressive brand of tennis with a brass attitude that gives her a love-hate persona. She has made at least the quarterfinals of two Slams this season, getting to her first major semifinal in Melbourne and making a second-week run at Wimbledon as well. Surprisingly, she has never made it out of the second round at Flushing Meadows, but the expectations will be high later on this month.
Bellis is the youngest player inside the Top 50 on the women’s tour, and has gone from #73 to start the season to her current career-high of #36. Keys and Vandeweghe may have around a half a foot in height on Bellis, but she has proven that her slight build can still produce some big shots. She has seen some success at the US Open, upsetting 12th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova as a 15-year-old in 2014, then making the third round last season. With the women’s game wide open at the moment, it isn’t inconceivable that Bellis could make a run to the second week and beyond in three weeks.
There are three American men in the Top 20, and two of them did extremely well last week to lead into the men’s version of the Rogers Cup, which is held in Montreal this season. While #19 John Isner pulled out of the Citi Open in Washington, DC, 17th-ranked Jack Sock made it to the semifinals before losing to Kevin Anderson, and #20 Sam Querrey won his second title of the season in Mexico.
Sock, who has been called “Captain America” and had commercials last year touting a run for President (he’s not nearly old enough), has disappointed in his Grand Slam singles career, as he has never made it past the fourth round in any major. Sock has all the tools to make a deep run at any Slam, and such a boost to his confidence could lead him to the top of the men’s tour that is currently being ravished by injuries.
If Sock wants to see what a little confidence could do for him, he can look no further than to Sam Querrey. Querrey made his first Grand Slam semifinal at Wimbledon this season, defeating top-seeded Andy Murray in the quarters before losing a tight four-setter to Marin Cilic in the semis. He won the next event he played last week in Mexico, and has to believe that he can compete with anyone on the tour after defeating the defending champs and #1 seeds in back-to-back Wimbledons.
With both Sock and Querrey, it may depend on the draw that they receive, as both could be ranked inside the Top 15 at the US Open, especially with top men’s players dropping like flies (Novak Djokovic and Stan Wawrinka are out, Murray is a huge question mark). There will be many American players in the draw, as several will earn Wild Cards and other will have to get through qualifying to make it in. One name to look for, who will likely need either a WC or to qualify, is 20-year-old Tommy Paul.
Paul made an impressive run to the quarterfinals in Washington last week, dropping a tough three-setter to second-seeded Kei Nishikori. Paul did defeat two players ranked inside the top 25 prior to the loss, which included avenging a quarterfinals loss to Gilles Muller the week before in Atlanta. The Paul-Nishikori match had to be on the short list of best matches in Washington (probably trailing only the Anderson-Thiem thriller which was one of the best matches I’ve seen this year), and it showcased his potential as someone who can hit with the top players in the world. Paul is currently ranked #174, but jumped 117 places in the last two weeks.
Hopefully after this week’s Rogers Cup, there will be another batch of Americans that I can write about next week!
Written by: Adam Belue (@albinomamba44)