June 21, 2011

Young -- and Not-So-Young -- Americans

It's been a frequent topic of discussion the last couple years, that the state of U.S. tennis has deteriorated -- or at least found itself among some much stronger competition. Other than the Williams sisters, only one still-active player has won a Grand Slam this decade. And as the triumvirate are getting up there in age -- tennis-wise, only, of course -- the questions arise as to who will take over the mantle.

But Wimbledon, for whatever reason, has always been a place where Americans thrive. As we've been frequently reminded this year, Serena and Venus have combined to win nine of the last eleven women's titles, and the nineties were all but ruled by Pete Sampras on the men's side. Go back a bit further and you get legendary champions like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova -- admittedly a Czech by birth, but now quite American in practice. Something about the lawn sport certainly does seem to suit these players' game -- and the early matches this year at the All England Club have certainly proven that.

The veterans did their part to remind us of their prowess here. Venus made a successful return to the grass, winning her opener in just an hour, and though Serena was pushed a bit, she rolled through the third set to take out Aravane Rezai in an emotional victory Tuesday morning. Three-time finalist Andy Roddick, meanwhile, seemed to be back in form after an injury-laden spring, firing off thirty aces in his victory over world #156 Andreas Beck. Even Mardy Fish, who's only just come into his own this past year, pulled off a relatively easy win.

But the more impressive wins came from players still largely off the radar.

Houston champion Ryan Sweeting broke into the top hundred earlier this year, but since 2006 he's only won two matches at the Majors. After giving up a break lead in his first two sets against Spain's Pablo Andujar on Monday, it looked like he was in for another early exit. But he finally managed to hold onto a lead in the third and forced a decider by winning a fourth set tiebreak. After nearly four hours of play, the twenty-four year old walked away with the win. As a reward, he's earned a rematch against world #1 Rafael Nadal, who beat him handily in Melbourne. Still, pulling off the win bodes well for his future.

Similarly impressive in her Wimbledon debut was nineteen-year-old Christina McHale. Her name's been bandied about for several years as the next big thing in American women's tennis, but her coming out party was overshadowed by another U.S. upstart. But this year she's caused some trouble for her much-favored opponents -- the New Jersey native beat Daniela Hantuchova and Alisa Kleybanova in Charleston and stunned Svetlana Kuznetsova at Indian Wells. After losing her first set to rising star Ekaterina Makarova yesterday, she evened the score in just twenty-five minutes before grinding out a 8-6 win in the decider. She actually has a couple manageable rounds ahead of her, and if she stays tough McHale might be ready to breakthrough here -- albeit two years after we expected it from her.

Ryan Harrison was also making his Wimbledon debut, though he first started to get everyone's attention at last year's U.S. Open when he downed Ivan Ljubicic and came THISCLOSE to beating Sergiy Stakhovsky in the second round. He's been hanging out on the Challenger's Tour this year, but might be about to break into the big leagues. Against one of my sleeper favorites, Ivan Dodig, he held serve to a first-set tiebreak and steamrolled his opponent in the second. Nearing quitting time in London, the pair exchanged breaks in the third before Harrison consolidated his lead and took the match -- his first straight-set victory yet at a Slam. It gets harder from here, of course, with a second round date with David Ferrer -- but this nineteen-year-old is also playing with confidence that belies his age.

John Isner can't exactly claim to be a stranger to the spotlight -- his epic match last year against Nicolas Mahut set more records than I knew existed in tennis. But the three-day, eleven-hour slugfest seemed to wear him out for the rest of the year. He didn't seem to put up much of a fight in subsequent tournaments and, unable to defend points in the first half of this year, he dropped well out of seeding territory this year. When the draw revealed he was in for a rematch of last year's marathon, I worried nerves might get the best of him. But the big guy was calm and collected this year, relying on more than just his ability to ace to battle through. After just two hours -- less than twenty percent of his opener last year -- he came away an easy victor this time. There will of course be struggles ahead, but the maturity she showed today gives me hope he still has a shot at making my early prediction come true.

It's not all good news for the Americans, of course. Coco Vandeweghe, another lady carrying high hopes fell in straight sets to Eleni Daniilidou while Alison Riske wasn't able to convert after pushing last year's runner-up Vera Zvonareva to a third set. And my dear James Blake was able to come back from two sets down to Marcos Baghdatis, but surrendered a break lead in the fifth before succumbing.

Still the resilience of the Americans on foreign soil is certainly encouraging -- and as we look to the sport's future in this country, I'm finally excited to say it sure seems bright.

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