August 5, 2011

This is What We've Been Waiting For

It's been a rough couple years for us American tennis fans.

With the players who've dominated the sport for the better part of the last decade -- Serena and Venus Williams, Andy Roddick and to a lesser extent my dear James Blake -- getting on in years and showing some vulnerabilities along the way, there haven't been a legion of youngsters lining up to take their place.

Until now -- the past few weeks during the U.S. Open Series kick-off we've started to see signs the future of American tennis is pretty darn bright.

Ryan Harrison, who's already pulled off a few upsets on the big stage, made his first Tour-level semifinal in Atlanta and repeated that run a week later in Los Angeles. And Christina McHale, a quarterfinalist in Charleston, has notched wins over top players like Nadia Petrova and Svetlana Kuznetsova in the past year. Neither was so lucky this week, but I'd expect both to become fixtures during the summer hard court season this year.

Eighteen-year-old Sloane Stephens made her quarterfinal debut this week in Carlsbad at the Mercury Insurance Open. Often touted as the next great talent among the Juniors, she captured a few girls' doubles titles at the Majors, but has only had limited success on the women's Tour. But in SoCal over the past few days she's really hit her stride. The Florida native stunned seventh-seeded Julia Goerges in the second round and rode her momentum through Friday. She lost earlier today in straight sets to Andrea Petkovic, but if she brings her new-found experience with her the next few weeks could see her make even bigger leaps up the rankings.

Donald Young has been around a bit longer, but though he reached a career high ranking of #73 in the world a little over three years ago, some inconsistent play and the inability to follow up one big win with another has kept him out of the elite. We know he's got talent -- he barely blinked in his drubbing of Andy Murray at Indian Wells in March -- but he never made it to the quarters of an event outside the Challengers. This week in Washington, however, Young survived Jurgen Melzer in the second round and today drubbed last year's finalist Marcos Baghdatis in straight sets. With a meeting against rebuilding Radek Stepanek tomorrow, the twenty-two year old certainly has his work cut out for him, but his chances have never looked better.

John Isner is clearly the most recognizable face in the group. The winner of a couple titles, the holder of several virtually unbreakable records in the sport, and the writer of a very entertaining Twitter handle, he's really the elder statesman of this next generation. But losing several ranking points over the last few months, he's been somewhat out of the spotlight. But thanks to a championship run in Newport and a finals showing in Atlanta last month, he seems to have his game together again. At the moment he's up a set in his quarterfinal match against Victor Troicki in DC, but down a break in the second. If he's able to pull it out, he should be the favorite to take the title where he first made a name for himself four years ago.

Of course it's not all over for the old guard -- Serena is coming off her first title in over a year in Stanford, Roddick is a stone's throw from the top ten and even Blake is hanging in there with some hard-fought losses. But it's nice to see the new class step up.

It's been a long time coming.

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