July 19, 2012

Where's the Follow Through?

Here in the U.S., with veteran champions like the Williams sisters and Andy Roddick crossing, or about to cross, the thirty-year mark, and transition players like John Isner and Sam Querrey having their biggest successes so far at the mid-tier tournaments, we've been aching to identify our next generation of big tennis stars. We get some glimpses of hope here and there, but have yet to find the next athlete who promises to deliver again and again.

At last week's U.S. events, a couple American youngsters got a chance to shine. College stars like Nicole Gibbs and Mallory Brudette got their first Tour wins in Stanford and young Coco Vandeweghe chopped her ranking nearly in half by making the final. In Newport, 2009 champion Rajeev Ram put together his most successful singles run in a while on his way to the semis, and soon-to-be Olympian Ryan Harrison put up a solid fight himself in the final four. But all these guys fell in their first rounds this week, understandable given their efforts, but disheartening for those hoping to see them back up their recent success.

That's not to say all hope is lost. The draw in Carlsbad features plenty of Americans, many wildcards, and more than a couple have so far survived early rounds. Christina McHale, long touted as the premier talent in the generation has lived up to her seeding and Melanie Oudin, finally backing up her 2009 U.S. Open run with a title in Birmingham last month, pulled off a solid win over fellow(-ish) up-and-comer Sloane Stephens in her first round. But perhaps the most potential lies with twenty-six year old Varvara Lepchenko. The surprise fourth-rounder in Paris has only lost a handful of games so far this week. With a quarterfinal meeting against often-spotty Nadia Petrova next, she has the real potential to pull off another upset, and that could bode well for her even beyond this tournament -- a first-time Olympian in a few weeks, there might not be a better time for her to prove how well she can fight for her country.

There's no Olympic gold on the line for some of the standouts in Atlanta, but that's no excuse for them to not put up a fight. While veterans like Roddick and top seeded John Isner, twice a runner-up here, are getting in some good practice for London, those a little further down the rankings may be the ones to watch this week. Wildcard Steve Johnson had only played one Tour-level match this year, but he hung tough against one-time U.S. Open Cinderella Donald Young in his first round. He'll meet another young star in Jack Sock next -- the 2010 U.S. Open Juniors champ defeated seventh-seeded Alex Bogomolov in his opener and could put on an entertaining show for a spot in the semis. For the man who survives, it could be a great opportunity to make a real splash on a Tour-level stage.

It's going to be difficult for any of these guys to make a real and immediate impact at a Slam -- with the top players in the sport right now proving they're not going anywhere soon, they might have to slog it out for several more months or years. But it's important that they bring the momentum they capture from wins this week into their next few events -- if they can prove themselves to be constant threats in the draws, it might not be long until they're no longer considered the underdog.

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