When 17-year-old Michael Chang won the French Open in 1989, which was a huge event for American tennis. Not only was it the story of a teenager coming from seemingly nowhere to win a major, it was also the end of a nearly (gasp!) Five-year drought of men’s slam champions in the United States. After all, there have been more than four consecutive calendar years in which the sport of the entire history of the four slams of one American had not.
American men’s tennis for a golden age in Chang’s victory. He was joined by Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. Collectively the group won a total of 27 grand slam titles (with Sampras’s 14 leading the way) over a 15-year period, from Chang’s win in Paris to Agassi’s last major, at the Australian Open in 2003.
Andy Roddick, then just 21, won the US Open later in 2003. Considered the future of American tennis since he was a teenager, Roddick had seemingly fulfilled his promise. Most thought his career would have ended before his fast surfaces on a few more majors.
But it never happened. While Roddick had a Hall of Fame career that included a year-end No 1, he also had the same era of playing misfortune as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Roddick would reach another four grand slam finals, and four times he would come off the runner-up to Federer (his 2009 five-set Wimbledom defeat to the Swiss was heartbreaking).
And so, in year 19, when will the drought end? Why can’t men find their female compatriots Serena and Venus Williams, Sofia Kenin and Sloane Stephens, who have won 22 grand slams over the same period.
Whatever the reasons may be, something is slowly changing and it appears that we will soon be in a period of time when American men will again face a major threat.
Two Masters-level tournaments this spring showcased two young players in a superb game: 24-year-old Taylor Fritz and his doubles partner Sebastian Korda, 21.
In March, Indian Wells at his home-state tournament, Fritz won his first Masters title. And not only that, but he defeated Nadal in the final to achieve his career-defining victory. While some would have been afflicted with Fritz’s triumph, the analysis of Nadal’s nursing injury, that analysis shouldn’t have been too much weight, had Fritz also easily defeated the world. It was the title that Fritz won in authoritative fashion that was so impressive – powerful serving, varied groundstrokes and patient-yet-aggressive forays into the forecourt. Fritz, a former junior US Open champion, has his huge promise to go to an all-around game.
And then just last week at the Monte Carlo Masters, Korda upended the man who has been the sport of the future, Carlos Alcaraz. Thoughts Korda eventually lost in the fourth round (to Fritz, as it happens), a clear signal sent by the Spaniard over his victory is the great events at the breaking of the verge.
What makes Korda such a hot topic amongst tennis cognoscenti is his game of preternatural ease, which reminds many of Sampras. His silky smooth service motion is difficult to read and his ability to finish points off the net makes him a clear danger.
Further, Korda’s lineage is helping the young star develop his own pace. His father, Petr, won the Australian Open in 1998 (his sisters, Nelly and Jessica, are elite golfers and used to be a world-class sport too). Petr has made a point of instill his son in perspective, making sure he doesn’t get caught up in his early success.
And the fact is that both Korda and Fritz did well on the Red Dirt of Monte Carlo runs counter to history. With the exception of the 1990s, US men have never done well. But both Fritz and Korda are adept on all surfaces, which are the latest American players of the big-serve-big-forehand style from a refreshing change of pace.
While Fritz, currently ranked 13th and Korda, 37th, are the two American men best poised to lift a slam trophy in the near future, where many others deserve a mention. Reilly Opelka, whose 6ft 11in frame delivers one of the tour’s most intimidating servings, is ranked just below the Fritz at 17. As Opelka continues to utilize his improved foot speed with his lethal serve, he’s sure to make waves.
On the other end of the spectrum is the power spectrum of Jenson Brooksby. Though he doesn’t have a huge serve or more powerful groundstrokes, he does have an impressive tennis IQ and an innate ability to annoy and frustrate his foes, disrupting the rhythm of a match with off-pace shots and varied spin, that leave him opponents flummoxed. The 21-year-old is ranked 39th and will probably be in the top 20 by the end of the year. Frances Tiafoe, meanwhile, has probably not fulfilled his early promise but is a consistent top 30 player.
The cynics may scoff at the notion that Americans are ready to become a men’s tennis again. Sure, they’re showing signs of life, but that’s only because Nadal, Federer and Djokovic are finally on a slow decline. But you can only play who you are up against. And right now Fritz, Korda and many other young Americans look poised to take up permanent residency in the top 10. Perhaps the dawning of a new golden age of American men’s tennis players is upon us.