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Matt Cronin: Bright spots, questions for American tennis in 2013

12/6/2012 1:00:00 PM

By Matt Cronin

In 2013, US men’s tennis will go to a place that it has not gone before in the Open Era, entering a season without one previous holder a of Grand Slam singles title. That development came to pass when Andy Roddick prematurely retired at the age of 30 during the US Open, leaving John Isner, Sam Querrey, Mardy Fish and youngsters Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock to pick up the slack.

The three veterans have already shown that they are capable of reaching the second weeks of the Grand Slams, while the 21 and under duo of Harrison and Sock both have shown elite potential, but have yet to realize it. Then there’s 2012 comeback player of the year Brian Baker, and two-time NCAA champ Steve Johnson, both of whom have top40 potential, but perhaps not higher. And Donald Young? He’s fallen off the face of the tennis planet again, only winning five matches in 2012.

US women’s tennis is not faced with similar questions as Serena Williams has become one of the top five players of all time and showed it by winning two majors this year as well as the Olympic gold medal, proving that she is the player to beat in 2013.

But there is some intrigue surrounding the rest of the US women: can Venus Williams stay healthy enough to contend at the majors? Are Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens ready to take the next step and become Grand Slam factors? Is Varvara Lepchenko a legitimate top-20 player? Has Melanie Oudin mentally recovered to the point where she can be a factor again?

US Davis Cup captain Jim Courier, who did a brilliant job this year in leading his team to an upset of Switzerland and France away on clay, has a good grip on where all of his players stand. He needs to as once again the US Davis Cup team is in a tough section of the draw. They begin with a home tie against Brazil in early Febraury in Jacksonville in what should be a fairly routine victory, but then they could play a Novak Djokovic-lead Serbian squad and possibly a super deep Spain, which they have lost to the past two years.

For Courier’s team to be able advance to the final, he’ll need Isner to perform as well as he did last year in Davis Cup when he upset Roger Federer and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, and much better than he did at the majors. Ranked No. 11, the 6-foot-9 Southerner had a disappointing year at the Grand Slams, losing four five setters. He recently changed coaches from Courier’s former private coach Craig Boynton, to Michael Sell, who once coached Monica Seles.  If Isner is going to be able to stand up to tennis’ Big 4 of Djokovic, Federer, Nadal and  Murray at the majors, he is going to have to get in better physical condition.

“I think if John has the kind of off-season that he should have, if he does all the right things, John is one of those players that can really upset the apple cart,” Courier said. “I'll be echoing what I said [last year], which he is the most disruptive force in men's tennis when he is on his game. I think he saw clearly this year that he has capabilities to beat the top players, because he did so. I think we also saw some physical limitations, which Craig addressed with him, I addressed with him, I think his new coach will be addressing with him as well, that can certainly be easily corrected with the proper work and diligence. I've had lengthy discussions with him about his schedule. He knows what he needs to do.We'll see if he's able to actually do it. He really is one of those few guys that you can look at and say, he could win a major. As thick as this era is at the top, he's one of the guys that none of the top four players wants to see in his section of the draw.”

While Fish struggled with a heart ailment and will not return until early February at the earliest, Querrey had a solid season post his 2011 elbow surgery and worked his way back into the top 25. He’s is terrific ball striker when he gets into the right positions,but there are still questions that remain as to his inner fire, his so-so movement and his lack of variety.

Those are not the same questions that face Harrison, who is very fiery, moves quite well and has a lot of variety for a 20 year old. But he had mediocre 2012 by even his standards,as he was unable to beat one top 20 player and after reaching the semis of Newport on grass, compiled a 2-7 record the rest of the year. For a guy who has consistently said that he wants to win Slams and reach No. 1, finishing the season ranked No. 69 can’t possibly be satisfying.

“He made significant strides in the off-season in 2011 in preparation for 2012 physically,” Courier said. “He became a much more complete athlete, which I think has set the table for him now becoming a more complete tennis player. He had growing pains, which all young players go through. I'm hoping that 2013 is going to be a breakthrough year for him. This year he had some unfortunate draws in majors, had some difficult competition in early rounds, and wasn't really able to punch through. All it takes is one tournament to change your belief as a tennis player. Ryan has some work ahead of him for sure, but we know he has upside.”

US Fed Cup captain Mary Joe Fernandez also did a good job with her team last year, which had fallen down to World Group qualifying. But they went undefeated in two wins over Belarus and Ukraine, which put them back in the World Group, but also earned them a February match up away against Italy on clay, which features four excellent dirt ballers in Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci, Francesca Schiavone and Flavia Pennetta.

Fernandez says she has commitments from the Williams sisters if they are healthy, which would certainly give the US a chance, but she may also have to count on Lepchenko, McHale and Stephens, which is not the worst position she has been in a clay court tie, given that Lepchenko upset Schiavone at Roland Garros and finished with a career high year-end ranking of No. 21 and the 19-year-old Stephens considers clay to be her favorite surface. The 20-year- old McHale still has much to learn on clay, but she’s a workhorse and if not for an exhausting virus that she caught at the Olympic, she could have finished the year in the top 25.

“I'm happy with the progress we've seen from McHale and Stephens,’ Fernandez said. “Both are in the top 40 now. Sloane had a breakthrough season. We've seen her ability. She's getting mentally tougher, playing to her strengths much more. Varvara was such a surprise, to see her get so much out of her game and how hard she works. She's a fighter. We have a good group that can play on different surfaces that are excited to play Fed Cup. Hopefully we can get through Italy.”

Serena has pledged to play forat least a couple more years and despite her battles with an autoimmune disease, the 32-year-old Venus won’t even mutter the word retirement. So for at least the near future, the Williams sisters will be able to offer some cover for the younger players until they develop further.

Both Stephens and McHale are extremely fast players who don't shy away from big matches, but Stephens can get wild and needs further seasoning when it comes to her game planning, and as much as she has improved her forehand and first serve,  McHale still needs to up her power quotient if she is going to be a top-10 player.

But Fernandez thinks both have a chance to reach the second weeks of the majors in 2013.

“I think to me the most important thing is how much they want it,” Fernandez said. “I've always seen that desire from Christina, her work ethic, how hard she trains. This year is when I saw it from Sloane. I think she is training the right way, mentally she is getting more focused, she's sustaining her level for longer periods when she plays. They're both very different. You're always going to have a little more stability with Christina, how she plays. There's much more upside from Sloane in the way she can create power, variety, the way she moves. I do expect them hopefully to go another step this year and make it to the quarterfinals of a major. They've both had big wins, and that helps a ton. Next goal is top 20 and we'll go from there.”

On the men’s side, the US is lacking a little depth with only six active men ending the year in the top 100. But on the women’s side, the US can compete with any nation when it comes to quality and depth of its young players,  as 10 American women finished in the top 100 this year and six of those are under the age of 23.

Fernandez mentioned the stalwart Vania King who is good in doubles and singles; how far the hard-hitting Jamie Hampton has progressed; how 2009 US Open quarterfinalist Oudin scratched her way back into the top 100 after a disastrous start of the year; how the up- and-down CoCo Vandeweghe finished the year in the top 100, as did the scrappy Lauren Davis.

And then there is the 17-year-old Madison Keys, who has huge potential and made some serious noise in 2013. And let’s not forget the world’s No. 1 junior Taylor Townsend, who is playing her last junior tournament this week at the Orange Bowl.

As for Fernandez, she's got a very bright future. Hopefully for US tennis, the same can be said for the rest of American players.
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Matt Cronin is a senior writer for Inside Tennis magazine, and the co-owner of the award winning TennisReporters.net. He writes the Ticker for Tennis.com, contributes regularly to Reuters, and is a radio analyst for all the Grand Slams. He just published the book, “Epic: John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg and the Greatest Tennis Season Ever.”