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Steve Flink: The State of American Tennis

3/17/2009 12:00:00 PM

Roddick & Blake
by Steve Flink

For a considerable period of time, Andy Roddick has indisputably been carrying American men's tennis almost entirely by himself. To be sure, James Blake has enjoyed a distinguished career, and for a time he moved ahead of Roddick to the top of the mountain in the U.S. Blake finished 2006 as the best player in American tennis, and the No. 4 ranked competitor in the world. Roddick swiftly remedied the situation and it did not take him long in 2007 to reestablish his authority among the Americans. He has remained the finest player in his country ever since.
To put Roddick's status more sharply in perspective, he garnered the No. 1 world ranking in 2003 and finished that season as the preeminent player on the planet. He finished 2004 at No. 2 in the world, and concluded 2005 at No. 3. He was No. 6 in the world at the end of 2006 and again in 2007, and stood at No. 8 in the world at the end of 2008.

So what is my point? Quite simply, it is this: aside from that brief stretch in 2006 when Blake surpassed him, Roddick has been the man to beat in American tennis, and he has been by far our best player and biggest threat at the majors. Although he has not secured a major since he sealed his one and only Grand Slam tournament title at the 2003 U.S. Open, he has been in two Wimbledon finals and a U.S. Open final since. The American game has revolved largely and almost exclusively around him for a long while; it is as simple as that.
That may well remain the case for some time to come. But what has been discouraging for many close followers of the game in this country has been the fundamental decline in our fortunes among other leading American players. Blake did manage to attain the No. 10 world ranking for 2008, but the next highest ranked American was Mardy Fish at No. 23. Sam Querrey was the fourth best American but his world ranking was No. 39. No other American men resided among the top 50.

No wonder there has been so much concern among American fans about the state of the game in this country. But maybe, just maybe, a picture that has been unmistakably bleak might be getting brighter. I say that for the following reason: of all the developments in the first couple of rounds at Indian Wells this past week during the early stages of the BNP Paribas Cup, the most positive news in terms of surprises were the upsets recorded by Americans John Isner and Querrey.

These two explosive servers and determined individuals ushered a pair of big names out of the tournament, and did so impressively. Isner came into this prestigious event ranked No. 147 in the world, suffering from a considerable loss of confidence, knowing he needed to start winning some matches of consequence soon. He did just that at Indian Wells. After gaining acceptance into the tournament as a wildcard, he cast aside Christophe Rochus 6-1, 6-4, but then found himself up against the formidable Gail Monfils of France.

Monfils - seeded ninth and performing at a high level of consistency across the last year -seemingly had himself in an excellent position to beat Isner. The charismatic Frenchman took the first set 7-5 in a tie-break, and that sequence was a heartbreaker for Isner. Serving at 4-5, he delivered an apparent ace which would have made it 5-5. The serve appeared to have cleared the net by a wide margin, but it was called a let. An incredulous Isner then double faulted, and that moment of vulnerability cost him the set. I thought it was going to ruin his chances of winning the match.

But then he went full force on the attack, serving-and-volleying purposefully. Monfils stood too far behind the baseline for his returns, and Isner closed off the court with relatively easy first volleys. He went on to register one of his biggest wins in a long time, prevailing 6-7 (5), 6-1, 6-4 to reach the third round. No matter how he fares at Indian Wells, he has jumpstarted his year, restored his self conviction at least to a degree, and has given himself a boost he absolutely needed. His win over Monfils will remind Isner that he can be trouble for anyone on a hard court, a fact he had demonstrated unequivocally in the summer of 2007 when he posted five consecutive final set tie-break triumphs before losing the championship match to Roddick in Washington.

I am not expecting Isner to totally turn his year and career around. But the 6'9", 23-year-old should be an Ivo Karlovic of sorts, capable of serving adversaries off the court on given days, able to blast winners off both flanks from the back of the court, ready to spring upsets indoors or on hard courts at any time. His forehand is streaky and his two-hander can let him down, but Isner has a very big game and his first serve is a mighty weapon. If he can gain more stability on the volley, he will keep making strides.

As for Querrey, he has not yet improved at the rate I believed he would when he burst into prominence during the 2007 season. He finished that year at No. 63, and did move up decidedly to No. 39 at the end of 2008. I see this as a make or break year for him in many ways. The 6'6", 21-year-old from California builds his game around a big first serve and a commanding forehand, but he has added elements to his game over the last year that will make him a more daunting player.

He now has nice touch on the volley, his two-handed backhand is becoming a more aggressive shot, and his growing maturity as a match player is remarkable. Last year, Querrey gave a first rate account of himself in a four set loss to Rafael Nadal in the round of 16 at the U.S. Open on hard courts. A few weeks later, he took a set off Nadal again in a Davis Cup match on the Spanish clay.

Querrey has played reasonably well in 2009, reaching the final in Auckland, advancing to the quarters of San Jose and Memphis before losing to Blake and Roddick respectively. At Indian Wells a few days ago, he upended No. 18 seed Radek Stepanek to reach the third round. Stepanek has made a terrific start in 2009 and is playing more like a top ten competitor, so Querrey's win was a good one. If all goes according to plan and Querrey buckles down and gets more reliable, he has a chance to make a push toward the top twenty later this season.

Last but not least, let's examine the plight of Mardy Fish. As I mentioned earlier, he did conclude 2008 as the highest ranked American after Roddick and Blake. His No. 23 world ranking for the year was largely the result of a final round appearance at Indian Wells and a quarterfinal showing at the U.S. Open. He is plainly capable of a place somewhere among the top 15 in the world.

Look at the way Fish plays. He has one of the smoothest service motions in the game, and can serve-and-volley with immense skill. His two-handed backhand is a glorious shot. Only two things have held him back: a forehand that too often has gone awry, and a mentality that sometimes wavers. Fish has worked hard to make his forehand more solid, and has done a decent job in that department. As for his mental approach to the game, he still needs to prove that he hates to lose as much as the other leading players. The jury is still out on that matter.

It has been encouraging witnessing Fish aiming for a higher standard of play week in and week out. He managed to reach the final in San Jose and then was victorious in Delray Beach, Florida in the early stages of this season. He had a lot of pressure on him when he came back to Indian Wells, where he had lost the title match to Novak Djokovic a year ago. It was somewhat disappointing for Fish to lose this time around to Jeremy Chardy in the second round, falling in a pair of tie-breaks. Fish had, after all, defeated Chardy handily in Delray Beach.

But Chardy is a player who has been making a good deal of progress over the last year. The important thing for Fish is that he must keep moving forward persistently and playing top of the line tennis whenever possible. At 27, it is time for him to give tennis everything he has over the next two years, to recognize that his prime will not last much longer, to ask and demand more of himself than he ever has before.

In any case, I am more encouraged now than I have been for a long while about the prospects for American tennis. Roddick remains in his own class, but the feeling grows that people like Fish, Querrey and Isner are going to make their presence known in 2009 and beyond. 

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