When 17-year-old Michael Chang won the French Open in 1989, it 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 also represented the end of a nearly (gasp!) five-year drought of men’s slam champions for the United States. After all, never before had there been more than four consecutive calendar years in the entire history of the sport when an American had not claimed one of the four slams.
Chang’s victory ushered in a golden age for American men’s tennis. 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 through to Agassi’s last major, at the Australian Open in 2003.
And things seemed to be just fine for the next generation of American men after 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 lethal serve would help him to a few more majors on fast surfaces before his career ended.
But it never happened. While Roddick had a hall of fame career that included finishing as a year-end No 1, he also had the misfortune of playing in the same era as Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. Roddick would reach another four grand slam finals, and four times he would come away the runner-up to Federer (his 2009 five-set Wimbledom defeat to the Swiss was particularly heartbreaking).
And so, in year 19, when will the drought end? Why can’t the men equal their female compatriots Serena and Venus Williams, Sofia Kenin and Sloane Stephens, who have won 22 grand slams between them over the same period.
Whatever the reasons may be, something is slowly changing and it appears that we are perhaps close to a period when American men again will be a major threat at the slams.
Two Masters-level tournaments this spring have showcased the superb play of two young players in particular: 24 year-old Taylor Fritz and his doubles partner Sebastian Korda, 21.
In March, at his home-state tournament at Indian Wells, Fritz won his first Masters title. And not only that but he defeated Nadal in the final to accomplish his career-defining victory. While some would affix an asterisk to Fritz’s victory due to the fact that Nadal was nursing an injury, that analysis shouldn’t carry too much weight since Fritz also easily defeated world No 7 Andrey Rublev in straight sets in the semi-final. It was the authoritative fashion in which Fritz won the title that was so impressive – powerful serving, varied groundstrokes and patient-yet-aggressive forays into the forecourt. Fritz, a former junior US Open champion, has finally built an all-around game to go with his huge promise.
And then just last week at the Monte Carlo Masters, Korda upended the man who has been declared the future of the sport, Carlos Alcaraz. Though Korda eventually lost in the fourth round (to Fritz, as it happens), his victory over the Spaniard sent a clear signal that he is on the verge of breaking through at the bigger events.
What makes Korda such a hot topic among the tennis cognoscenti is the preternatural ease of his game, which reminds many of Sampras. His silky smooth service motion is difficult to read and his ability to finish points off at the net makes him a clear danger on all surfaces.
Further, Korda’s lineage is helping the young star develop at his own speed. His father, Petr, won the Australian Open in 1998 (his sisters, Nelly and Jessica, are elite golfers and used to world-class sport too). Petr has made a point of instilling a degree of perspective in his son, making sure he does not get caught up in his early success.
And the fact that Korda and Fritz both did well on the red dirt of Monte Carlo runs counter to history. With the exception of the 1990s, US men have never done particularly well on clay. But both Fritz and Korda are adept on all surfaces, which is an entirely refreshing change of pace from the big-serve-big-forehand style of recent American players.
While Fritz, currently ranked 13th and Korda, 37th, are the two American men best poised to lift a slam trophy in the near future, there are several others who deserve a mention. Reilly Opelka, whose 6ft 11in frame delivers one of the tour’s most intimidating serves, is ranked just below Fritz at 17. As Opelka continues to utilize his improved foot speed to go along with his lethal serve, he’s sure to make waves at the slams.
On the other end of the power spectrum is Jenson Brooksby. Though he doesn’t have a huge serve or particularly powerful groundstrokes, he does own 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 his flummoxed opponents. The 21-year-old is ranked 39th and will probably be in the top 20 by year’s end. Frances Tiafoe, meanwhile, has perhaps 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 power in 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 several 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.