Sports · July 1, 2022

In Wimbledon, American men are throwing a 4th of July party

WIMBLEDON, England – Just in time for the 4th of July weekend, the Americans are throwing a party on British soil.

As night fell Thursday at the All England Club, eight American men would qualify for the third round of the prestigious Wimbledon tournament, representing 25% of the last 32 places. This is the largest number of American men in the third round of the event since 1995, when nine qualified for the heyday of Sampras-Agassi-Courier-Chang. He is also the top in any Grand Slam tournament since the US Open in 1996.

Almost everywhere you looked on Wednesday and Thursday, one American man was slamming, slicing, or grinding his way to the last 32, and another will win over on Friday. Apparently the sun has set on the era when every American male player had a great serve and a right and not much else.

Some were familiar faces, like John Isner, who worked their way past hometown favorite Andy Murray. But many were part of the next wave of Yankees on the rise in their 20s: the clique of Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul, and Francis Tiafoe who first joined as teens at a national training center in Florida. And then there were a couple of the wave after that (Jenson Brooksby and Brandon Nakashima) who are still a couple of years away from needing a daily shave. Two Americans, Maxime Cressy and Jack Sock, one new to the scene, the other a veteran, were dueling for the last available spot until rain interrupted their match on No. 3 Court Thursday.

“It’s been a long, long progression,” said Martin Blackman, the former professional who is the general manager of player development for the United States Tennis Association.

Now, before anyone in the US rushes to the liquor store to grab some Pimm’s on the ice for a championship celebration, it’s worth noting that no one expects any of these players to actually win the men’s singles title, at least not this one. ‘year. American men’s tennis is deep but light at the top.

The United States now has eight men in the top 50 and 13 in the top 100, more than any other country. Probably the most promising of the lot, Sebastian Korda, son of the former No. 2 Petr Korda, had to retire from Wimbledon 10 days ago with a shin splint.

“He didn’t give me anything to fish for,” said Denis Shapovalov of Canada from Nakashima, who beat him in four sets on Thursday.

Despite this week’s stampede, there are no Americans in the top 10 and only two in the top 20: Fritz and Reilly Opelka. Russia and Spain each have two players in the top 10. Spain, the best tennis country of the last decade, has four players in the top 20.

But for a country whose male talent has long been considered quite lacking and has been without a Grand Slam champion since Andy Roddick won the US Open in 2003, depth represents significant progress. It also serves as a kind of motivational tool. A friendly competition has arisen between Americans in their 20s, led by Fritz, and those who have just reached legal drinking age in the United States, or have not yet arrived, to be the first to play in the final stages of a Grand Slam tournament.

“They’re great for us,” said Paul, 25, of Brooksby, Korda, both 21, and Nakashima, 20. “They push us.”

“For tennis to grow, we will need some winners from the male side,” he added.

The USTA knows this too. For years, he has been trying to refine a system to help develop players who will work in a vast country with over 330 million people and lots of competition from more popular sports that are less expensive for good young athletes to pursue.

In Europe, especially Eastern Europe, promising young teens often leave home for academies. Academic and psychological support can be scarce. A “Lord of the Flies” environment persists. Despite its success in producing some formidable talent and champions, including Novak Djokovic, that model would never work with American parents.

Instead, for the past decade, the organization has been trying to set up a trout farm rather than find a unicorn. It has developed a three-tier program of local, regional and national camps that bring together the best talent throughout the year, but also allow children to stay home as long as possible and to work with their own coaches. Airfare to the fields is not included, but almost everything else is, even a little bit of money for private coaching to attend sometimes so they don’t feel kicked out of the process as a young player grows and improves .

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. During the pivotal years of development between the ages of 15 and 22, some players choose to work with USTA coaches and coaches at their training centers in Orlando, Florida, or Carson, California outside of Los Angeles. Fritz has been on the USTA program for six years, Paul for five, Opelka for four and Tiafoe for three, Blackman said.

Others, like Korda, Nakashima, and Brooksby, choose to stay largely out of the system, but can still qualify for financial support and come to the occasional camp or show up at the training center for competition.

Blackman also doesn’t want the organization to preach a certain style of play. Cressy’s serve-volley game is as much acclaimed as Brooksby’s finesse, Tiafoe’s power of forehand and Nakashima’s all-court approach.

At one such camp, a national gathering in Boca Raton, Florida ten years ago, Fritz, Paul, and Tiafoe got together for the first time.

“It was really boring in those dorms, nothing to do, so we didn’t have much of a choice,” Fritz said recently.

Fritz, with his big feet and lock of hair, and the least advanced game of the group, quickly became the punching bag of the group, obviously the friendly punch.

“A big silly guy like that, you know he would end up being the target,” Tiafoe said.

Paul said Fritz took it well. Fritz also saw that his new clique members were better at tennis than him, and began to work harder to catch up. Within a few years, he had moved on. He is now the highest ranked American man at No. 14 and the only of the younger groups to have won a Masters 1000 tournament, the level just below the Grand Slam, emerging in Indian Wells, California earlier this year.

They remain close friends and sincerely invested in each other’s success, which helps during a long season filled with travel. Paul has been on the road for almost 10 weeks.

“I’m so homesick that I want to throw up,” he said Thursday.

Text discussions and group dinners, sometimes fancy, sometimes burgers and pizza, and long bull sessions help. Tiafoe reached the final of a tournament in Portugal earlier this year. When he walked off the pitch after each win, he found congratulatory notes from the group on the phone.

A big and extremely difficult task for the next generation and what’s behind them is still ahead: to enter the top 10 and become a fixture in the last few games of the biggest tournaments, as American women have performed, led by the Williams sisters. For years.

You are approaching.

“I expect we will do well in all of these tournaments now,” said Paul. “It’s about winning another game and going deeper than a round.”

Paul has never made the second week of a Grand Slam. On Friday, in the first day of a third round with a lot of American company, he will have another chance.