The Americans are coming — back

At last, the tide seems to be turning for the US, especially on the women’s side. Let’s evaluate the leading American prospects and rate their potential.

Amanda Anisimova finished 2018 ranked No. 92 and has already shot up to No. 59, thanks to a strong performance at the Australian Open.   -  Getty Images

The Grand Slam title drought for United States men has dragged on for so long — 15 years — that the resigned media no longer pumps out “What’s wrong with American tennis?” stories. You may remember when Andy Roddick raised hopes that the US had a new millennium champion by winning the 2003 US Open at age 21. It wasn’t to be, though, as the big-serving Roddick was hampered by technical and tactical weaknesses. He never won another Grand Slam title.

In retrospect, the American decline seems shockingly precipitous. From 1989 to 2002, the Greatest Generation both blessed and spoiled us with an astounding 27 major titles — Pete Sampras (14), Andre Agassi (8), Jim Courier (4) and Michael Chang (1). Since 2003, only Roddick, Agassi, James Blake, Mardy Fish, Jack Sock and John Isner have even cracked the year-end top-10 rankings. Only Sock and Isner still compete on the ATP Tour; Sock has plummeted to No. 108, while Isner turns 34 in April. The last bastion of US men’s supremacy, doubles, can no longer be counted on either. The Bryan twins, Bob and Mike, who turn 41 in April, amassed a team record 16 Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal together, but their last major came in 2014.

What about American women? If you remove the legendary but fading Williams sisters — Serena, 37, and Venus, 38 — from the discussion, American women haven’t fared much better than the men. This century, only Jennifer Capriati at the 2002 Australian Open and Sloane Stephens at the 2017 US Open have hoisted Grand Slam trophies.

This long downward trend has several major causes. Our best athletes typically choose “major” sports; our leading players lack dedication, physical fitness, mental toughness, height, smart tactics or rock-solid strokes; and the rest of the world, especially Europe, where tennis is a major sport in many countries, eventually caught up with and surpassed the US.

At last, the tide seems to be turning, especially on the women’s side. Let’s evaluate the leading American prospects and rate their potential.

Amanda Anisimova

“Double A” appears first, alphabetically, among the Player Profiles in the 2019 WTA Media Guide. Within three years, she could appear first in the WTA rankings. The 17-year-old Anisimova finished 2018 ranked No. 92 and has already shot up to No. 59, thanks to a strong performance at the Australian Open. There she overpowered No. 24 Lesia Tsurenko 6-0, 6-2 and No. 11 Arnya Sabalenka, one of the pre-tournament favorites, 6-3, 6-2.

At Indian Wells last year, Anisimova upset No. 23 Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova 6-4, 6-1 and, most impressively, No. 9 Petra Kvitova 6-2, 6-4. These victories show Anisimova can already defeat high-level players decisively.

A fractured right foot sidelined Anisimova from both the clay and grass court circuits last year. Because she has no points to defend during this four-month period, her ranking will likely rise into the 20s, or perhaps even higher, by mid-summer.

That’s heady stuff for a 17-year-old, but poise ranks at the top of the blonde Miamian’s many assets. Anisimova has the calmness and concentration of Chris Evert on the court, and the relaxed demeanour of Roger Federer off it. She boasts virtually perfect technique for every stroke, though she needs to add another 5-10 mph to her second serve. At a slim 5’11”, she has the physique to generate power offensively and speed defensively.

Anisimova also possesses two more hallmarks of champions: confidence and ambition. After upsetting Sabalenka at Melbourne, she told reporters, “I want to win this tournament.”

With eight more majors to play before she turns 20, Anisimova has a real shot at becoming the first teenage Grand Slam champion since Maria Sharapova in 2006.

Potential: A+

Cori “Coco” Gauff

At the junior Wimbledon last year, Cori Gauff blasted a 120mph serve, surpassed in women’s speed only by Serena (125mph) and Venus Williams (123mph).   -  Getty Images

 

The greatest asset of 14-year-old Coco Gauff is a superior physique, much like that of Serena and Venus, her idols. A powerfully built 5’10”, 160-pound athlete with broad shoulders, Gauff boasts the upper-body strength of a boxer and the explosive speed of a sprinter — which she was before concentrating on tennis.

As a 13-year-old prodigy, Gauff reached the 2017 US Open junior final. Last June, she became the fifth-youngest player in history at 14 to win the French Open junior title. And at the junior Wimbledon a month later, Gauff blasted a 120mph serve, surpassed in women’s speed only by Serena (125mph) and Venus (123mph).

The WTA age-eligibility rules (sensibly designed to reduce physical and mental burnout) prevent Gauff from playing a full schedule of pro tournaments until she turns 18. So, the curious tennis world will get only occasional glimpses of her precocious talent. Gauff, who is world-ranked just 581, will surely get a wild card at some WTA events, such as the Miami Open starting March 19.

Gauff is coached mainly by her 6’2” father Corey who played basketball at Georgia State University, but they also periodically visit Patrick Mouratoglou’s tennis academy in France. While a team of coaches instruct Coco, Mouratoglou mentors Corey. Coco harbours the burning ambition and competitiveness of the Williams sisters, but equally important, the dedication to put in the hard yards of training to hone her strokes and footwork.

Like Anisimova, Gauff has sky-high potential and a real chance to win a Grand Slam title as a teenager. “She’s amazing because she’s an incredible fighter and she is an incredible athlete,” Mouratoglou told CNN. “She goes for her shots and takes the risks.” That’s exactly what champions do.

Potential: A+

Danielle Collins

Danielle Collins advanced further than any American at the Australian Open, including fifth-seeded Sloane Stephens, 16th-seeded Serena Williams and 17th-seeded Madison Keys.   -  Getty Images

 

Danielle Collins was the surprise sensation of the Australian Open, reaching the semifinals. Collins advanced further than any American, including fifth-seeded Sloane Stephens, 16th-seeded Serena Williams and 17th-seeded Madison Keys. The 25-year-old Floridian slaughtered No. 2 Angelique Kerber 6-0, 6-2, knocked out No. 19 Carolina Garcia 6-3, 6-2 and edged both No. 14 Julia Goerges and Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in three-setters.

On grabbing her first five singles victories at a major in Melbourne, the ultra-confident Collins said: “I may not have won a Grand Slam match before this tournament, but I gotta tell you I think it’s going to keep on happening. I hope to have many more of these.”

All-time great Evert is high on Collins. “The belief, the cockiness, will be an asset and help her win a lot of matches,” said Evert.

A strong backhand, a never-say-die spirit and no significant weaknesses will likely propel the ambitious, 5’10” Collins into the top 15, and perhaps even the top 10.

Potential: B+

Catherine Bellis

CiCi Bellis began 2018 auspiciously by upsetting world No. 5 Karolina Pliskova to reach the Qatar Open quarterfinals, but was sidelined soon after by recurring injuries and underwent surgeries in June, September and November.   -  Getty Images

 

Nicknamed “CiCi,” Bellis immediately went from a 15-year-old junior star to a bona fide pro prospect in her Grand Slam debut at the 2014 US Open.

In a first-round shocker, the California kid took out 13th-seeded Dominika Cibulkova, making her the youngest player to win a match at Flushing Meadows since Anna Kournikova in 1996.

Seventeen months later, at the 2017 Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, No. 70-ranked Bellis upset No. 6 Agnieszka Radwańska to become the youngest American, at age 17, to defeat a top-10 opponent since 2009. Her ranking peaked at No. 35 and the international media voted her the 2017 WTA Newcomer of the Year.

Bellis began 2018 auspiciously by upsetting world No. 5 Karolina Pliskova to reach the Qatar Open quarterfinals. Unfortunately, soon thereafter, she was sidelined by recurring wrist and elbow injuries and underwent surgeries in June, September and November to treat them.

A steady baseliner with excellent strokes and smart tactics, Bellis can be overpowered. But she has a winner’s record and mentality and should rank between 10 and 20 during her prime.

Potential: B+

Sofia Kenin

At the Australian Open, Sofia Kenin won her first-round match and then extended No. 1 Simona Halep to 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 in an impressive loss.   -  AFP

 

Can a woman 5’7” or shorter win a Grand Slam title in a sport where tall players increasingly rule? Sloane Stephens at 5’7” and Simona Help at 5’6” did vertically challenged people proud by grabbing their first major titles at the 2017 US Open and 2018 French Open, respectively.

At the Australian Open, Kenin, a 5’7” Floridian, won her first-round match and then extended No. 1 Halep to 6-3, 6-7, 6-4 in an impressive loss. That boosted her world ranking to No. 36.

A wonderful competitor, Kenin possesses solid groundstrokes and modest power, but not outstanding athletic ability (like Stephens) or superlative groundstrokes (like Halep) or a strong serve (like 5’5” Ash Barty) to stave off as many as seven power players at a major.

The ceiling for the 20-year Kenin will likely be No. 15 in the rankings with an occasional semifinal at a major.

Potential: B

Frances Tiafoe

“It means the world. I worked my ass off, man. I told my parents 10 years ago I was going to be a pro and change my life, change their life. Now I’m in the quarters of a Slam,” a tearful Frances Tiafoe said at the Australian Open.   -  Getty Images

 

“Frances is going to have a great future ahead of himself,” predicted Roger Federer after the 19-year-old Tiafoe extended the Swiss great to 4-6, 6-2, 6-1, 1-6, 6-4 at the 2017 US Open. Tiafoe improved his serve and poise on pressure points in 2018 and moved up from No. 79 to No. 39 in the year-end rankings. At the 2019 Australian Open, Tiafoe, whose parents fled a bloody civil war in Sierra Leone, captivated the fans with his feel-good story.

Talking to the crowd after making the quarterfinals, a tearful Tiafoe said, “It means the world. I worked my ass off, man. I told my parents 10 years ago I was going to be a pro and change my life, change their life. Now I’m in the quarters of a Slam.”

The maturing, 21-year-old Marylander beat No. 5 and US Open finalist Kevin Anderson in four sets, Andreas Seppi, who upset Federer at Melbourne four years ago, and No. 20 Grigor Dimitrov in four sets.

Easygoing off the court but intense on it, the muscular 6’2”, 190-pound Tiafoe said, “I love the big stage.” With abundant strength, speed, athleticism and competitiveness, how high Tiafoe ascends will depend on how much he improves his overly flat backhand and tactical acumen.

Potential: A-

Reilly Opelka

At the Australian Open, the 6’11½” Reilly Opelka upset ninth-seeded, 6’10” John Isner 7-6, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, in a match that set a record for the most cumulative height.   -  AFP

 

At 6’11½”, Reilly Opelka looks more like an NBA centre. But the 21-year-old Floridian is no tennis freak. He can play, as he showed at the Australian Open when he upset ninth-seeded, 6’10” John Isner 7-6, 7-6, 6-7, 7-6, in a match that set a record for the most cumulative height.

Opelka, thwarted by injuries during 2016-17 and sidelined for five weeks in 2018 with mononucleosis, is finally healthy and coming into his own. Like Isner, he blasts serves over 140mph and is a veritable ace machine. However, he moves faster and hits backhands better than Isner. On February 16, Opelka defeated Isner again, saving six match points, en route to winning the New York Open, his first ATP title. His ranking soared 33 places to a career-high No. 56.

Unlike basketball, where much of the action is high, tennis requires dealing with plenty of low groundstrokes and volleys. These difficult low shots become even tougher if you’re nearly seven feet tall. How low and skilfully Opelka can go for them may determine how high he will go in the rankings.

Potential: A-

Taylor Fritz

Taylor Fritz reached the Australian Open third round with solid wins over Cameron Norrie and Gael Monfils. Roger Federer then schooled him 6-2, 7-5, 6-2.   -  Getty Images

 

After finishing 2016 ranked 76th and named ATP Newcomer of the Year, Fritz has been intermittently derailed by injuries. The 21-year-old Californian is healthy now and scored an impressive 7-6, 7-6 win over John Isner at Auckland. “I like to think that one of the strengths of my game is playing under pressure and playing the big moments well,” said Fritz. Indeed, his splendid 9-2 tiebreaker record this season (and 22-10 in 2018) backs that up.

Fritz reached the Australian Open third round with solid wins over Cameron Norrie and Gael Monfils. Roger Federer then schooled him 6-2, 7-5, 6-2. “Yes, a real lesson,” acknowledged Fritz. “I’m going to be better because of this match, I’ll tell you that.”

“Taylor is one of the cleanest ball strikers to emerge in recent times,” a former world top-10 player told me. “His weaknesses, which were blatantly exposed by Federer, are movement — funnily, the 37-year-old ran circles around the 21-year old — and an inability to transition forward.”

The 6’4” Fritz currently ranks a career-high No. 40. With the top-notch coaching of Paul Annacone and David Nainkin, Fritz should enhance his versatility and refine his tactics. That will improve his results on clay, where he has yet to win a match at the French Open or at a Masters event, and also on grass. Fritz should break into the top 20 within two years.

Potential: B+

Christopher Eubanks

This intriguing prospect has a skimpy resume but plenty of potential. The 6’7” Georgia Tech star, named ACC Player of the Year in 2016 and 2017, may turn out to be a late-bloomer like Danielle Collins, another outstanding college player.

An explosive serve and potent forehand make Eubanks a prototypical 21st-century player. He moves much better than the other 6’6” or taller competitors on the ATP Tour.

At the Australian Open, Eubanks won three qualifying matches, including a 7-6, 6-3 victory over the talented Felix Auger-Aliassime, before losing a close four-setter to No. 20 Nikoloz Basilashvili. That boosted his ranking to a career-high No. 157.

The 22-year-old Eubanks will need at least two years on the tour to strengthen his one-handed backhand, polish his volley, and gain the requisite experience.

Potential: B+