On Sunday, Jack Sock became the first American male tennis player to lift a Masters 1000 title since Andy Roddick did it all the way back in 2010. It has been seven long years. We all know the story. American athletes were more interested in other sports, those interested in tennis were taught a one dimensional game of the Serve and Forehand (S and F), and the rest of the world was busy churning out top class tennis players that the American athletes couldn’t compete with.
There is some element of truth to all this. The bottom line was that American tennis had fallen from its lofty heights. The only ray of light for American tennis came from the WTA in the form of a legendary player named Serena Williams. For years, Serena Williams remained the sole symbol of tennis dominance the U.S could lay claim to. That and a pair of gifted twins called The Bryan Brothers. However, the Bryan brothers have dipped in form over the last two years and while Serena Williams continued her dominant ways by capturing the Australian Open in 2017, one of life’s greatest miracles – childbirth – has kept her away from the game. In a nutshell, time will eventually overrun these two monuments of American pride. The yawning question was a simple one: What’s next for American tennis?
The answer to that question would come in the form of an iconic veteran, a few established players and a few young up and comers determined to slap their stamp on the game for good. We’ll start with the icon.
No one could have predicted the sort of year Venus Williams would put together in 2017. Venus Williams turned back the clock a full decade and then some when she slashed her way through to the Australian Open final. For two weeks, one of the game’s greatest exponents forgot how to lose. It took her much greater sister, playing in fine form, to remind her of that feeling. At the time, many chalked up Venus Williams’s run to the final of the season’s first grand slam as a one-off. She’d caught a rare break from the fatigue-inducing Sjogren’s syndrome. Surely she couldn’t pull off such a run again. Not at 36. She did. On her favorite surface, Venus Williams took on all comers and won. Once again she found herself in the final with a younger, formidable opponent on the other side. Once again she came up short. The same thing happened at the US Open semifinals against Sloane Stephens and at the WTA finals against Caroline Wozniacki. It is true. Venus Williams didn’t have enough to push through the last mile and grab the big titles of the year. However, she kept putting herself in a position to win, repeatedly. To do that at her age, with her condition, and against younger opponents, is remarkable. She has been one of the beautiful stories of 2017.
Sam Querrey and John Isner are 30 and 32 years old, respectively. Both of them possess two of the most potent serves in the game today and nobody likes to meet either player. On any day, they could play the type of tennis that causes upsets. John Isner proved that at the Laver Cup and did so again in the recently completed Paris Bercy Masters, where he played himself to within a hair’s breadth of qualifying for the World Tour Finals. Sam Querrey electrified the tennis world at the All England Club. He was a moving freight train in that tournament and only some sublime tennis from Marin Cilic in the semifinals was good enough to derail Querrey. Both men showed that big men’s tennis can be just as entertaining as that of the little men.
The Up and Comers
It is hard to think of Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe as up and comers. The average tennis follower is probably familiar with all three names. It feels like these players have been with us for… well… forever. But none of these players is older than 25 yet and they still have long careers ahead of them. Coco Vandeweghe has entertained us since the Australian Open. Her power game and confident (sometimes brash) personality are seductive at best and magnetic at least. Put simply, you cannot ignore this girl or her game. She proved that much again by reaching the semifinals of her home slam for the first time this year.
If the excitement over Coco Vandeweghe was loud, then that of Madison Keys’ run to the U.S Open final was resounding. Keys had finally learned how to channel her power and keep her ballistic missiles inside the lines. In so doing, she laid waste to the opposition, including an in-form Coco Vandeweghe, in the semifinals. Only a majestic Sloane Stephens could stop Madison Keys from taking home her first grand slam. And so we move on to her.
More than Serena Williams Australian Open win and Jack Sock’s recent Paris Bercy Master triumph, Sloane Stephens’ maiden grand slam victory, at her home tournament, showed that America has a bright future in tennis. Her victory marked the first time an American tennis player other than Serena Williams, had won a grand slam singles title since Venus Williams captured her fifth Wimbledon in 2008. In some ways, it also shows how well the William sisters have carried American tennis.
Finally, we come back to the start. Jack Sock. In some ways, it was always going to be him. He had a bit of fate on his side. The last American to lift a Masters 1000 title is also Nebraskan. Andy Roddick left a huge void in American men’s tennis when he hung up his racket in 2012. Jack Sock was 20 years old at the time. Five years later, he just might be ready to lead the charge as a new wave of talented players emerge from the States. Frances Tiafoe has had a revealing season and I expect him to improve tremendously next year. Sock’s latest win and his qualification for the year-end championships should fuel Tiafoe and other young players.
Seeing the Big Picture
If there’s anything missing from the jigsaw puzzle, it is consistency. Since winning the U.S Open, we haven’t heard much from Sloane Stephens and her other young counterparts (Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe). Sam Querrey’s red-hot form cooled off soon after Wimbledon and no one is really expecting Sock to make much of an impact at the World Tour Finals, despite his impressive victory in France. Getting more consistent will go a long way towards re-establishing America as a dominant force in tennis, just as she was in the 70s, 80s, and 90s.
What 2017 has proven is that players with the star spangled banner next to their name, can still play this beautiful game and play it well.