Young Americans On The Rise

Watching this year‘s Australian Open was more fun than it has been in several years: The Djokovic story, Tsitsipas coming into his own,  the women absolutely crushing the ball, and the American men winning, winning and more winning. All of these storylines made the Aussie Open an overnight affair for me the last two weeks while I attempted to sleep at the right times to stave off exhaustion. While I am a vocal Djokovic fan, the pull for the American men was as strong as it has been in years. The young Americans, in droves, made such a huge statement in Melbourne that the perceived failure of American men’s tennis has once and for all been put to bed.

With no fewer than eight men in the round of 32, the US had its strongest showing in 28 years. And what’s surprising about this success is the fact that some notable American players, including Isner, Opelka and Nakashima, weren’t part of that eight. Three of those eight players made the quarterfinals. Tommy Paul, Ben Shelton, and Sebastian Korda, who took out grand slam winner and former number one Medvedev, hung around well into the second week of the slam. Michael Mmoh, a player almost no one had heard of, beat Alex Zverev in round two, and now stands at #83 in the current ATP rankings. Many U.S. players took out seeds on their way to strong showings. It wasn’t a lucky tournament where the stars lined up just right. We are simply good again . . . and young!

An interesting question for the American audience is “Why are we strong again in the men’s top 100 ATP rankings?“ Our women have never left the stage of tennis greatness with the Williams sisters dominating the tour for the last 20 years and several other American women winning the biggest tournaments. The first reason for the rise of American men is athletic development. Our guys are world-class athletes now. The American model for tennis development has been to simply play more tennis. Up until 20 years ago this “play all day” model had worked well for us. Out work everybody on the court, and you can make it with your stroke production and shot tolerance was the typical line of thinking. Meanwhile, the foreign players, especially Europeans, were training and playing in other sports, including soccer, and they were coming out of national sports institutions with overall athletic training development as a main priority. Needless to say, we fell behind. Only when Federer and then Nadal became champions did the light go off in the American development model. Roger and Rafa were so obviously athletically trained and talented that our coaches and parents of young players could now visibly see that the best approach was to become a world class athlete who plays tennis. The bar had been raised so significantly that we all could now see it. These current American men have been training to be pro athletes since they were seven or eight years old. The focus now is on strength, flexibility, plyometrics, track work, cardio, speed, speed and more speed. There is no entrance to the top of ATP tennis unless you’re athletic enough. The only exception to this rule are giant players with huge serves who do not have to rely as much on athleticism. 

Moreover, we now have the most players in the ATP top hundred because sports are so prevalent in the US. Many of our kids want to be professional athletes because we are inundated with professional sports figures in our daily lives and in our culture. Even though the sports figures are rarely tennis players, we are all inspired by our American superstar athletes that make up probably half of the worlds best sports heroes: LeBron James, Tom Brady, OBJ, Steph Curry, Serena Williams, Michael Phelps, Tiger Woods, and Mike Trout are a handful of names that are ubiquitous in our social consciousness. The US has the best sporting tradition in the world by far, which helps inspire our young athletes. ESPN “SportsCenter “is an American staple. Video games like FIFA 23 and Madden NFL 23 keep our star athletes in front of our young athletes and help inspire them to be great also.

We also have so many top 50 and top 100 ATP players because the US offers so many pro events. We have always had more than our share of top-level ATP tournaments, but we have now added more Futures ($15,000 and $25,000) and especially Challengers ($80,000 to $125,000) to the American schedule. This enhanced schedule allows our players to stay in the US almost exclusively during their rise up the rankings. Ben Shelton never left the US to crack the top 100. Players can be comfortable with time zones, cuisine, and culture on their ascent up the pro rankings. It also makes touring so much more affordable, so that family, coaches, and friends can participate in the process. None of these players want to go to Europe and around the world for the minor leagues, and now they don’t have to.

Young American success is most importantly a result of the team dynamic that has become quite common. They have all grown up together, and they like each other. They’re friends. They train together, and hang out together, which allows their social and their professional lives to interconnect. Like the Spaniards 20 years ago, our young men are buddies. And this ingredient is significant. They look forward to the trips together. They go to the European clay to battle it out as well as the grass of England and Germany together. Asia in the fall encourages another another group affair led by our core of Fritz, Tiafoe, Kudla, Shelton, Opelka, Korda, Wolfe, Nakashima, Brooksby, Mmoh, Paul, McDonald, Eubanks, Cressi, Giron, Johnson and Isner. Tennis for Americans has been a sport of isolation since the 1970s, but this has now radically changed to become more of a team sport for our guys. Without a doubt, they are reaching lofty levels of success because of it. 

With much stronger athletes, a larger offering of lower level, professional tournaments opportunities, and the friendship/team atmosphere of our young Americans, we are on our way to continued success on the ATP Tour. In order to continue the success, our players results will have to continue to improve. It will be exciting to see who will crack the ATP Top 5 first, and which players will make the Top 20 together. And the all-important question remains: “Which American will win the first grand slam tournament since Roddick in 2003?” Fritz, Tiafoe, Shelton, Brooksby and Korda are several of the names that we are going to be talking about for the next 5 to 10 years. The pressure is on, but our young guns can handle it.

Mitch Bridge
Bridge the Gap Tennis

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