The U.S. Open Series kicks off the summer hard court season in North America leading up to the U.S. Open in New York. With both the WTA in Stanford, Calif. and the ATP in Atlanta this week, the fact that both events are on opposites sides of the U.S. in some ways highlights the divergent directions American men’s and women’s tennis are headed in right now.
American players look forward to this time of year where they often thrive playing with supportive home crowds on the familiar cement courts that they grew up learning the game on. But while U.S. women will be looking to add onto their impressive feats this season, their fellow countrymen will probably be hoping to make up for lost ground that included a disappointing showing at Wimbledon with no U.S. man making it into the third round for the first time since 1912.
Last year’s Stanford winner World No. 1 Serena Williams is not back to defend her title. But her absence will only add more spotlight to the ample crop of younger Americans in the draw who appear poised to make significant gains this summer.
Two U.S. players of note in Stanford include Jamie Hampton and Madison Keys. Hampton finds herself now the No. 3 American after a steady season of improving results that include knocking out Petra Kvitova at Roland Garros and reaching the finals of Eastbourne. With her athletic, all-court game, Hampton continues to be a difficult opponent for all who face her.
Then there is 18-year-old Keys who sits at a career high ranking of No. 44. With her massive serve and easy power on both wings, many feel Keys has the potential to be a future top five player – or better – so long as she can manage the weight of expectation already placed on her young shoulders.
Stanford will provide tennis prognosticators with more proof that the future of U.S. women’s tennis is looking very bright. However, Atlanta appears to offer only more question marks as to what to expect next from U.S. men’s tennis.
The absence of Andy Roddick, who won his final career ATP title in Atlanta before retiring at last year’s U.S. Open, will only add to the ongoing speculation of who might be ready to become the definitive heir apparent to Roddick’s long reign as U.S. No.1.
This year’s top seed John Isner, who is currently the second highest ranked American behind Sam Querrey, is still perceived to be the lone U.S. man with any sort of chance to possibly go deep at a major. Isner, who has struggled with off and on injuries this season, says he is healthy now and ready to make up for lost opportunities. With wins over Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer, Isner has proven in the past he can beat the very best. But if he can do it on a consistent basis remains to be seen.
Atlanta also marks the return of former top 10 player Mardy Fish. Fish, who has delayed his return to the tour in order to fully recover from a heart ailment, is something of a wildcard this summer as no one really knows how he will perform. Brian Baker, who has also put off his own return after rehabbing a knee injury suffered in Melbourne, is also TBD when it comes to when he might return to action.
Then there’s a group of younger players that are still very much in the “too soon to tell” category. One of those is Ryan Harrison who is now out of the top 100 after failing to make any headway this season. Others like Denis Kudla, Jack Sock and Rhyne Williams have all posted good results for one week only to resume trying to grind out wins the next. While any one of them could find inspiration now that they are back in the States, it is more likely they will all need several years to fine tune their games before they can start to achieve even top 20 status.
Though both Roddick and Williams continue to set the benchmarks as to how their younger American successors are judged, it is worth noting how each influenced in some ways, and not, the newer players on tour.
While the younger U.S. women acknowledge Williams and her long list of accomplishments, many don’t emulate her game style or cite her as the player they most admired when growing up. Belgian great Kim Clijsters is more often mentioned as the one younger U.S. pros looked up to while at the same time developing their own unique playing style not patterned on any one player that came before them.
It is rare if we don’t see a young American guy display some of Roddick’s innate swagger and his penchant for breaking racquets when down in a match. But though all of the American “young guns” owe some debt to Roddick’s influence, they would probably better off not emulating his trademark big serve, big forehand game too much.
Roddick’s Achilles heel was his lack of a reliable return of serve and that is once again becoming a trademark deficiency in a majority of the younger U.S. players that are on the rise. If one of them can make their return a key part of their game, then it could be their ticket to taking over Roddick’s former mantle as the man American fans root for the most when the long winding tennis season makes it way to the bright lights of New York once again.