It might not be too late for some of America's young hopefuls to join the ranks of tennis' elite, but for many, their runs in the 2012 French Open might not last too much longer (if they are still going at all).
As the first Tuesday of the 2012 French Open nears its midway point, let's take a look at another one of the themes I identified at the end of January's Australian Open. American women stole some headlines by going undefeated in the first round; how are the American men doing (both this fortnight and overall)?
U.S. Tennis Is In Dire Straits (But You Probably Knew That Already)
And this says nothing of the men's side. Yes, there are eight American men in the Top 100, but three (Mardy Fish, Andy Roddick, James Blake) are at least 28, and three others (John Isner, Ryan Sweeting, Sam Querrey) are already 24. No pressure, No. 42 Donald Young and No. 77 Ryan Harrison. Harrison in particular is an interesting, well-rounded player, but again, placing all of your hopes in one or two players is never good … especially when none of them can survive past the midway point of the first week of the Australian Open. Tennis has never been stronger, but it has left the U.S. behind.
During Sam Querrey's four-set loss to No. 8 Janko Tipsarevic Tuesday morning, you could almost hear a hopeful but skeptical tone in ESPN announcers' voices. Querrey's looking good! He won the first set, 6-2! He's moving his feet well, he's killing the ball ... now he just needs to hold on and keep from getting negative if Tipsarevic turns the tables.
Fifteen minutes later, after Tipsarevic indeed turned the tables, Querrey had no effective answer. The talk shifted to his negative body language and the fact that he was not only missing forehands but dumping them into the bottom of the net. He battled back to force a third-set tiebreaker, but the result seemed preordained the moment Tipsarevic was able to counter Querrey's early power.
This has been the story for much of the 24-year-old's career. At 6-foot-6, he is a big server with huge ground strokes, and he could very easily become a Top 20 player if he can stay healthy (he missed a good portion of 2011 with an elbow injury). But when things go wrong, when he encounters a fighter who can run him from side to side and counter-punch, he doesn't really have an answer.
It's not too late for him, of course. At 24, he is two to three years younger than the average Top 20 player. Tennis is currently not as much of a young man's game as one might think. Tennis fans (like me) in their early- to mid-30s grew up watching Boris Becker win Wimbledon at 17 in 1985 and "late arrival" Pete Sampras win the U.S. Open at 19 in 1990. Andre Agassi "finally" won his first grand slam tournament at 22. It takes a while to tamp down preconceived notions. But with power and endurance almost at their saturation point -- it's hard for a young hotshot to blow a veteran off the court when he barely holds a physical advantage (19-year old Bernard Tomic and 21-year old Milos Raonic are attempting to prove this theory wrong) -- the best players in the game these days are also rather experienced. The average age of the current ATP Top 10: 26.8 years. The average age of players No. 11-20: 26.1. The only Top 20 players under 25 are Juan Martin Del Potro (No. 9), Kei Nishikori (No. 18) and Alexandr Dolgopolov (No. 19). So Querrey certainly still has some time, as do younger Americans like No. 51 Donald Young (22 years old) and No. 56 Ryan Harrison (20).
Meanwhile, John Isner's surge to No. 11 in the world at age 27 perhaps isn't as much of an outlier as it first seemed to me. Isner appears to be hitting his athletic prime, and the results have followed. The former Georgia Bulldog, and No. 10 seed, took out Roger Federer on clay in Davis Cup action earlier this year and cruised in his first-round match against Brazilian Rogerio Dutra Silva this week. Next up for Isner: Paul-Henri Mathieu, a 30-year old Frenchman ranked 261st in the world. Assuming he advances past Mathieu, Isner will likely face No. 20 Marcel Granollers in the third round.
Still, it probably says something that America's hottest young hopeful is not actually young at all. Brian Baker, once a top American prospect, barely played tennis for half a decade, recovering from three hip surgeries, an elbow surgery and a sports hernia. A month into his 28th year, the righty from Nashville has risen to 141st in the world, made the finals at Nice last week, and took out tricky Xavier Malisse in straight sets in the first round at Roland Garros. His is a wonderful story, but he will need to pull off one of his best results to date to keep this a story for much longer: he takes on 11-seed Gilles Simon in the second round. (Simon has already ended the French Open story for one American. He needed four sets to get past Ryan Harrison in the first round in what we will call a spirited match.)
Baker, Querrey, Young, Harrison and 24-year old Jesse Levine give America some interesting prospects to follow. Meanwhile, two of the most familiar Americans are on their way out. Andy Roddick, whose body seems to be betraying him from an injury perspective, lost to Nicolas Mahut in four sets; Roddick was outserved in a match decided by break points -- incredibly, Mahut won all seven of his break opportunities against Roddick's big serve while saving seven of Roddick's 10. James Blake, a ripe old 32 years of age, faces No. 27 Mikhail Youzhny later on Tuesday.
Jesse Levine whipped Benjamin Becker in the first round on Tuesday and will next face the aforementioned young Canadian hotshot, Milos Raonic.
Other Tuesday matches to follow (TV schedule here):
- Women's 1st Round: No. 5 Serena Williams vs. Virginie Razzano. It appears that Serena has once again found her top form. The 30-year-old is 17-0 on clay this season and faces the veteran Razzano in the first round. Williams probably will not replicate Maria Sharapova's ridiculous dominance from earlier on Tuesday -- Sharapova lost just 18 points in defeating and demoralizing Alexandra Cadantu, 6-0, 6-0 -- but she should advance comfortably.
- Men's 1st Round: No. 4 Andy Murray vs. Tatsuma Ito. Four months ago, the primary Andy Murray narrative was how well he played at the Australian Open and how close he might be to turning tennis' Big Three (Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer) into a Big Four. Now, he is facing questions about his "dodgy back" and whether he should be playing in the French Open at all. Murray can silence the questions with some early-round dominance.
- Women's 1st Round: No. 9 Caroline Wozniacki vs. Eleni Daniilidou. Carolina Wozniacki was still ranked No. 1 in January of this year. She lost the top spot when she fell to Kim Clijsters in the quarterfinals of the Australian Open, and she has kept on losing. To Lucie Safarova in the second round at Qatar. To Ana Ivanovic in the fourth round at Indian Wells. To Angelique Kerber in the second round at Stuttgart. To Anabel Medina Garrigues in the second round at Rome. He ranking is ranking is falling apart quickly, and she needs to at least match last year's French Open performance (she was knocked out in the third round) to avoid even further regression.
- Men's 1st Round: Marcos Baghdatis vs. Juan Ignacio Chela. Because Baghdatis is incredibly entertaining for better or for worse, and he probably won't be around for very long. Watch him while you can (and if you can).