|Taylor Fritz won back-to-back Challengers in Northern Cali-|
fornia just before his 18th birthday. 2015 photo
by Paul Bauman
You remember the United States, right?
Used to be pretty good in men's tennis.
Cranked out Hall of Famers the way John Grisham does bestsellers.
Twenty years ago, had the top two players in the world (Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi), three of the top five (including Michael Chang) and four of the top eight (with Jim Courier).
Collected Davis Cups the way Meryl Streep racks up Oscar nominations.
Eclipsed by Spain, Switzerland, Serbia, Great Britain, Canada and Burkina Faso. Doing about as well as Detroit.
Hasn't won a Grand Slam singles title since Harry Potter was in his fifth year at Hogwarts (2003).
Hasn't won a Davis Cup since the U.S. economy was thriving (2007).
Has no one in the top 10 and one player, No. 11 John Isner, in the top 25.
Sure, the Bryan brothers have won a record 16 Grand Slam men's doubles titles, but because the top singles players rarely play doubles and it consequently receives little television exposure, few care.
Jack Sock, 23, and Steve Johnson, 25, are rising in the rankings at No. 26 and No. 32, respectively. Sock already owns two Grand Slam doubles titles: men's doubles with Vasek Pospisil of Canada at Wimbledon last year and mixed doubles with countrywoman Melanie Oudin in the 2011 U.S. Open.
And behind Sock, who turned pro out of high school, and Johnson, who led USC to four NCAA titles, comes a wave of top U.S. teenagers.
|Stefan Kozlov, 17, told The New York Times|
last year, "I think the next generation is going
to be huge. And I think it's coming soon, to be
honest." 2014 photo by Paul Bauman
That would buck a trend of players peaking between 25 and 30 in today's physical game (translation: courts are slower, which means more rallies, which means higher television ratings, which means more money).
Still, the United States has more top prospects than at any time in memory.
It began with a trickle in December 2013 when 15-year-old Frances Tiafoe became the youngest boy to win the Orange Bowl, the most prestigious junior tournament in the world outside of the Grand Slams.
The trickle became a stream last year when Noah Rubin, then 18, defeated Kozlov, 16 at the time, in the first all-American boys singles final at Wimbledon since 1977. Then Kozlov, playing with a sore elbow, became the third-youngest American to reach a final on the Challenger tour (equivalent to Triple A in baseball).
Three different Americans have won the last three Grand Slam junior singles titles: Tommy Paul (French), 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) Reilly Opelka (Wimbledon) and Taylor Fritz (U.S. Open).
In fact, only once in those tournaments has a non-American reached the final. Paul defeated Fritz to join McEnroe (1977) and Bjorn Fratangelo (2011) as the only Americans to win the French Open boys title. It was the first all-American final in the 68-year history of the junior boys event. Opelka topped Mikael Ymer of Sweden at Wimbledon, and Fritz beat Paul in the U.S. Open.
Earlier in the U.S. Open, Paul became the only American to emerge from men's qualifying. He lost to 25th-seeded Andreas Seppi, an Italian veteran who stunned Roger Federer in the third round of the Australian Open in January, in straight sets in the first round of the main draw.
Fritz won back-to-back Northern California Challengers in Sacramento ($100,000) and Fairfield ($50,000) in October and reached the final of last month's $50,000 Champaign (Ill.) Challenger. He became the ninth boy to win multiple Challenger titles before his 18th birthday.
|Frances Tiafoe, 17, reached the semifinals of the $50,000 Fairfield (Calif.)|
Challenger in October. 2015 photo by Paul Bauman
In the following two weeks, Tiafoe and Fritz advanced to the finals of $50,000 Challengers in Knoxville, Tenn., and Champaign, Ill., respectively.
Meanwhile, three of the top four juniors in the International Tennis Federation's world rankings and four of the top 10 are American. Fritz is No. 1, followed by No. 3 Paul, No. 4 Opelka, and No. 10 Michael Mmoh (who was No. 2 in September before playing exclusively in pro tournaments).
"I think (the future) looks good with everyone coming up because it's so deep," Fritz said in Sacramento. "There's not just one or two. There's a lot of people who can do well, and I think we're going to push each other. In the end, that's going to help us all."
Denis Kudla, the only U.S. man to reach the second week of Wimbledon this year, agreed with Fritz about the young Americans.
"I think they're very good," the 23-year-old Kudla, the sixth-ranked American at No. 69, said after falling to countryman and training partner Tim Smyczek in the final of the $100,000 Tiburon (Calif.) Challenger in October. "They have all the potential in the world to get to the top of the game, but it's going to come down to if they develop in the right way, if they become stronger mentally and physically, if they understand how to play this game the right way. It's not all about ball-striking ...
"This game is so mental. Some people don't understand how mental it is. I think it's more mental than it is ball-striking. Everyone can hit the ball well, but if you play every single point and you're there mentally, you'll shock yourself how many matches you can win. The guy who's tougher mentally will beat a better ball-striker most of the time. That's the biggest thing, and obviously being in incredible shape because the game is so physical now."
|Tommy Paul, 18, was the only American man to emerge from U.S. Open|
qualifying. He is shown in a loss to 25th-seeded Andreas Seppi of Italy
in the first round. 2015 photo by Paul Bauman
"We've been working a lot with this generation since they were 12, 13 years old and even before," Diego Moyano, a USTA lead national coach, said in Sacramento. "At the USTA, we've been putting a lot of attention on developing that generation and even the next one. We try to recognize talent at young ages and start working really hard helping parents and private coaches to develop them the best way we can. We started like six years ago, and we start seeing some of the results right now. It's a process that takes time.
"We've been very strict on their development and are trying to push them to get better every day. So far, we are on the right track. Now we go to the next step, which is a very tough moment, the process of going from the best juniors to the best pro players they can."
Indeed, success in juniors and Challengers guarantees nothing.
Ten years ago, the Grand Slam junior boys champions were American Donald Young (Australian Open), Croatia's Marin Cilic (French Open), France's Jeremy Chardy (Wimbledon) and American Ryan Sweeting (U.S. Open). Cilic, last year's U.S. Open champion, is the only one to have reached a Grand Slam men's semifinal. Sweeting is best known as the estranged husband of "Big Bang Theory" star Kaley Cuoco.
The record holder for most season singles titles on the USTA Pro Circuit, of which Challengers are the highest level, is American Ben McKown with seven in 1980. Remember him? Didn't think so.
|Jared Donaldson, 19, is the highest-ranked U.S. teenager at No. 135|
in the world. 2015 photo by Paul Bauman
The bad news is that four teenagers from around the world are far ahead of the Americans. Borna Coric, 19, of Croatia is ranked 44th and already owns victories over Nadal and Murray. Two other 19-year-olds, Hyeon Chung of South Korea and 6-foot-5 (1.96-meter) Thanasi Kokkinakis of Australia, are ranked 51st and 80th, respectively. Six-foot-six (1.98-meter) Alexander Zverev, an 18-year-old German, is No. 83.
The highest-ranked U.S. teenager is the 19-year-old Donaldson at No. 135.
The U.S. teens come from diverse, and in many cases unusual, backgrounds. All have turned pro, and all but Mmoh have played in the Sacramento Challenger in the past three years. Tiafoe, Opelka and Paul, in addition to Fritz and Donaldson, competed there in October. Kozlov made his run last year, and Rubin appeared briefly two years ago.
The tennis familyPedigree, power and poise -- Fritz appears to be the whole package.
His mother (Kathy May), father (Guy Fritz) and uncle (Harry Fritz) all played professionally. May climbed to No. 10 in the world and played in three Grand Slam quarterfinals. Guy is one of Taylor's coaches.
|Fritz's serve is reminiscent of -- dare we say it? -- his idol Pete Sampras'.|
2015 photo by Paul Bauman
Nor was Taylor needed as a cash cow. May comes from the family that started the May Company, a chain of Southern California department stores that merged with J.W. Robinson's in 1993 and Macy's in 2006.
Fritz, from Rancho Santa Fe in the San Diego area, went to the USTA center in Boca Raton, Fla., two years ago to train.
"When I first went there, there were like 16 kids, and I was the worst," Fritz said on espn.com. "There were 16 Americans, and I couldn't beat anyone. I was the worst one there. I just remember realizing that and thinking, 'Wow, I'm not as good as I thought I was.' Then I just was working insanely hard."
Fritz developed a smooth, easy service motion reminiscent of -- dare we say it? -- Sampras'. That's no concidence; Sampras is Fritz's idol.
"Just because he's a big-serving guy, a powerful player," the 6-foot-4 (1.93-meter) Fritz said of his fellow Southern Californian after winning the Fairfield title. "I just really like his game style. Most people think he's the best American tennis player of all time. I try to model my serve after him, too."
Fritz, who turned 18 on Oct. 28, showed an uncanny ability to play his best under pressure en route to his titles in Sacramento and Fairfield. He saved three match points and 13 of 14 break points in his 6-7 (3), 7-6 (5), 7-6 (7) victory over third-seeded Dustin Brown, 30, in the second round in Sacramento. Fritz then disposed of Brown in 57 minutes for the Fairfield title.
|Fritz has skyrocketed from No. 694 to No. 177|
in eight weeks. 2015 photo by Paul Bauman
Fritz escaped 15 of 16 break points in his 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 win over Donaldson in the Sacramento final and 13 of 14 in his five Fairfield matches combined.
Matt Reid, a 25-year-old Australian, is 1-1 against Fritz. Reid won 6-4, 3-6, 6-3 in the first round of a $10,000 Futures tournament in Costa Mesa in Southern California in September 2014, when Fritz was 16. Fritz triumphed 6-3, 7-6 (4) in the Sacramento semifinals in October.
Reid recently recalled his first match against Fritz.
"He was unknown to me back then," Reid admitted recently in Sacramento. "I thought it was going to be a great draw, but it was an absolute battle. I told him after the match he was going to be a great player, and he's already No. 1 in the world in the juniors, so he's started pretty quick.
"On big points, he just came up massive. He believed in himself. Massive serve, massive forehand, and he kept calm the whole time. I thought straight away he was going to be really good, and sure enough, he's killing it in the juniors. It's good to see."
That was before Fritz won the two straight Challengers and reached another final to rise to No. 177 in the world. Eight weeks ago, he was No. 694.
Out of AfricaIt's a classic rags-to-(potential) riches story.
As an emigrant from Sierra Leone in West Africa in the late 1990s, Constant Tiafoe took a job helping to build the Junior Tennis Champions Center in the Washington, D.C., suburb of College Park, Md., Sports Illustrated reported in June 2014.
His twin sons, Frances and Franklin, hung out in a 140-square-foot room at the center and started to play tennis at age 3 or 4. Frances couldn't get enough of the game and developed quickly.
|Tiafoe is "an incredible talent," said No. 69 Denis Kudla, who has known|
Tiafoe since the prospect was 4 years old. 2015 photo by Paul Bauman
"His ball-striking and physical abilities are pretty incredible. He's an incredible mover, he reads the game so well, and he has every shot in the book. All he needs to get to the highest level is his mind, to be able to control his emotions and learn how the play this game the right way. He has all the talent in the world."
Tiafoe, the youngest of the group at 17 (he was born 10 days after Mmoh), has skyrocketed from No. 816 in March to No. 180. He reached the semifinals in Fairfield and held two match points in a 4-6, 7-5, 7-6 (7) loss to the fourth-seeded Smyczek in the first round in Sacramento.
After that match, Smyczek compared the 6-foot-2 (1.88-meter), 170-pound (77-kilogram) Tiafoe with Donaldson and Kozlov.
"It's a little different style," said the 5-foot-9 (1.75-meter) Smyczek, who's 1-0 lifetime against Tiafoe, 3-2 against Donaldson and 2-1 against Kozlov. "He's miles ahead of those two physically. He's built like an ox. He's really fast but maybe a little less disciplined than a Donaldson and maybe doesn't have quite the same feel as a Kozlov. But he's an unbelievable shotmaker, and he doesn't lack in confidence. All three of those kids have a lot of confidence."
Tiafoe, with his loose wrist, has an unorthodox yet overpowering serve and forehand. His two-handed backhand is a weapon, too. His biggest issue is a volatile temper.
"I really want to be a top-10 pro, dominate the game and hopefully win a Grand Slam," Tiafoe said in October during the Sacramento Challenger. "Obviously, that's everyone's goal, but I really think I can do that, and I work toward that every day I step on the practice court. I give it my all every day."
The gauchoDonaldson has always been an outsider. He grew up in Rhode Island and trained on clay in Argentina for 2 1/2 years in his early teens. He works with the father-son team of former pro players Phil and Taylor Dent in Irvine, Calif., rather than with USTA coaches.
|Donaldson has devastating flat groundstrokes|
on both sides. 2015 photo by Paul Bauman
"We looked into Florida and Spain, but I had a connection to Argentina through one of my coaches in Rhode Island," Donaldson -- who lived in Buenos Aires with his father, Courtney -- explained recently in Sacramento. "He lined up a coach and a place to stay. We took the risk and went down there, and I had a really good experience."
Donaldson returned to the United States in early 2013. Eighteen months later, he reached his first Challenger semifinal, losing to Smyczek 3-6, 6-4, 6-3 in Napa. Afterward, Smyczek said the 6-foot-2 (1.88-meter) Donaldson has "a lot of potential. He's got a couple of big weapons (the serve and forehand), but the main thing is he's so solid with everything he does. You don't see that very often in a player his age.
"Usually, good players his age have a glaring weakness, and he doesn't. He could be a heck of a player. He already is. If he keeps working hard -- he's got a great coach in Taylor Dent -- the sky's the limit. He's a great talent."
Donaldson has a devastating flat forehand and two-handed backhand. After the seventh-seeded Donaldson's 6-3, 2-6, 6-4 victory over the top-seeded Kudla in the Sacramento semifinals in October, Kudla aptly said Donaldson "was lasering winners left and right. I did everything I could. ... "
Though calmer than Tiafoe, Donaldson also might need to curb his emotions. Midway through the first set of the Sacramento final, he alienated the crowd by arguing with the chair umpire about line calls.
The new IsnerTwo nights before the start of qualifying for the recent Sacramento Challenger, tournament director Brian Martinez heard a loud pop on one of the courts. It was Opelka practicing with Paul.
"He was just crushing forehands," Martinez recalled. "Very relaxed, very easy. ... He's like a young Isner who moves better. He has a better backhand than Isner does."
Opelka, 18, has a huge upside, but at his height probably will take longer to develop than his peers. He's ranked only No. 975.
"As tall as (Opelka) is, he's a very good athlete," Moyano stated. "He moves really well. He has a massive serve. Technically from the ground, he's very good.
"As tall as he is, obviously there are more pieces to put together, but he understands that. He's working on his baseline game as well as his net game. That's something he needs to improve and understand -- how to move to the net and maybe accept that he's going to miss a little bit more than the other guys (from the baseline)."
|The 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) Reilly Opelka|
"has a massive serve," USTA coach Diego
Moyano said. 2015 photo by Paul Bauman
"With a serve like (Opelka's) and you're already at (the Challenger) level, you have great potential," Nielsen observed. "The top hundred is a given. From there, I find it very difficult to tell what separates the guys. The next few years will show mentally what it takes (for him) to get to the next level."
As with the 6-foot-10 (2.08-meter) Isner and 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) Ivo Karlovic, the racket looks like a Ping-Pong paddle in Opelka's hands.
Isner, a 30-year-old product of Greensboro, N.C., reached a career-high No. 9 in 2012. Karlovic, a 36-year-old Croatian, climbed as high as No. 14 in 2008.
Whereas Isner played at the University of Georgia for four years, Opelka turned pro in April at 17.
En route to becoming the only wild cards to win the Wimbledon men's doubles title, Nielsen and Marray dominated Karlovic and 6-foot-5 (1.96-meter) Frank Moser of Germany 6-3, 6-3, 6-2 in the second round.
"Karlovic has a better serve (than Opelka)," Nielsen asserted. "Opelka is better from the backcourt, especially at this age. Right now, Ivo is very good from the back, but at that age, he wasn't.
"It's important for Opelka to be ambitious on his second serve. I felt his second serve was a little to predictable."
Karlovic and Isner both have reached one Grand Slam singles quarterfinal, their best result in a major. Can Opelka, who was born in Michigan and moved with his family to Palm Coast, Fla., (near Daytona) at age 4, become a threat to win a Slam?
"It's very difficult for me to say," Nielsen cautioned. "You can see even guys with big serves -- Isner and Karlovic -- none of them have really made a run in a Grand Slam yet, so it takes more than that. The game is getting more and more physical. The baseline game is very important. People have such good defense and counter-attacking abilities, it takes a lot more (than a big serve). It takes a lot of willpower; it takes a lot of mental strength.
"I don't know (about Opelka's chances to win a Slam). Stranger things have happened."
The new Monfils
With his powerful serve and outrageous physical ability, the 17-year-old Mmoh has been compared to former world No. 7 Gael Monfils of France.
"Michael is one of the most athletic people you will ever see on a tennis court," Opelka, a close friend of Mmoh's, told The New York Times in September. "There is nothing he can't do out there."
|Michael Mmoh, 17, "is one of the most athletic people you will ever see|
on a tennis court," Opelka told The New York Times. 2015 photo by
--Reached the boys semifinals of the Australian Open and French Open.
--Hit with Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon.
--Won two U.S. Futures titles.
--Advanced to the quarterfinals of the $50,000 Las Vegas Tennis Open in October, dispatching countryman and former top-50 player Ryan Harrison, 6-2, 6-3 in the first round before losing to eventual champion Thiemo de Bakker.
--Jumped from No. 659 in January to No. 456.
Mmoh is a one-man United Nations. He was born in Saudi Arabia to Tony Mmoh, a former journeyman professional and Olympian from Nigeria, and Geraldine O'Reilly, an Irishwoman who also holds Australian citizenship.
Tony was coaching the Saudi Arabian Davis Cup team, and Geraldine, an avid tennis fan, was working in Saudi Arabia as a nurse at the time, the Times reported.
Michael was named after Michael Jordan. Tony became infatuated with the NBA legend while attending St. Augustine's College (now St. Augustine's University) in North Carolina and becoming a U.S. citizen.
The Mmohs moved to Washington, D.C., when Michael was a child. He trains at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.
Although Mmoh plays for the United States, he could choose to represent Nigeria, Ireland, Australia or perhaps Saudi Arabia.
How Swede it isAfter overpowering Kozlov 6-3, 6-4 to win last year's Sacramento Challenger, U.S. Davis Cup veteran Sam Querrey predicted stardom for the 16-year-old phenom.
"He's got every shot in the book," declared the 6-foot-6 (1.98-meter) Querrey, who ascended to a career-high No. 17 in 2011. "If he keeps on the path he's on, he can be a top-10 player one day."
Kozlov had earned his first win over a top-100 player in the semifinals, edging the second-seeded and 99th-ranked Smyczek 3-6, 6-3, 7-6 (1).
Smyczek assessed Kozlov's game afterward.
"He plays a real unconventional style ... " Smyczek observed. "He uses the slice a lot -- (including on) the forehand, which you don't see much -- and he's good at sneaking into the net and knocking volleys off. You don't see the variety that he brings very much."
Three weeks before the tournament, commentator and U.S. Davis Cup captain Courier discussed Kozlov on Tennis Channel.
|Kozlov has top-10 potential, according to U.S. Davis Cup veteran|
Sam Querrey. 2014 photo by Paul Bauman
Kozlov and his younger tennis-playing brother, Boris, were named after Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, respectively.
Stefan was born in Macedonia and moved to South Florida with his Russian parents when he was 1. His father, Andrei, runs the Kozlov Miami Tennis Academy in Pembroke Pines, Fla.
"We don't live in the biggest house or have the nicest cars," Kozlov, who turned pro at 14, said after shocking Smyczek. "We grind day by day. If I do well here, I'm earning money for my family and my brother so he can travel to tournaments. I'm not playing for myself. I'm playing for my family. I'm playing for a lot of things."
Since last year's breakthrough in Sacramento, the 6-foot (1.83-meter) Kozlov has improved from No. 443 to No. 353. He did not return to California's capital this year, opting for a series of Futures tournament in Europe.
Kozlov recorded his second career win over a top-100 player three weeks ago, routing then-No. 97 Malek Jaziri of Tunisia 6-1, 6-2 in the first round in Knoxville before losing to Dennis Novikov of Milpitas in the San Francisco Bay Area in the second round.
You Cannot Be SeriousRubin, 19, grew up playing at the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in the New York area.
McEnroe has said Rubin, only 5-foot-10 (1.78 meters) and 155 pounds (70 kilograms), has top-50 potential "at a minimum."
As a 17-year-old wild card, Rubin lost in the first round of the 2013 Sacramento Challenger to Smyczek, the second seed and eventual runner-up to Young, 7-6 (3), 6-0.
|Diminutive Noah Rubin has top-50 potential "at a minimum," his mentor,|
John McEnroe, has said. 2013 photo by Paul Bauman
Rubin earned a wild card in the Australian Open in January when Fritz lost to Henri Laaksonen of Switzerland in the Champaign final two weeks ago.
"It's probably the first time I had to rely on somebody else to lose for me to win, in a match I had nothing to do with," Rubin, who made his Grand Slam debut in the 2014 U.S. Open and lost in the first round as a wild card, told atpworldtour.com. "I didn't expect that outcome, but I'm excited to see what's going to come in the future. I've never been to the Australian Open before, even for juniors. I'm going to have to get acclimated to the temperature for sure, but I'm just excited about going there.
"The goal is to have no goals. Anything can happen so quickly. It's just about having the mindset of being open and ready for anything. I was ranked No. 1,000 going out of school, and now I'm around No. 350 In a couple tournaments, I could be No. 250. It could happen so quickly. Just be ready for anything."
The baseline basherKudla defeated the 6-foot-2 (1.88-meter) Paul 6-4, 6-2 in the second round in Sacramento in October but raved about him afterward.
|Paul "hits an unbelievably big ball," Kudla marveled after beating him|
in the Sacramento Challenger in October. 2015 photo by Paul Bauman
"He's a little erratic out there. Some of his shots have no purpose. When those are landing in, great, but a lot of times against a higher-ranked player, they get those back, it's a little tough, and you don't really know what else you can do."
Paul, who grew up playing on clay in North Carolina, insists that repeated reminders of the United States' Grand Slam drought don't bother him.
Paul noted that he and the other U.S. prospects "all know it, definitely, but I'm not getting tired of it because it kind of pushes all of us to see how good we can get and see if one of us can maybe do it one day."