Indian Wells observations: Who says American tennis is weak?

Americans have a history of doing well in the California desert. Since 1987, when the men’s tournament moved to Indian Wells, the event has been won by an American eight times and on six occasions, an American has come in second. In just 24 years, half of the finals have showcased at least one American man. There’s been plenty of talk lately about how weak American tennis is, particularly in terms of young players on both the ATP and WTA tours. Frankly, we as Americans have been spoiled by players like Connors, McEnroe, Agassi, and Sampras. American tennis isn’t weak. We just don’t have the best player in the world anymore. What we do have is an incredibly solid field of American men, rather than one or two stars.

John Isner

At this points in the tournament, there are still six Americans remaining in the draw at the BNP Paribas Open, more than any other country. Andy Roddick, last year’s runner-up, still leads the field even at the age of 28. He beat fellow American, and good friend, James Blake yesterday in the 2nd round, and will have to face another American, John Isner, in his effort to pick up his sixth Masters title and his first in Indian Wells.

John’s struggled a bit so far this year, but he managed a convincing win over Ricardo Mello yesterday to set up his meeting with Roddick. When asked about his slow start this year, John said, “I still think my best tennis is three, four years ahead of me, even though I’m 25 right now. That’s just how I feel. It’s just going to take a little time. I have always been a late developer, and this year hasn’t been the greatest year so far.” Honestly, I believe him. John didn’t take the conventional route to professional tennis. He went to college, and while NCAA match play certainly helped develop his game, it’s not the same as being on the pro tour day in and day out. Most 25 year olds have been on the pro tour for seven or eight years, but John’s had less than four years.

John’s buddy and sometimes doubles partner, Sam Querrey, has also had a rough start to the year with some very disappointing losses, including the 1st round at the Australian Open. Until this week, Sam had been just 2-5 this year in wins and losses, not exactly what you’d expect from a guy who started the year in the Top 20. But, his first match at the BNP Paribas Open was no walkover. He beat Janko Tipsarevic, who has had quite a good start to 2011, going 10-5 and making his third career final just a few weeks ago in Delray Beach. I think this was a huge match for Sam, in terms of gaining back some confidence. He comes off as a laid back guy, but it’s tough to imagine that such a rough start to the year wasn’t weighing on him a little. He’s got a positive outlook for the rest of the week and going into Miami, saying, “I feel like I’m off to a good start, and, you know, I played really well. You know, Janko, it’s tough seeing him in the first – second round for him, first round for me. I thought I played great. I want to play like that in the next one against Verdasco.” If Sam really does play the way he played against Tipsarevic, he should have no trouble making his way past Fernando Verdasco, who’s also had some rough losses lately.

Sam was asked in his press conference what he thought of Donald Young’s win over Andy Murray, certainly the most surprising result of the tournament thus far. He said, “that was awesome. I’m so excited for him…He’s a good friend of mine. I have been practicing with him a lot. I’m excited for him and happy for him.” I love to see the players being so supportive of each other, and Donald gave Sam some of the credit for his win, saying, “I’ve been around like in LA in the offseason with Sam and Mardy and I saw how hard they work every day, I’m like, this is what they do all the time and I’m dying. It was tough. I kind of made the decision where this is my living. This is what I want to do. I really don’t want to go get a real job, so I want to give 100% of my effort and have no regrets.” I’m not sure a few weeks training in LA is enough for Young to turn over a whole new leaf, but if he can pull off big wins like he did against Murray, nothing’s stopping him. Young is his own worst enemy, so if he can pull it together and really look for consistent results, we’ll have another very talented young American.

The last two Americans left in the draw are Ryan Harrison and Ryan Sweeting. Harrison is actually the youngest player left in the tournament, at just 18 years old, and he was quick to point that out to journalists when they said he and his next opponent, Milos Raonic were around the same age, saying, “He’s two years older. He’s not a teenager anymore, so let’s clarify that.” I’m not sure how big a difference there really is between 19 and 20, but Harrison is doing a pretty good job for someone who probably just got their real driver’s license. Sweeting is a slightly different story. Sweeting is 23 and attended the University of Florida before turning professional in 2007. While he’s been on tour for a while, he’s only just beginning to be noticed.

I doubt each of these guys has the potential to be No. 1, but not every player needs to be No. 1. America can still have a strong tennis tradition without having the very best player, and who knows what these youngsters will do in the next few years? Even Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal had to start somewhere?

On a sidenote, the only American woman left in the draw is 18 year old, Christina McHale. Probably not what you expected, huh?