State of the Union

by James A. Crabtree

What a disappointment the American men currently are.

For a country that is so rich in tennis history it is heart breaking to see a power house such as the United States limp through the season.

True, some players have been playing well. Sam Querrey has displayed a mild resurgence, James Blake is attempting one last hurrah, Jack Sock could well be a diamond in the rough and Mardy Fish is back at Indian Wells but hasn’t played since the 2012 U.S. Open. Outside of the top 100 Tim Smyczek looks to be a hustling player making waves. The players hanging in the bottom half of the top 100 such as Brian Baker and Michael Russell, are those with heart whilst the majority of the new batch, thus far, are all hype.

The real disappointment lies with the supposed new generation of stars. Granted, they do all talk a good game, profess their commitment to hard work and assure us that they are just that one big win from joining the elite. At this point none look like worthy candidates to propel the stars and stripes forward during the teenage years of this decade and for the most part lack true grit.

Ryan Harrison is still only twenty years old, and players tend to show their potential at around twenty two these days. Impressively Harrison has the skills to battle with the elite, just not the temperament to outclass anybody notable so far.

In 2011 Donald Young reached a career high ranking of 38, the fourth round of the U.S. Open and made the final of a 250 event in Thailand. The John McEnroe prophecies were starting to ring true until 2012, when Young pressed the self-destruct button and lost seventeen matches in a row. 2013 hasn’t been so bad, but Young is way off in the rankings.

Back in the early eighties many players from the eastern bloc looked to defect their homeland for the American dream. These days the reverse is happening. After some financial disputes with the USTA, Russian born Alex Bogolmov Jnr decided he was more Russian than American in 2012. Jesse Levine is another with eyes on being part of a Davis Cup team, having aligned with Canada, the country of his birth. Reportedly both players still live in Florida.

None of the current crop look poised to make a leap.

For those who can remember, rewind ten years prior and it was a much different story.

Pete Sampras was sailing off into the distance after his fourteenth slam. Andre Agassi had recently collected his fourth Australian title, and Andy Roddick was only months away from cracking the big time.

In many people’s eyes Roddick didn’t win enough, mainly because he failed to win a second slam. It must be remembered that his second chance was always going to be a lot tougher thanks to a certain Mr Federer who spoilt many careers. Now with the oft-criticised Roddick gone, and enjoying retirement, the torch as America’s best player hasn’t been passed onto a worthy candidate.

Now before the stomach acid of the Isner fans starts churning let’s remember that big John does very little outside of the U.S. or Davis Cup duties and has been looking rather out of sorts this year. Is it too soon to count him out?

And when was the U.S. this unsubstantial? Certainly not twenty years ago when the Americans were surely the majority in any draw.

So what has happened in the years since? Is the college system watered down, do the Academies need a revamp, is American tennis stuck in the past or just stuck in a lull?

As much as champions are formed at the grass root level, the formative years are spent idolising a hero. Naturally, an idol a young player can relate to will only help to cultivate progression.

With so many tournaments stateside, roughly 18% of the total tour, it is bad for tennis to have a weak America. And with so few American contenders a sense of complacent mediocrity can set in quickly.

Clijsters Shows a Different Kind of Heart in Inspirational Effort at Australian Open

Kim Clijsters wrote a story of heroic proportions on Centre Court at Rod Laver Arena on Sunday night. The kind of fairytale she could tell daughter Jada before bedtime in the coming days and years. The Belgian is known for her heart of gold, but showed a competitive heart and desire that legends are made of in a dramatic 4-6, 7-6(6), 6-4 victory over Li Na in a rematch of the 2011 Australian Open women’s final.

The Round of 16 match got off to a hot start, but midway through the opening set, Clijsters rolled her ankle in the middle of a rally and the tennis world held its collective breath wondering whether Clijsters’ final Australian Open would end with tears of pain and disappointment. She walked gingerly back to the baseline on her heavily wrapped ankle after a visit from the trainer ready to give it a go. The task ahead seemed all the more daunting against a formidable opponent like Li Na and yet, facing quadruple match point in the second set tiebreak, Clijsters found a drive within herself that she probably didn’t realize she had. A winning lob on the fourth match point was particularly remarkable given that she had hit a poor drop shot to put herself in a vulnerable position.

After escaping the second set, Clijsters seemed to loosen up in the third and took advantage of her rattled and error prone adversary to jump out to a 5-1 lead. Following a few nervy moments of her own, Clijsters completed the miraculous comeback when Li Na hit a backhand into the net. She threw up her arms in triumph and disbelief as the crowd gave their “Aussie Kim” a well-deserved standing ovation.

“At one point you think, Okay, I’m just gonna go for it.  Once I made that decision, I didn’t think,” Clijsters said about her decision not to retire after the ankle roll. “I just tried to find a solution for how I was feeling, to find a new tactic, tactical game.”

The match itself may not have been of the highest quality, but the significance of the end result far outweighed that. In the space of a set and a half, Clijsters added another chapter to her storybook comeback to tennis and her final season already includes a highlight that will be hard to top. As if she wasn’t adored enough already, this performance will endear her even more to fans around the world who secretly hope that her farewell tour never ends.

Prior to the start of the Australian Open, Clijsters gave an interview where she spoke candidly about how she still feels the presence of her deceased father in her life. Leo Clijsters was certainly with his daughter in her latest triumph and she has given him yet another reason to brim with pride.