By Romi Cvitkovic
With Andy Roddick’s mid-season retirement, John Isner’s recent slump and Mardy Fish’s ensuing health issues, the 2012 tennis season has been tough on American tennis fans. The constant background noise regarding the decline in quality and quantity of players coming out of the U.S. in recent years is, in fact, just that – noise.
With 19 American ATP players in the top 200, the U.S. field deserves more credit than it receives. Well-lauded tennis powerhouses Spain and France boast 20 and 18 players in the top 200, respectively, yet the U.S. with 19 is somehow not stacking up to the competition? Clearly, perspective needs to be reevaluated here.
The U.S. boasts their deepest men’s field in three years, and thanks to the Challenger Tour, four of these players even reached career-high rankings this past week making the start to the 2013 season all the more energizing.
We’ll take a look at the U.S. players on the verge of breakthrough in 2013, in order of their current ranking: Sam Querrey, Ryan Harrison, Tim Smyczek, Denis Kudla, Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, Rhyne Williams.
Currently ranked 22 and just five spots from his career-high, many would say reaching top 25 is a breakthrough already. But not for Querrey, who, after returning from elbow surgery and a rare umbilical cord infection, has shot up the rankings after having fallen out of the top 100 as recently as April. He capped off his season by beating world No. 1 Novak Djokovic in Paris just last month, and his confidence is running high going into the off-season.
With 1295 of his 1650 season ranking points coming from June on, Querrey has all of 355 points to defend in the first five month of 2013. If he reaches just one 500-level tournament final during the Australian or U.S. spring hard court season (a prize bag of 300 points), he would be nearly there ranking-wise with only that.
After admitting he had “no motivation” to win back in 2010, Querrey has recommitted himself this year and just last week told ESPN reporter Ravi Ubha that “it would mean a lot” to become the top ranked American player on his own accord: “I want to do it off of my good results, by going deep at the Masters events and Slams, not off the other guys not doing well. I don’t want to be the U.S. No. 1 ranked 22nd because other guys fell off in the rankings.”
Welcoming himself to the tennis world last year, Harrison took David Ferrer to five sets in the second round of Wimbledon and then followed that up with back-to-back semifinal runs in Atlanta and Los Angeles. Many were eager to see him breakthrough in 2012, but he fell terribly short.
After finishing 2009 ranked 360, 2010 ranked 173, and 2011 ranked 79, Harrison shot up to world No. 43 in July of this year but has since quickly fallen to end the season ranked 69. His mediocre results are perplexing as his game holds immense weapons that could drive him into the top 20. So what is holding him back?
While charming and thoughtful in interviews, he can quickly snap on court and reveal a heated temper – something that today’s tennis fans don’t always agree with. Physically well-developed, the 20-year-old is notorious for going through more than his share of coaches. In the past 20 months, Harrison has gone through four coaches and has yet to find a stabilizing force.
A product of the Nick Bollettieri Academy in Florida, Ryan’s first full-time “mentor” (as his father coach Pat Harrison called him at the time) was newly-retired doubles specialist and IMG teaching pro Martin Damm. After only seven months together, Ryan moved on to coach Scott McCain who was having great results with Somdev Devvarman. The one catch was that McCain was coaching both players at the same time and couldn’t devote the time Harrison needed. McCain recommended that Harrison work with Grant Doyle who had his own successful tennis academy in Texas. Although that partnership lasted the longest – a full season – the results did not follow.
Speaking bluntly, for a player as supposedly rattled with meltdowns and quick coaching changes as Harrison to hold onto a coach for a full season with minimal results takes an immense amount of patience. He has now teamed up with Tres Davis of the Austin Tennis Academy and we’ll see not only how that relationship holds up, but whether this younger coach can find Ryan’s tennis “voice”. The weapons are there, and perhaps Harrison just needed a year to get his footing on the ATP Tour, but now, it’s just a matter of having the right combination going into the new year and posting some big upsets.
Wisconsin native Smyczek may not fit the current mold of top American tennis players: giants with booming serves and forehands. But at 5’9” he has defied physical trends and reached his career-high ranking of 128 this past week by winning the Champaign, Ill. Challenger. He began the year ranked 273, and while no breakthrough runs occurred this season, he’s had consistent outcomes: always bettering the previous week’s results – a stark contrast to his poor 2011 results.
While his best wins have come at the Challenger-level this year, his ranking is now high enough to bypass many tour-level qualifying draws and grant him main draw access. He’s had success playing through weekly qualifying draws in the past, only to get caught not being fresh enough for main draw play. That should change at the start of 2013 with San Jose, Memphis and Delray Beach where he could make some nice runs early on.
One of the youngest in the top 200 and quite willing to indulge reporters on video (see video at right), Kudla’s on court sense is even more refreshing as his all-court game and mentality keep him grounded. At just 20-years-old, the Ukranian-born Virginian has won two Challengers since July and is sitting at a career-high ranking of 137. Earlier this year in San Jose, he even took Andy Roddick to three sets – including two tiebreakers – so a changing of the guards may very well lie in his hands in the next couple of years.
Physically lean and quick on-court, Kudla is another player who opted against college and decided to turn pro straight out of high school. The one difference between Kudla and Smyczek though, is that Kudla is four years younger and at nearly the same ranking as Smyczek – quite telling of his talent. And as a former world No. 3 junior player, Kudla knows a great deal about winning.
I had a chance to briefly chat with Kudla’s parents last year at their son’s old stomping ground, the USTA Regional Training Center in College Park, MD. Although many players have supportive family members, Kudla’s parents seem like unique advocates: his father is a proud no-nonsense kind of guy when it comes to Denis’ training, while his mother is cheerful and optimistic any time she speaks about her son and his future. Add USTA coach and clay court specialist Diego Moyano to his budding team, and you have a winning combination. Kudla’s poorest results come on this surface, so a strategic relationship with Moyano, the former coach of Fernando Gonzalez and Guillermo Coria, may be just what he needs to kick it up a notch next season.
The name “Jack Sock” has been thrown around in tennis circles for over a year now and with good reason. Sock went undefeated in high school, opted out of college for the pro tour, went on to win the 2011 U.S. Open Mixed Doubles Championship with Melanie Oudin only months after graduating high school and has been a solid force on the Challengers circuit ever since, with memorable appearances in tour-level tournaments such as this year’s third round run at the U.S. Open.
At 6’2” and 162 pounds, Sock has grown into his body and game, and after an injury earlier this year, he is set to take 2013 by storm. Never having played a pro tournament outside of North America, Sock will make his way to Australia in January after a rigorous off-season. He started 2012 ranked 380 and playing Futures tournaments, so nearly any result in Australia will bump up his current career-high ranking of 137.
If he can lean up a bit and shed the few extra pounds he put on during his injury lay-off, Sock’s speed will turn into a strength instead of a liability. His rocket serve and forehand will then nicely complement his new agility, and the rest as they say, would be history.
Out of all the Americans on this list, I expect to see the biggest rankings jump from Sock next year given his crafty and powerful game, and don’t be surprised if he has a few tour-level final appearances or titles. (For an exclusive interview I did with Sock last month discussing his injury, goals and off-season plans, check out the USA Today article here.)
Johnson stands as the only player on this list to graduate from college – a telling aspect consistent with his character. While some players feel ready to transition into the pros after only two years of college play, Johnson took his time to develop in the NCAAs winning 72 straight matches and back-to-back NCAA Championships.
After graduating from the University of Southern California this past spring, Johnson started playing pro tournaments in July and notched his first Challenger title in Aptos in August without dropping a set. By winning the 2012 NCAA Championships, he was awarded a wildcard entry into the U.S. Open a couple of weeks after Aptos, and boy, did he capitalize. He lost to world No. 14 Richard Gasquet in the third round but not before taking home $65,000 in winnings and jump starting his pro career.
For the first six months of 2013, Johnson will have ZERO points to defend from 2012, as he only had two first round losses in Honolulu and San Jose while still in college. Talk about an advantage for the new season.
Tennessee native Williams comes from a tennis family and won his first pro tournament at just 16 years of age. He possesses a surprisingly cunning serve and an accurate forehand that could consistently paint the lines, and Williams decided to attend the University of Tennessee to further develop both his skills and his mental game.
Since turning pro after playing college tennis for two years, Williams has had a steady climb up the rankings ladder, reaching a career-high of 190 this week after reaching the quarterfinals or better on his last four Challenger tournaments. What used to be his liability – his vocal self-deprecating comments on-court when down – has turned into a weapon most of the time. Now, instead of talking his way out of match through a loss, he successfully channels his anger toward a win. Sure, there are still slip-ups when he gets unnecessarily down on himself and doesn’t believe he can win through grit (we are always our own worst enemies on court), but they are rarer and far in between. And his on-court demeanor otherwise is infused with candor and smiles – especially during doubles with good friend Tennys Sandgren.
The first two full months of 2012 (when Williams was ranked 511 in the world) were spent playing Futures tournaments and scrounging for points. If he continues to build confidence in his beautifully-crafted game, and after a rigorous off-season training block in Florida this winter, the start to his 2013 can hold a great deal of hope for his entire year. Add to that the support of his cousin and former Tennessee Vols player and coach, Chris Williams, who travels with him, and he just may continue believing in his strengths and game even more.