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Friday, September 21, 2018

Discussing the ITF's New Junior Heat Rule; Navarro Wins Grade 2 Title in Montreal; Nakashima Reaches Semis at Laguna Niguel Futures; Oracle Masters Update

The ITF's new heat rule caught nearly everyone by surprise earlier this month at the US Open Junior Championships. Tournament director Lew Brewer was hoping it wouldn't be necessary to implement it, but on two different occasions, junior play was suspended or postponed due to conditions considered too dangerous. Not having seen the rule invoked at other events I attended this year, I had quite a few questions about it, and I spoke to Brewer on the last weekend to help me understand it. I also spoke with quite a few players about the heat, throughout the week, and although I couldn't quote them all in this Tennis Recruiting article, most agreed they had played in worse conditions and therefore were not expecting play to be stopped. As the article notes, Brewer does not anticipate this rule changing, so expect more disruptions to ITF tournaments in warm weather months.


The singles finals were played today at the ITF Grade 2 in Montreal, with No. 2 seed Emma Navarro defeating friend and doubles partner Chloe Beck, the top seed, 6-2, 6-2 in the girls championship match. The 17-year-old Navarro, who won two Grade 4s last year and has reached two Grade 1 semifinals this year, dropped only one set this week. It was announced this week that her father, Ben Navarro, has purchased Charleston's Volvo Car Open and the Family Circle Tennis Center where it is held.  Beck and Navarro, the top seeds in doubles, lost in the final to No. 2 seeds Kylie Collins and Puerto Rico's Lauren Anzalotta 6-2, 6-4. 

The boys title went to No. 4 seed Taha Baadi, who beat unseeded Liam Draxl 5-7, 6-4, 6-2 in an all-Canadian final.  The unseeded team of Draxl and Cleeve Harper won the doubles title, beating No. 4 seeds Ronan Jachuck and Canadian Alexandre LeBlanc 6-4, 6-2 in the final.

Wild card Brandon Nakashima has advanced to the semifinals of the $15,000 Laguna Niguel Futures tournament after beating No. 4 seed Martin Redlicki(UCLA) 6-3, 7-5.  The Kalamazoo 18s finalist will face No. 2 seed Henry Craig(Denver), with Craig advancing by beating Alessandra-Damiano Ventre of Brazil 6-1, 7-5. While Nakashima did advance to his first Futures semifinal, fellow 17-year-old Southern Californian Emilio Nava could not, with the qualifier falling to Alan Cohen of Argentina, also a qualifier, 6-2, 0-6, 6-2.  Cohen will face UCLA senior Maxime Cressy of France, who beat No. 5 seed Michael Zhu(Michigan) 6-0, 6-7(2), 6-4. In the doubles final, unseeded Nick Meister(UCLA) and Redlicki, a two-time NCAA doubles champion, beat top seeds Hunter and Yates Johnson(SMU) 6-4, 3-6, 10-6.

The singles final of the $25,000 Women's Pro Circuit event in Lubbock Texas tomorrow will feature Rebecca Marino of Canada against Robin Anderson, the former UCLA star.  The 27-year-old Marino, who is coming back after stepping away from the sport for more than five years, started the year with no WTA ranking, but is now up to 215 with four titles on the ITF Pro Circuit. Marino, seeded No. 7, defeated qualifier Hayley Carter(UNC) 6-1, 6-2 in just 38 minutes, hitting 11 aces and winning all 21 points on her first serve.  The unseeded Anderson defeated No. 8 seed Emina Bektas(Michigan) 6-7(4), 7-6(3), 6-4 to reach her second final of the year.

Doubles qualifiers Carter and Vladica Babic of Montenegro, who reached the NCAA doubles final this year as an Oklahoma State senior, lost in the final to No. 2 seed Nadia Podoroska of Argentina and Naomi Broady of Great Britain 3-6, 6-2, 10-8.

At the $75,000 ATP Challenger in Columbus Ohio, No. 3 seed Michael Mmoh has advanced to the semifinals, where he'll meet former Ohio State star Mikael Torpegaard of Denmark, who won the title at this tournament two years ago. Torpegaard defeated qualifier Thai Kwiatkowski(Virginia) 6-4, 6-2. Former USC star Roberto Quiroz of Ecuador, the No. 7 seed, will play No. 1 seed Jordan Thompson of Australia in the other semifinal.

The semifinals are set in the women's draw at the ITA Oracle Masters in Malibu, with top seed Fernanda Contreras of Vanderbilt playing No. 4 seed Estela Perez-Somarriba of Miami and No. 6 seed Evgeniya Levashova of Pepperdine facing No. 2 seed Kate Fahey of Michigan. The men's semifinals also will feature only seeded players, although not No. 1 seed Yuya Ito of Texas. Ito lost to No. 8 seed Mitch Harper of Virginia Tech 7-6(4), 3-6, 6-1.  Harper will play No. 6 seed Laurens Verboven of USC, while No. 5 seed Christian Sigsgaard of Texas will play the winner of the match between No. 7 seed Nicolas Moreno of UC-Santa Barbara and No. 2 seed Daniel Cukierman of USC.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

The Great Stalling?



A guest post by Jonathan Kelley--

This past weekend was an interesting one for those following the younger generations of American professional tennis players. In his debut Davis Cup tie, 20-year-old Frances Tiafoe came within a few games of sending the United States to the final, falling in five sets to Borna Coric in Croatia. In Cary, North Carolina, 21-year-old Reilly Opelka reached his second consecutive Challenger final, but again came up short (so to speak) in the final, this time to James Duckworth. And in Claremont, California, 20-year-old Brandon Holt won his first professional singles title at a Futures event.

Just prior to the weekend, I recorded a podcast with Alex Gruskin for Cracked Raquets in which I expressed my sense that 2018 had been somewhat disappointing for American men, and specifically for the group born between 1996 and 1998. That group, which includes Tiafoe, Opelka, Taylor Fritz, and Jared Donaldson, has been heralded as the great hope for American men’s tennis for years. They won four junior grand slams and several Grade A titles between 2013–2015. More recently, Donaldson qualified for the 2017 ATP Next Gen tournament, while Tiafoe won his first ATP title in 2018 and he and Fritz are currently in 5th and 6th place, respectively, in the 2018 Race to Milan.

But there’s that nagging feeling I had that their collective progress had stalled somewhat this year. So I thought I’d examine their progress from a few different lenses: how they’ve progressed on their own terms, in comparison with their peers internationally, and in comparison with past cohorts of American men.

Here’s what I found.

Progression on their own terms

The USA is fortunate to have nine players born between 1996–1998 who have been ranked inside the ATP Top 150, far more than any other country. Tiafoe, Fritz, Donaldson, Opelka, Michael Mmoh, and Noah Rubin are currently in the Top 150, while Ernesto Escobedo, Tommy Paul, and Stefan Kozlov were there within the past twelve months. (Christopher Eubanks, born 1996, has a career high of 183 and currently is ranked 221.)

However, with the exception of Tiafoe (and to a lesser extent, Mmoh), their careers have been anything but bumpless. Nearly every player has had to take some time off for injury, and even when healthy, there has been a notable lack of breakthroughs, particularly in the last year.

To wit: No American man born 1996 or later has broken into the Top 100 since April 2017, and the last one who did, Escobedo, now resides outside the Top 200. And while two players did debut in the Top 50 this year, only Tiafoe remains there, as Donaldson has dropped to #98. Meanwhile Fritz, while doing well to re-enter the Top 100 and stay in the Top 70, has yet to approach the career high of #53 he set over two years ago; he’s currently at #64.

Collectively, the nine players who have reached the Top 150 had 115 fewer ATP points at the end of the 2018 US Open than they did at the end of the 2017 US Open. Take away Tiafoe’s 375 point jump, and the picture is even starker.

ATP POINTS ACCUMULATED THROUGH US OPEN, 1996–1998 AMERICAN MEN

Player
2017
2018
Tiafoe
715
1090
Donaldson
858
590
Fritz
554
825
Mmoh
409
450
Opelka
308
397
Rubin
256
443
Kozlov
405
219
Escobedo
636
250
Paul
364
126
TOTAL
4505
4390

The progress that has been made by Mmoh, Rubin, and Opelka – all of whom are at or near career high rankings between 125 and 140 – is counterbalanced by significant drop-offs by Escobedo, Paul, and Kozlov. Last year, all nine players were ranked #205 or higher; this year, only six are.

Moreover, during the summer hardcourt season (which traditionally has been strong for American men), none of the group advanced to a semifinal at the ATP World Tour or Challenger Tour. While some players had solid wins (Rubin over Isner in Washington, DC; Fritz over Mischa Zverev at the US Open) there was no standout run like in 2017 (Paul in Atlanta and DC, Donaldson in Cincinnati, even Mmoh winning the Lexington Challenger).


Comparison with international peers

Every player develops on his own path, and 22 is still young for an ATP in which no player born in the 1990s has won a grand slam title.

That said, as I tweeted last month,
Alexander Zverev (GER), Stefanos Tsitsipas (GRE), and Borna Coric (CRO) are currently in the ATP Top 20. Chung Hyeon (KOR), Karen Khachanov (RUS), Daniil Medvedev (RUS), Denis Shapovalov (CAN), and Alex de Minaur (AUS) are all ranked higher than all young American men. And Andrey Rublev (RUS), Jaume Munar (ESP), and Hubert Hurkacz (POL) are all Top 100, while #105 Corentin Moutet (FRA) and #108 Ugo Humbert (FRA) are just outside.

Of the 9 non-American players born after 1995 who had the highest rankings post-2017 US Open, only two (Rublev and Bublik) had fewer ATP points post-2018 US Open. Overall, the trajectories of the top young non-Americans are clearly smoother and in more of an upward direction than those of the Americans.

ATP POINTS ACCUMULATED THROUGH US OPEN, 1996–1998 NON-AMERICAN MEN

Player
2017
2018
Zverev
4470
4890
Khachanov
1330
1605
Rublev
1233
795
Chung
1017
1630
Shapovalov
926
1270
Coric
876
1825
Medvedev
819
1262
Bublik
583
294
Tsitsipas
483
1962
TOTAL
11737
15533

And while Tsitsipas was the ninth-ranked young non-American at #120 a year ago (behind five young Americans), this year that honor went to #59 Matteo Berrettini, who is behind only Tiafoe. Simply put, Americans are being sped past at a remarkable rate.

It is true that no other country has had the depth of US men – only Russia with three has multiple players born after 1995 in the Top 100, and they have no other young player in the ATP Top 300. But national depth doesn’t win championships in an individual sport (just ask France), and the idea that players from one country will push their colleagues to the highest heights doesn’t bear out in this most international of arenas.


Comparison with past American generations

The cohort of American men born between 1996–1998 have had more success at their ages than any three-year cohort from the USA since 2003, when players born between 1981–1983 already had between them a slam champion (Andy Roddick), a Top 20 player (Mardy Fish), a Top 30 player (Robby Ginepri), and a Top 40 player (Taylor Dent). And that cohort had better cumulative accomplishments than any group going back a decade earlier (namely 1970–1972’s Sampras, Agassi, Chang, Courier, and others).

But even then, depth was an issue. Roddick’s cohort featured no other players under 23 years old in the Top 250 following the 2003 US Open. And, of course, only Roddick in that group reached a major final or won a Masters 1000.

A three-year cohort that has done very well is 1985–1987, which includes John Isner, Sam Querrey, Donald Young [Correction: Young was born in 1989], Brian BakerRyan SweetingWayne Odesnik, and Tim Smyczek. But of that group, only Querrey had entered the Top 100 by the 2007 US Open, having achieved a then-career high of #47 the week before.

Interestingly, a three-year cohort just older than the one I’m focused on, 1992–1994 (which also has three players who have reached the ATP Top 60 in Jack Sock, Ryan Harrison, and Denis Kudla, plus another in Bjorn Fratangelo who hit the Top 100), hit a similar lull four years ago. The top nine players in that age range after the 2013 US Open collectively had 230 fewer ATP points a year later. The good news is that in 2015, they had over 1,000 more points than in 2013 – despite the absence of three of them from the rankings, and not including the addition of players who had been playing college tennis such as Evan King and Marcos Giron. So going by this comparison, we might expect 2019 to be a very strong one for the current youngsters.

ATP POINTS ACCUMULATED THROUGH US OPEN, 1992–1994 AMERICAN MEN

Player
2013
2014
2015
Sock
608
756
1285
Kudla
568
451
681
R. Harrison
516
282
425
Kosakowski
127
175
0
Fratangelo
123
124
464
C. Harrison
99
0
0
Krueger
72
96
195
Berman
63
6
0
Novikov
31
87
240
TOTAL
2207
1977
3290



Moving forward

So what is to make of this Great Stalling? Is it temporary or an ominous sign for the future? Will we see this cohort of American men joining their international peers in the Top 20? Will we get some additions into the Top 100 soon?

Several theories have been advanced as to what has and may continue to limit these young American men from reaching the very top of the game. Criticism has variously been raised about technique, athleticism, coaching, national tennis culture, motivation, and mental strength. We should also keep in mind that uninterrupted periods of good health have been missing for several of them, and that perfect health is guaranteed to none of us.

Rather than diagnose any one player, I’ll say that while they shouldn’t get too distressed about not having achieved certain ranking goals by now, the next two years will be a critical time for them to make their mark. Young players around the world have stopped giving excuses for coming up short against top-level competition, and have started seizing opportunities. They have improved deficiencies in their games with an eye toward future glory; meanwhile they do what it takes to win pressure-packed matches today. None has yet won a Grand Slam, but I’d be very surprised if it doesn’t happen by 2020. And they are beginning to flood the Top 100, securing their spots in the main draws of majors and playing regularly at the ATP level. They aren't waiting for Americans to keep up.

Still, let us remember that only eight American players born after 1985 have spent any time at all in the ATP Top 50 to date, and two of those are Tiafoe and Donaldson. And I still fully expect at least two more of the current “Next Gen” to reach that ranking by the end of 2020, which would also be impressive.

Whether any of them ever wins a Masters 1000 (a la Jack Sock) or reached a major final (as John Isner almost did) just can’t be predicted. But if more than five American players born between 1994 and 1996 do reach the ATP Top 50 at some point in their careers, it will be a tremendous accomplishment, and the current Stalling will have proved to be put a Pause.