After a tenure of nearly a century and a quarter, the ATP event in San Jose will end this weekend. The second-oldest tennis tournament in the United States, the SAP Open lately represented the only outpost of the men’s game in the Bay Area, which has hosted a successful WTA event early in the US Open Series for the last four decades.
As historic as it is, the end of men’s tennis in the Bay Area—for now—comes as scant surprise to someone like me who once attended the SAP Open. Unlike the WTA Stanford tournament, which regularly attracted champions from around the world, San Jose had declined steadily over the last several years as it languished in the lowest tier of the ATP’s 250/500/1000 system. With each year, fewer and fewer of Silicon Valley’s citizens trickled through the turnstiles of the HP Arena. Less committed to tennis than their predecessors was the tournament’s new management, meanwhile, which grew increasingly frustrated with scheduling long road trips for the San Jose Sharks, the hockey team that makes its home there. The venue also has only a single court, a logistical handicap unique or nearly so among ATP tournaments outside the year-end championships, which requires only one court for its eight-player field. But the most significant obstacle confronted by the SAP Open was the task of luring European players across an ocean and a continent to a tournament diminished in status.
Attempting to bolster San Jose by signing multi-year participation agreements several years ago, Roddick and the Bryan Brothers had signaled their support for an event that had given them precious opportunities earlier in their careers. (It now seems fitting that Roddick will appear in an exhibition on the SAP Open’s final weekend.) Nevertheless, the tournament’s inability to consistently draw prestigious foreign players combined with the recent stagnation of American men’s tennis to thrust this event in a converted hockey arena onto very thin ice. Exhibitions between Sampras and a top seed provided some mild entertainment, to be sure, as did the rise of two-time defending champion Milos Raonic. Offered a wealth of professional sports options in their vicinity, however, Bay Area fans who lack a strong attachment to tennis found little reason to prevent them from drifting elsewhere.
As for tennis fans like myself, the prospect of attending a Raonic-Harrison or Istomin-Benneteau semifinal in San Jose (the 2012 lineup) seemed a poor alternative to watching tournaments with elite contenders on television or the internet. In February, the most compelling action in men’s tennis occurs thousands of miles away at tournaments in Rotterdam and Dubai, while the women’s Premier Five tournament in Doha grasps the attention of those who follow both Tours. Looming just a month ahead, meanwhile, the marquee tournament at Indian Wells offered a reminder that the world’s best would return soon to California. With Djokovic, Nadal, Federer, and the rest scheduled to compete in a beautifully situated, meticulously maintained “tennis garden,” who can blame the region’s fans for ignoring the journeymen on display in a drafty hockey rink near the San Jose Airport?
Blighted by a disinterested management and dwindling commitment from both players and fans, therefore, the tournament tottered towards its inevitable fate: a transfer to a region where it will earn more success in all three areas. Planned to coincide with the 2016 Olympics there, the new joint ATP/WTA tournament in Rio de Janeiro should gain an early boost in publicity from which it will profit. To achieve the stability that San Jose once enjoyed, though, Rio will want to avoid the flaws that doomed its predecessor. As the most important tennis tournament on the South American continent, it stands well poised to do so.
Where one tradition ends, perhaps another will begin.
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.
Don’t forget to catch the Australian Open Wildcard Playoff next month in Atlanta as Denis Kudla, Steve Johnson and Rhyne Williams have all been invited for a shot to win a main draw wildcard into the 2013 Australian Open in January.
By David Kane, Special for Tennis Grandstand
Tennis has a way of giving its fans an eerie sense of symmetry.
Why else would I find myself watching Samantha Crawford play for the US Open girls’ singles title nearly two weeks after watching her on the same court in women’s qualifying. That day, I had had no idea who Crawford was, and viewed her only as a stepping-stone for another established junior, Irina Khromacheva, to make her foray up and into the senior level.
Tennis also has a way of punishing fans that don’t do their homework.
Far from a pushover, the 17-year-old Georgia native clad in Nike and armed with an orange Wilson racquet, clocks the ball as hard and flat as another former US Open girls’ champion, Lindsay Davenport. And Crawford stood her ground as she played the final junior Slam of 2012 like a big fish in a small pond.
After qualifying for the senior main draw (with wins over Khromacheva and former top 20 player Eleni Daniilidou) and pushing giant killer Laura Robson in the first round, Crawford entered the junior tournament unseeded and relatively under the radar amidst a field of more celebrated junior prospects like compatriot Taylor Townsend and Yulia Putintseva. Free from pressure, the American made light work of her unseeded opponents and eeked out tight three-setters against higher ranked opponents like Sachia Vickery.
She didn’t have to play the feisty Putintseva, who withdrew from their quarterfinal clash with a rumored heart problem. But after seeing her trounce Khromacheva and Estonia’s Anett Kontaveti in the girls’ final today, I’m willing to argue that Crawford would have emerged victorious from that encounter as well. While many of the higher ranked juniors are undersized baseliners, Crawford is tall (6’2” to be exact) and has an effortlessly powerless serve that makes her appear light-years ahead of her similarly aged opponents who struggle on their second – and even their first – delivery.
Against Kontaveit, she started on the back foot, failing to put enough first serves in and falling too far behind the baseline, allowing the Estonian, who hits hard enough on both sides to be called a baby Kaia Kanepi, to dictate from the onset. But just like against Khromacheva, the young American began to find her range and once she did, the match was all but over. The Estonian has had a solid year at the junior Slams and a win over Townsend this week to be proud of, but she didn’t serve even half as well as her opponent, failing to consolidate a single break or 30-15 point on her racquet.
Crawford meanwhile, got better and better as the first set wore on, looking visibly giddy as she clocked short balls into the corner and converted her first opportunity to take the opening set. Nerve-free, she never looked back as she broke several more times to take the match in straight sets. The giggles and bubbly personality shone through during the trophy ceremony; Crawford barely got any words out and only provided nervous laughter as explanation for three weeks of utterly serious tennis.
For all the high-profile stories involving the next generation of WTA superstars, Crawford’s spectacularly underrated showing may prove to be a springboard that will have her laughing last for years to come.
David Kane is an avid tennis fan reporting from the grounds of the U.S. Open. You can follow him on Twitter @ovafanboy.
By Ashley Babich
Andy Roddick shocked many in the tennis community this week when he announced his impending retirement at the 2012 US Open. (He even surprised some who don’t follow tennis so closely, as my grandma called to tell me, with much concern, that she heard the “cute American tennis player is retiring.”)
The conversation has been in play for a while, and most can’t discuss Andy’s retirement without immediately following up with a discussion about who will carry the torch for American tennis once Andy has moved on to happier days with his wife Brooklyn, and hopefully, babies.
While there are many players who could possibly be the face of American tennis, it will be hard to fill Andy’s red, white, and blue shoes. (Did you see those in his match against Tomic? Go America!)
Anyway, I’m here to talk about Jack Sock.
He’s 19-years-old, ranked 243rd in the world, and made his way into the US Open as a wild card. He made his first ever appearance in the third round this weekend and lost to the 11th-seed, Nicolas Almagro, 7-6 (3), 6-7 (4), 7-6 (2), 6-1, taking the Spaniard to three straight tiebreakers before easily giving up the fourth set.
Does Jack Sock have a lot to learn? Yes. In that match against Almagro, Sock converted just one of 11 break points and had 52 unforced errors overall in the match, compared to Almagro’s 24.
Yet, in my opinion, he has great potential to become, well, great. While his errors are hefty in number, so are his winners. He had 56 winners this match, while the world No. 12 Almagro had 53. Sock has an aggressive forehand, a great serve, and even gets up to the net for volleys from time to time.
In addition, his on-court demeanor is something to talk about. Compared to a couple of other Americans players, no names mentioned of course, Sock seems to be able to remain calm and manage frustration when things aren’t going his way. (Though, he might want to work on the nerves. Sock gave away some easy points in the always-stressful tiebreaks.)
While Sock still has growing to do, and matches to play, he does have some experience under his belt. He won the boys’ Junior US Open Championship in 2010, and he won the 2011 mixed doubles title at the US Open with fellow one-time American hope, Melanie Oudin.
During this fortnight, much conversation will be had about who our nation can cheer on next, and I think Sock has drummed up just enough excitement to keep his name in the mix. The next few years will prove telling for the American, though. Andy Roddick won his US Open title at the age of 21, so I guess we can sit back and watch as Sock chases down his own place in the history of American tennis.
And speaking of grandmas, Sock seems to have a pretty funny one. As he and Oudin kindly signed autographs for anyone who waited around in Court 17 after their exciting first-round mixed doubles win, his grandma snuck into the line and asked him to sign a band aid. Sock jokingly responded, “Get out of here, grandma. I’ll see you later at dinner.”
First things first: Win a singles title.
For teenagers and top 100 ATP World Tour players Bernard Tomic and Ryan Harrison, that should be the top priority going into 2012. But with the way both of them have shot up the rankings over the past couple of years, much more is expected from the 19-year-olds.
That’s what happens when you make the quarterfinals of Wimbledon, like Tomic did last year—becoming the youngest player since the legendary Boris Becker to do so. Or when you make back-to-back semifinals during the 2011 summer hard-court swing, like Harrison did. Those results helped solidify the hype over the two, which has been essentially building since before they hit their teens.
But is that hype too much?
The two have both openly about being future Grand Slam champions, and with some of the wins they’ve notched early on, there could be reason to believe. However, the ATP rankings have had more than its fill junior-championship winners who haven’t seen that success translate to the pros in recent years.
The fact that Tomic and Harrison come from two of the nations with the deepest tradition in the game—Australia and the U.S., respectively—doesn’t exactly ease the pressure the two are facing. Questions have been around for years about the state of the game for both countries, and Tomic and Harrison have been hailed as keepers of the flame. That can be an enormous burden for anyone, tasked to follow in the footsteps of Lleyton Hewitt or Andy Roddick—not to mention the all-time greats that came before them, such as Rafter, Agassi or Sampras.
And despite the highlights of their 2011 campaigns, Tomic and Harrison both had some growing pains off the court: Harrison was criticized for offering his opinion on how Roger Federer could hold on to the number-one ranking and Tomic’s “hooning” incident made headlines around the world.
Plus, neither one of the teens would ever be considered a genteel type when things don’t go their way between the lines! Maturity could go a long way in deciding their future paths.
The 2012 season kicked off with mixed results for the pair in Brisbane, Australia, this week: Number-eight seed Tomic defeated Julien Benneteau in three sets, while Harrison fell to veteran Marcos Baghdatis in straights.
Those two scorelines probably won’t do too much to slow or speed up the hype machine for either player. Still, eyes should be kept on Tomic and Harrison over the next 12 months—but perhaps the expectations should be tempered.