AMERICAN TENNIS: IT'S TIME TO BE GREAT AGAIN


Photographs: Getty Images


Taylor Fritz’s triumph at the unofficial fifth major, Indian Wells, was a watershed moment for the California native.


Not only was it a dream come true for Fritz, but it also represented a shift in fortune for American men’s tennis, which had not produced a homegrown winner in the Coachella Valley since Andre Agassi in 2001.


Yep, you read that correctly, 2001.


So, how has such a dominant force in global tennis taken 21 years to etch another name onto the honour board at Indian Wells?


There have been some fine players this millennium to have represented the ‘Stars and Stripes’ but none have really followed the path laid out by their predecessors of decades gone by.


Between 1980 and 1999, the United States accounted for 32 of 83 major titles under household names such as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Jim Courier.


Adding to this boastful period for the good ol’ US of A were five Davis Cup victories and a further three runners-up results, cementing their position as the powerhouse of men’s tennis in the late twentieth century.


The 2000s started off in good fashion, with Agassi carrying his ‘90s form through Y2K to lift three Australian Open titles between 2000 and 2003.


With the eight-time major winner entering the twilight of his career, the States had earmarked a new generation to take over the mantle, led by young gun Andy Roddick.


Roddick lived up to the early hype and won his home slam in 2003, pulling off escape acts in the semi and the final to take the crown and the world No. 1 ranking by year’s end - all at the tender age of 21.


Unfortunately for American men’s tennis, that would be its last singles triumph at a major.


Roddick would go on to fall agonisingly short at Wimbledon on three occasions and all to one man, Roger Federer.


Federer has been the biggest roadblock to not only American success, but, well, everyone’s bar Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic.


The ‘Big 3’ have dominated the sport for a large part of the twenty-first century in such a way that won’t be seen again. They’ve prevented some truly remarkable players from winning major tournaments for the best part of the millennium and unbelievably, continue to do so.


Yet, father time waits for no man and the ‘Big 3’ are no exception to that.


Sooner or later the tap must eventually run dry and tennis desperately needs its next crop of stars to announce themselves.


For American tennis, that time has come.


After years of flying the flag near the top of the men’s game, John Isner has been joined and superseded by a crop of young stars ready to lift the USA back to the top of the sport.


At the time of writing, the United States boasts seven players inside the top 40 in the world and a further five between 50 and 100. The most encouraging aspect about their top 40 cohort is that six of them are aged 24 and under - with Isner the exception at 36 years old.


But can any of them take the next step and achieve major glory?


American tennis stalwart and former coach of Federer and Sampras, Paul Annacone, certainly thinks so.


“Yeah, I think so. To me this is one of the things that I talked so much about with Pat Rafter and Wally (Masur) when I was down in Australia,” Annacone told The First Serve’s Brett Phillips in an exclusive interview at Indian Wells.


“This is what you want, you want a big pack of players to push each other because it’s almost impossible, if you’re competitive, to not get better when you have a group like this.


“The key is to realise that you need more players in each layer of the professional ranks. Sure, we all want Davis Cup champions, Billie Jean King Cup champions and major champions, but you want more layers filled with your players and that’s what the US has right now.


“So for me, it’s very exciting and who knows, maybe one day Rafa (Nadal), Roger (Federer) and Novak (Djokovic) will actually age and not play and if that happens, why can’t they be in that conversation of the ‘next group’ that’s kind of the best of the rest.”


Annacone’s pupil Fritz certainly seems to be leading the pack and improving from tournament to tournament, but the champion coach believes any one of them could make the leap at any moment.


“I think there’s a bunch of em. Reilly Opelka because of his serve, by default, he should be there and also, he’s an unbelievable athlete. Frances Tiafoe…we’ve seen how well he can play when he can stay healthy. Jenson Brooksby, I mean he’s had a meteoric rise.


“I’d be shocked if at least a couple of those players aren’t in the top 15 and knocking on top 10 in the next 18 to 24 months or so.


“Also, Tommy Paul has done some great stuff. It’s hard for me to single all these guys out, look at what Seb Korda has done. Seb and Brandon Nakashima and obviously Jenson are a couple years younger so they’ve got more time but they’ve all got the tools to be there or thereabouts which is exciting.”


Indeed, it’s an exciting time for men’s tennis and especially for those born under the ‘Stars and Stripes’.


The last few years on tour have seen some new faces write their name in the history books, but none have taken over.


With Federer, Nadal and Djokovic entering the sunset of their careers and no heir apparent, perhaps these youngsters will make American tennis great again.