It’s the final week of the SAP Open in San Jose. The tournament, which is the second-oldest in the United States, is moving to South America in 2014. It’s another in a long line of signs that point to a giant neon flashing sign saying: “Tennis in the United States is Dying.”
The SAP Open has never attracted an incredibly deep field of international competitors, but it has always attracted the top American talent. In past generations this included John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Andy Roddick, and James Blake. These days, the tournament still attracts the top American talent. It’s just that these days, that talent looks a little different.
Meet John Isner and Sam Querrey. Formerly background players and supporting guest-stars on the stage of American tennis, they are now the leading men. Ranked No. 16 and No. 20 respectively, the best friends teamed together to (barely) lead the USA Davis Cup team to a victory over Brazil in the first round of Davis Cup competition a couple of weeks ago. They’ve been around for about six years, but now with the ATP tour back in the United States for the first time since Roddick’s retirement, the spotlight on them will be brighter than ever.
When most people picture the stereotypical American athlete, they picture a meat-head jock. An aggressive, egotistical, and dim-witted competitor with bravado to spare. Even though the tennis version of the jock is usually slightly nerdier, there’s still that swagger and alpha male energy that makes them stand out from the crowd. But then there’s John Isner and Sam Querrey. Or, as they’re so often known, Quisner.
John Isner is the laid back southerner from North Carolina who loves being part of a team, loves watching wrestling, and loves to stay at home. He talks with a slight lisp and often keeps his head down in press conferences, but always give insightful and in-depth answers to questions despite his lack of eye contact. Unlike a lot of the Americans who tend to stick to their Davis Cup teammates for companionship, he seems to be friendly with everyone on tour, from Pico to Mahut to Fognini.
Sam, meanwhile, has been aptly described as “Napoleon Dynamite” by Bob Bryan. He’s nerdy and off-beat, but in a charmingly professional way. He jokes about being cool in a way that only someone who is decidedly not cool can, and he rarely seems upset, even after a loss. He is alarmingly even-keeled on the tennis court, some would say to fault, and always as polite as can be. In 2007, when he first came on tour, Roddick was struck by his attitude:
“Two years ago, I felt like he had an after-school game,” Roddick said Thursday. “Now I feel like he’s learning all the time. He’s willing to listen. He doesn’t act like he knows anything yet. He’s funny, and he has a big heart.”
Together, Sam and John are more likely to be seen slumping their shoulders than throwing a tantrum, and are more likely to be found reading the gossip magazines than in them. They’re both very sensitive, with Sam famously admitting burn-out in 2010, and Isner always talking frankly with the media about his confidence issues, but they’re also remarkably resilient. And while they might not have the Grand Slams, celebrity, or ego of their American predecessors, it’s time to appreciate them for what they are. Because, frankly, as far as American men’s tennis right now, they’re it.
In 1980, there were seven Americans in the top 10. Right now there are seven (officially) in the top 100.
Roddick’s retired. Mardy Fish has been derailed by a scary heart condition, and hasn’t played since the US Open. Michael Russell is 34. Brian Baker showed a lot of promise last year when he was healthy, but he has yet to prove that he can stay uninjured and consistent enough to really be a threat. Ryan Harrison is a great talent, but he’s only 20 and his best tennis is likely a few years down the line.
Thus we’re left with Quisner.
It’s alarming that a country with such a rich tennis history is struggling so much. The United States certainly has the athletes, the resources, and the juniors infrastructure to develop more top players. In fact, with the Orange Bowl and the Kalamazoo Championships, it has two of the most prestigious junior tennis events in the world. There certainly wasn’t a time when kids in American weren’t playing tennis. So what happened to these top prospects born between 1984-1990? Not only are only three of them in the top 100 currently, but by my count only five others have ever been in the top 100 (Sweeting, Young, Odesnik, Levine*, and Ram).
Before the 2012 Australian Open, Doug Robson checked in with some members of this group which he dubbed the “Lost Generation,” players such as Scoville Jenkins, Brendan Evans, Scott Oudesma, Phillip Simmonds, and Alex Kuznetsov, all players in their mid-twenties who turned pro right after high school:
Swayed by easy money, pushy agents and the example set by previous generations, they chose the trial-by-fire rigors of the pro tour instead of the seasoning of college. The decision took a toll on young bodies and still-developing psyches.
For top U.S. tennis officials, they represent a lost generation.
“I believe we lost a generation of players that turned pro too early and could never really get out of the Challenger-Futures realm,” says Patrick McEnroe, the former Davis Cup captain and general manager of USTA player development. “I don’t want to name names,” he adds, “But basically they all went out on the tour and got the crap beat out of them for 3-4 years and never progressed.”
A decade ago, everything was different. With Courier, Martin, Chang, and Sampras retired and Agassi on his way out, sponsors and the USTA were eager to find the next wave of marketable American stars. Seeing what great success Andy Roddick had at such a young age after turning pro, everyone was eager to duplicate that model. It looked easy, like a no-brainer. Roddick, Safin, Hewitt, Nadal, and Federer were all winning Slams in their early twenties.
Brendan Evans, 26, signed with IMG and was offered a six-figure contract with Nike when he was only fifteen. He retired from the tour last year after struggling with injuries. His career-high ranking was No. 117 and he only had six ATP wins in his career. Twenty-six-year-old Scoville Jenkins, who won the Kalamazoo 18s in 2004 and turned pro, is no longer on tour either. He had a career high ranking of No. 187. Alex Kuznetsov, 25, turned pro when he was 18 after being offered a $2 million dollar deal with Nike. He is still on tour, but is currently ranked No. 267 and has a career-high ranking of No. 157.
And they’re the success stories. Phillip Simmonds, 26, is still on tour and ranked No. 557. His career-high ranking is No. 219. Scott Oudesma, also 26, chose after agonizing over his decision to turn pro at 18, due to the sponsorship offers. He reached a career-high ranking of 255, and is long gone from the tour.
Sam Querrey is the lone guy from this age group to have immediate and consistent success after turning pro out of high school. When he was trying to make a decision, USC’s tennis coach Peter Smith (who, it should be said, was trying to recruit Sam for his team) spoke about the pressure from the USTA:
“These kids are practically threatened. The USTA is doing everything possible to get them to turn pro, and they aren’t going to give them wild cards into events if they say they’re going to college,” Smith said. “The USTA is running a business, and their goal is to fill Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open. I truly believe if they burn 10 or 20 kids along the way to get that done, they will do it.
Last summer I talked with Michael McClune, who at twenty-three is a couple of years younger than the others. He won the Kalamazoo Championships in 2007, and turned pro right afterwards. When we chatted at the Winston-Salem Open, five years after his pro debut, he had just won his first ATP match.
When McClune first turned pro back in 2007, he never would have imagined that it would take five years to get his first ATP tour win, and that his top ranking would still be No. 267 in the world as late as 2010. “Definitely when you are No. 1 as a Junior, I think everyone goes through this where they think it’s going to be a bit easier to make it. I definitely thought that by now I’d be, you know, maybe top 100 or something. After a couple of years on the tour I think reality hits you in the face.”
The reality is that the pro game was much harder to adjust to, both physically and mentally, than he expected. “Physically, it took me until I was 21 to actually put on some weight, not be a stick. That helps a lot because, I mean, grinding every day, I’m sore all the time and I just can’t keep up with these guys. Also, mentally, I was pretty weak until, like, a year ago. I worked with a sports psychologist for a while. That helped me a lot, just getting over nerves, and just having a plan each day.”
McClune lost his second round match in Winston-Salem to Jurgen Melzer, but he had four match points on the former top-tenner. I was impressed with his game and optimistic for his future. However, his ranking has fallen back to No. 364 and last week he lost in the first round of the Dallas Challenger qualies to Jean Anderson, ranked No 988.
So how did two laid back jokesters emerge from this tennis rubble to become top 20 players with wins over the”Big Four”? Well, they certainly didn’t take the same path.
As mentioned above, Querrey turned pro right out of high school in the summer of 2006. He won two out of the first three Challengers he entered, and found himself in the top 100 by February of 2007. Despite a brief exit due to an injury layoff, he’s remained in the top 100 his entire career.
Isner, meanwhile, was far off of the sponsorship radar when he was 18. He got a scholarship to Georgia to play tennis, and became the top college player in the country. It was nearly unheard of for a player to have success on the ATP Tour after spending all four years in college, but that didn’t stop him. He turned pro a year after Sam in the summer of 2007, and immediately won a Futures event, a Challenger, and then made it to the final of Legg Mason. He first entered the top 100 in February of 2008, and has been there since June of 2009. Last spring he briefly broke into the top 10.
Though their routes were different, it’s worth noting the similarities. Neither John nor Sam spent time in a tennis academy in high school – they both lived at home and kept their lives completely normal until they were 18. They both seem to have supportive–but not overly-involved–parents. Their dual “aw shucks” attitudes–so non-stereotypical for American players–have kept them humble enough to put in the hard work, and level-headed enough to survive the bad days.
And then there’s the serve.
There’s no doubt that tennis is more physical than ever, with fitness and footwork now outweighing serving and shotmaking in the top 50. This shift happened during the time that Querrey and Isner were starting out, and their serves bought them time to catch up with (or at least close in on) the rest of the tour in those regards. Players without such a strong weapon often find themselves trapped on the Challenger or Futures tours, so close but so far from their childhood dreams. Once trapped in the lower-level grind of cheap hotel rooms and week-to-week earnings, it’s hard to escape. At a certain point, the drive and confidence that led you to turn pro at 18 falls away along with the sponsorship deals and the spotlight. Querrey and Isner both skipped quickly over that stage.
It’s important to note that these days more and more junior standouts are the choosing college route, probably due to Isner’s example and the failings of the previous generation. With ATP players peaking later and later in their careers, and the top four making it so much more difficult to break through, it’s natural that there would be a shift. But only time will tell whether this produces more players in the top 100, or whether John Isner is another outlier.
Compared to the rest of this generation, it’s hard not to marvel at Isner’s and Querrey’s careers to this point. But as the No. 1 and No. 2 of American tennis, they’re now put into another class, one that has a lot less moral victories.
Though they ended up winning, their Davis Cup tie against Brazil was scarily close. They both have shown that they are capable of bringing their best tennis on the big stages — Querrey has beaten Andy Murray in a final, and Djokovic at the Paris Masters, and Isner has defeated Federer in Davis Cup, and Djokovic at Indian Wells — but their consistency continues to be an issue.
I thought it would be interesting to see how they measured up to the top Americans of past generations in pressure situations:
Despite their career win totals and titles, which are obviously far below their predecessors, it’s absolutely alarming how bad their five-set records are. This is a key reason why they haven’t had more success in Grand Slams.
Isner in particular has been in a five-set free-fall ever since playing his famous marathon match against Mahut. He’s played seven five-setters in the last 13 months and lost six of them. Five of the six losses were to players ranked below him, including his exits in all four Majors last year. It’s a disturbing trend that showed up again in Davis Cup last month when he lost to Thomaz Bellucci in five sets after having a chance to clinch the tie. Time and time again he gets dragged into playing extended matches with players ranked below him. The margins in his game are so small that unless he’s 100% mentally “there” during a match, he has as much of a chance of losing to a player outside of the top 100 as he does of beating a player in the top five. He has built a top 20 career on small margins, but there’s also a distinct possibility that he will plateau and crumble on them as well.
While Querrey’s more aggressive game doesn’t get him dragged into extended matches as often as Isner, his 1-5 record in five-setters is hardly any better. It’s also alarming that he’s below 50% in his career in tiebreaks and deciding sets, which is seemingly unheard of for a player with his powerful serve. Even Michael Chang was a better tiebreak player!
Though they’ve already surpassed their peers and the expectations of so many, it’s hard not to look at those statistics and feel like Querrey and Isner have left a lot of career on the table, and that they have the potential to climb even higher in the next few years. It’s nice for them–and for American tennis–that they have each other for motivation and support, since the rest of their peers are so far behind.
We don’t get any do-overs in life. We’ll never know for sure if we could have multiplied the amount of Americans in the top 100 right now by keeping them in college or training them differently. There’s always the possibility that the talent was never there in the first place. The ATP is more competitive and global than ever, and the days of the top 100 looking like an American frat house are far gone. But with the resources the country has, it would be foolish not to look back and examine the stories of those who have struggled.
It would also be foolish not to appreciate the success of those who have broken through. Though the success of Quisner might be more Sundance than summer blockbuster, at least it’s something. Can you imagine what American tennis would look like if they hadn’t broken through? (Hint: it looks like Ryan Harrison and Michael Russell playing singles in Davis Cup.)
It’s going to be interesting to see how the next two months of tennis in the United States look with Isner and Querrey at the helm. I hope that they both step up proudly into their roles, win some smaller tournaments, and make deep runs at the Masters. They’re certainly both capable of that. But even more than that, I hope that the American public will look beyond their often-dopey demeanors and waiting-in-line on-court personas and appreciate them for the fantastic athletes and great human beings that they are.
Unfortunately it’s too late to save a great tournament like San Jose, and it’s likely that due to the depth of the game we must make-over our entire expectations of American tennis going forward. Perhaps the Quisner years will be viewed a mere lull between the Roddick/Blake and Harrison/Sock years. Or perhaps we’ll look back on this time a decade from now and think how lucky we were to have two guys in the top 20. Only time will tell.
But right now we have Quisner. Gosh darn-it, you guys. Let’s enjoy it.
Gotta love @quisner! Always fun hanging out with them. 2 of the happiest and funniest dudes on tour.
— Michelle Bryan (@MIAlva) May 7, 2011