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The Question: Can the United States ever live up to its mythic tennis past?
The U.S. has 30 players in the ATP and WTA Top 100s, triple what it had in 2010. The next task is translating those big numbers of players into bigger results at the majors.
Published Oct 20, 2021
WATCH: Tennis Channel Live discusses the American men at the 2021 US Open.
This year’s US Open got off to a stormy start for Kathy Rinaldi. On her way to New York from her office in Florida, the USTA’s head of women’s coaching was met by Tropical Storm Henri. A few days later, the remnants of Hurricane Ida brought the city to a watery halt.
But this was the Open, the three weeks that matter most in American tennis, and Rinaldi had too many players to check in on to let anything slow her down.
“The qualifying, the main draw, the juniors, I’ll be here,” she said as the tournament began. “We feel great about the numbers.”
“The numbers” Rinaldi was referring to were the 30 American players ranked in the WTA and ATP Top 100s when the US Open began—17 on the women’s side, 13 on the men’s. That’s double what France, the second-most prolific country, had; and it’s almost triple the number of Top 100 players (11) the U.S. fielded in 2010. According to Rinaldi, this numerical success story can be credited to the wide-net development system that the USTA has implemented over the past decade.
“We put a good structure in place, with a broad base of players from around the country,” Rinaldi says. “Camps, tournaments, trips, working with private coaches—we’ve done what we can to help as many of our juniors transition to the pros.”
In recent years U.S. tennis fans have watched as waves of American players have followed each other up the rankings. The women made their move first. In 2017, Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys, CoCo Vandeweghe and Venus Williams reached the US Open semifinals, and led the country’s Fed Cup team to its first title in 17 years. In 2019, Amanda Anisimova made the semifinals at Roland Garros, and Coco Gauff reached the fourth round in her Wimbledon debut. In 2020, Sofia Kenin won the Australian Open and was runner-up at Roland Garros. In 2021, Jennifer Brady was a finalist in Melbourne, while Jessica Pegula and Danielle Collins had career seasons.
“We’ve worked with just about everyone today at different times,” Rinaldi says. “When they see someone who they know and practice with succeed, they think, ‘If they can do it, I can do it.’”
This is also as diverse a cast of players as U.S. tennis has produced. Martin Blackman, head of USTA Player Development, says that the staying power of the Williams sisters continues to be a factor in drawing players to the sport. The “Venus and Serena effect” may have taken longer to manifest itself than originally expected, but Blackman doesn’t think we’ve seen the last of their influence.
“You have these two sisters who came from outside the tennis world, that really resonates with a lot of families,” Blackman says. “I know Corey Gauff [Coco’s father] looked at how the Williams sisters came up. I think we’ll see more players inspired by them. It’s our job to help them.”
You just have to bust your butt every single day. Ola Malmqvist, USTA director of coaching
As far as the most productive ways to give that help, Blackman says that he and the USTA have learned a lot about what works and doesn’t work in a country of 330 million. On the one hand, the organization centralized its operations by building a $100 million, 100-court National Campus in Lake Nona, Fla. On the other, it has decentralized by running camps around the county, creating partnerships with junior players’ private coaches and clubs, and giving them the freedom to train where they want. The days of the 24/7 academy are over; the idea now is to facilitate each player’s individual path up the pro mountain.
“We have to have a hybrid system in a country this size,” Blackman says. “Ninety-nine percent of juniors stay at home until they’re 14 or 15; we want to support them where they are. At 15 and 16, the cost skyrockets for travel, so we try to make whatever resources we have available. The final step is to set them up with their own team.”
Ann Li is one of the players who has taken the USTA’s path into the pros. In 2017, the Pennsylvania native reached the Wimbledon girls’ final. Since then, she has made the third round at the US Open and Australian Open. Li began in a USTA program in Philadelphia, moved to another in New York, and then migrated to Lake Nona. There she met her current coach, Henner Nehles. When Nehles moved to Georgia last year, Li went with him.
“The training at the center is amazing,” Li says. “You have the gym, physios, red clay, green clay. There’s a lot of competition, and you feel like you’re part of a team. I miss that, but nothing is better than working one on one with someone.”
Michael Joyce, a former coach of Maria Sharapova who was hired by the USTA last year, agrees.
“It’s tough to take a 16- or 17-year-old and have them leave [a coach],” says Joyce, who works full time with 17-year-old Ashlyn Krueger. “They need the consistency. You look at [Jenson] Brooksby, he’s been with the same coach since he was 7.”
The pandemic and its aftermath left the USTA little choice other than to take a less-encompassing approach. Last June the organization cut 110 jobs and folded Player Development into its broader community tennis program. The restructuring, according to one USTA coach, was “brutal.” But being leaner can have advantages.
“You can control more and push more from the top,” says Ola Malmqvist, USTA director of coaching. “You can spend more time with more select people, and have a bigger impact.”
American players continued to have success post-pandemic and post-downsizing. In 2021, the country’s men created their own mini-wave. Sebastian Korda, 21, made the fourth round at Wimbledon; Brooksby, 20, reached the final in Newport and the semis in Washington, D.C.; Mackenzie McDonald made the final in D.C., and Reilly Opelka did the same in Toronto; John Isner and Brandon Nakashima, 20, played the final in Atlanta; Frances Tiafoe won a title on grass.
“We’re doing a better job as a country on the men’s side,” Malmqvist says. “It’s so physical in men’s tennis that you can have all the talent in the world, but you still have to work your ass off in a smart way.”
Malmqvist thinks the arrival of the younger set—Korda, Brooksby, Nakashima—has helped spark their compatriots.
“These guys are professional and are getting better fast,” he says. “No one wants to lose to someone younger.”
None of the U.S. men made bigger strides this summer, literally or figuratively, than the 6’11” Opelka, who works with former USTA coach Jay Berger. In August, Opelka beat Stefanos Tsitsipas in Toronto, and became the top-ranked American man. By then, the 24-year-old had heard enough about how today’s U.S. game doesn’t measure up to its mythic past.
“The media and the press have been extra harsh, I think, on American tennis success,” Opelka said. “They’ve been comparing it to an unrealistic era. The game has changed, American tennis is in a great spot.”
Through the Open’s first week, it was hard to argue with that assessment. Shelby Rogers upset top seed Ashleigh Barty. Opelka made the fourth round at a Slam for the first time, and Brooksby did the same in his second Grand Slam main draw. Pegula, Collins and Stephens looked sharp in reaching the third round. Anisimova lost a second-round thriller to Karolina Pliskova, but “she looked like she was enjoying tennis again,” Malmqvist said. Tiafoe lit up a night-session crowd in his win over fifth-seeded Andrey Rublev.
“Americans are playing great tennis, I’m happy to be a part of it,” said Tiafoe, who developed his game at a USTA regional training center in College Park, Md. “But again, I’m on my own path, and everyone’s on their own path, so everybody will take different times to get there.”
This year’s US Open, it turned out, was not that time. In a historical first, no player from the United States reached the quarterfinals. To add insult to injury, Leylah Fernandez and Felix Auger-Aliassime of Canada—population 38 million—made the women’s final and the men’s semifinals, respectively.
A summer of hope ended with familiar negative headlines and difficult-to-answer questions.
“Yeah, it’s frustrating,” Opelka said. “We’ve got a huge group of guys there. We just don’t have the world-beaters.”
"Very disappointing,” Blackman told the AP, “no ifs, ands or buts about it.
“We need to see better results in the Slams next year.”
The U.S. has built a pipeline to the pros, but not to the top of the game. Many reasons for this are cited, but it remains hard to pinpoint one. Do fewer of our best athletes choose tennis than in other countries? Possibly, but Blackman believes that’s not as true on the women’s side these days.
You have these two sisters who came from outside the tennis world, that really resonates with a lot of families. I know Corey Gauff [Coco’s father] looked at how the Williams sisters came up. I think we’ll see more players inspired by them. It’s our job to help them. Martin Blackman, head of USTA Player Development
“Tennis is the highest-paid pro sport for women,” he says, “it offers college scholarship opportunities, and the success of Venus and Serena has helped broaden our base.”
Is our system of educating coaches not as rigorous as in other nations? Patrick McEnroe brought this issue up when he stepped down as head of Player Development in 2014. Malmqvist says the USTA has taken steps to address it with a new coaching-education program.
“It used to be two days, three days,” he says, “now it can last up to a year.” Are Americans not willing to work as hard as players from less-well-funded countries? Joyce doesn’t believe that’s true.
“Maria [Sharapova] was incredibly driven,” he says. “But when I was with Jessie Pegula, she was similar, she worked incredibly hard, and she already had money. Good players here have similarities to good players in other countries.”
Joyce does say that young U.S. players have advantages that can be counterproductive in the long run.
“Americans get wild cards, and they sign with agencies, and their rankings and the expectations around them can get inflated, so they may skip steps in the process,” he says. “When you saw a young Russian player on tour, you knew she had worked her way up through every level, and it wasn’t hype.”
Yet there are reasons for the U.S. to be pleased, like Rinaldi, with “the numbers.” It means there’s always hope somewhere on the horizon. Even this year’s US Open offered up some in the end. Gauff and her partner, Ohio native Caty McNally, reached the doubles final, and played to chants of “U-S-A!” Robin Montgomery, a 17-year-old African-American who has trained in College Park, won the girls’ singles title, and the doubles with Krueger.
For Malmqvist, after everything about U.S. tennis is said and done, and this stormy US Open has passed into the history books, there’s only one way forward for those involved in the American game: “You just have to bust your butt every single day.”