It has been a long nine years since a 21-year-old Andy Roddick broke out into emotions after winning an improbable U.S. Open title. At the time, many in the tennis universe saw Roddick as the next big star, as the American male to succeed the likes of the greats in Agassi, Sampras, McEnroe and Connors.
Always known for its tennis, the United States had long been the most dominant country when it came to winning Grand Slam titles. They always seemed to have the best equipment, the most talented players and the best venues.
The U.S. Open had always been a celebration of the great history and hope for the future of American tennis. Pete Sampras had long been the winningest male in all of the sport and Chris Evert and Helen Willis Moody of the U.S. sat just behind Margaret Court and Steffi Graf for most majors on the women's side.
While the women's tradition survived thanks to the dominance of Serena and Venus Williams, the glory and Grand Slam titles stopped coming for the men when the greats retired. Roddick's 2003 title was the last by an American male, a drought that unfortunately looks like it might continue.
There is, however, a light at the end at the end of the tunnel as the USTA continues to work on new developmental programs each and every day.
The USTA: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back
With Roddick's announced retirement and both Serena and Venus likely nearing the end of their careers, the United States Tennis Association (USTA) is going to have a tough time finding the next generation of U.S. tennis stars. In fact, while America has remained stagnant in terms of getting better, other countries such as Spain have improved vastly. In short, the U.S. and their development programs have fallen behind.
Just when it seems the U.S. has found the so-proclaimed, "star of the future," something always seems to go wrong. It all began back when Sam Querrey, now 24, was just a youngster coming up in the juniors. The common words you see floating around a star athlete all followed Querrey. He was identified as having potential, of having enough talent to be in the top 10, of being someone who could win a major.
Now, Sam is still young but so far none of these things have yet to happen for him. A rash of injuries including a bad shoulder that needed surgery kept him out of competition for close to a year and kept him from reaching that expected potential. Achieving a career-best rank of No. 17 in the world a few years ago, this potential started to look slim as it was now thought that he might have peaked.
The biggest thing for Sam going forward is the here and now, specifically this U.S. Open tournament. If he wants to prove that the injuries are in the past and that he hasn't peaked, now is the time. He is healthy and right now still under 25, leads a crop of a lot of up-and-coming players that America hopes that just one of them, will strike gold.
In addition to Querrey, there have been other young Americans still struggling to reach their potential. Former world junior No. 1 Donald Young is one of them. Melanie Oudin, the former world No. 2 junior is another.
Making Progress With New Developmental and College Programs
For the United States, considering their storied tennis background, it sounds weird to say that they are making progress to returning to that state of glory.
Recently, the USTA has put a lot of effort into its developmental programs. They have stressed programs such as "10 and Under Tennis," where smaller courts, balls and rackets are used to encourage kids to pick up the game.
Another area that the USTA has really stressed as of late is their college tennis programs, something that is starting to show dividends at the Grand Slam level.
A perfect example of this is John Isner.
While some of his peers were out trying to qualify for the professional tour-level tournaments, Isner was busy lighting up the college universe at the University of Georgia. He was really one of the first Americans to be brought up in this new development of college programs and unlike many, he spent all four years there, including winning a National title with an undefeated season.
Isner was an all-American and one of the best players in college during his four years. Although the results of his time at Georgia didn't show right away, Isner quickly made the decision to go pro following college. After some time at the challengers and futures level, Isner started to get some big wins and then Wimbledon 2009 happened.
After completing the longest match in tennis history and etching his name into the record books for all-time, Isner's career really launched. He earned the nickname "Marathon Man" and began to rise in the rankings. In 2012 as the highest ranked American, he also became a Davis Cup hero in recording his biggest career win over Roger Federer in Switzerland.
2012 U.S. Open Brings a Wealth of the Next Generation of College Stars
With new emphasis put on college tennis and recruitment, this year's U.S. Open saw more and more under 22-year-old players entered into the draw. Some reached via a wildcard, others a qualifying tournament and some still on ranking alone.
In all, there were 85 Americans entered either into the qualifying singles or main draw. A good handful of those players were fresh out of college or still in college, all at or under the age of 22.
Bradley Klahn, a senior at Stanford and standout college star is just 22 and this year made it to the second round of the U.S. Open. Fellow college and NCAA champion Steve Johnson is currently in the third round, joined by the 19-year-old miniature Andy Roddick, Jack Sock. The 20-year-old Ryan Harrison, considered by many to be one of the next great U.S. players and the 18-year-old Dennis Novikov all reached the second round.
While these young stars are all promising, it is on the women's side with 20-year-old Christina McHale and 19-year-old Sloane Stephens that there is really progress being made. Both of these women have had great years and both are currently ranked in the top 50 in the world.
They've Come So Far, But How Far Is There Left to Go?
As I mentioned, it is great that so many young American players reached at least the second round of the 2012 U.S. Open. It should be a good sign of a bright future.
The negative to this, however, is that it is the second round. Tons of Americans reached the second and a handful reached the third but so far, it doesn't look like it will go beyond there. Maybe Roddick, Mardy Fish, James Blake or John Isner will get to the fourth but none of them are expected to go past that. Not to mention of all of them, only Isner is under 30.
Where American tennis seems to have hit a standstill is the fact that they don't have a guy that can make it to the quarters with consistency. Fish has had injury issues, Roddick is retiring and Isner, who most believe has the potential to win a Grand Slam, is about as hot and cold as they come.
The 20-year-old Harrison and 19-year-old Sock are the two guys right now that are the biggest hopefuls. Harrison has a strong serve and a pretty good forehand but his game is far from polished. He has yet to beat a top-15 player in the world and still has a lot to improve on. Sock is in a similar situation.
Essentially, U.S. tennis is close. They are close to regaining that glory and with every passing tournament and improvement made, it just seems that it is on the horizon, inching closer and closer to reality.
There are guys waiting in the wings. It might take a few more years, they might not win majors in their early 20s, but one day an American male will stand back atop that podium.
Although it is still a while away, it is not a matter of if, but a matter of when.