On the heels of American Tommy Paul notching a smart, career-best victory over world #3 Alexander Zverev at the BNP Paribas Indian Wells, it’s time to take that periodic look to see if, at long last, the United States is seeing an uptick in its quality of men’s tennis.
It takes a hot minute to arrive at the answer. There are some encouraging signs for the United States– and some signs that are as ‘meh’ as ever. Read on to find out the final analysis.
At 24 years old, Paul represents the average age of American men inside the ATP Top 50. This age is considered the prime of a tennis player’s career, with 10 solid years of quality play possible, if not probable.
Going into the second week of Indian Wells, the American men are faring nicely, with 7 of them still alive in the draw. Not bad, but don’t we hear this storyline during almost every major tournament?
One way to spot-check the Americans’ progress is to look at the year 2019– the last full, “regular” year on the ATP Tour, when the pandemic didn’t disrupt and torpedo meaningful rankings and normalcy of tournaments. We will take those 2019 metrics and compare them with now, 2022, a year that is off to a good start in terms of tour regularity.
The melange of the pandemic, from 2020-2021, was a time for players to re-evaluate their game styles and even their lives. Some, like Sebastian Korda, made moves up. And the 21-year-old’s loss to Rafael Nadal in a tight first-round match at Indian Wells is a great sign. Others, like Sam Querrey, placed an emphasis on their off-court lives. Now that the dust has settled, let’s see where the boys in stars and stripes sit.
One metric that has not changed is Americans in the Top 10, and one wonders when or if it will change anytime soon, as Europeans continue to dominate. In 2019, as today, the U.S. has zero players in the Top 10. The good news for them, however, is that three Americans sit inside the Top 25, and only one did in 2019. Progress. In addition, the U.S. boasts seven players inside the Top 50 now, and America only had five players inside the Top 50 then. It’s a good sign for the U.S., however incremental that may be.
A healthy sign for the future is if a country’s players with solid rankings are youthful. That portends well. Not every young upstart will live up to his potential, but certainly a few will. Here, again, the news is good-not-great for the United States.
The average age of American men in 2019 was 25.1. Today, that average is 24.9. It’s an ever-so-slight move in the right direction. Another way to look at age is medians. Here, the year 2019 has the edge, as the median American age was 21, while the median now is 24. Paul, Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka and Frances Tiafoe all sit at that prime age of 24. Now’s the time, boys.
Grand Slam Performance
The final metric might be the one with the most cache– or even the most meaningful for tennis fans: quality results where it counts in the Grand Slams. A quarterfinal run by Tiafoe in the 2019 Australian Open and a quarterfinal appearance by Sam Querrey seemed to be a good sign. But in 2019 the Slams featured dozens of first-round losses by Americans to bring the average round made by American men down to just under Round 2. At this year’s Australian Open, the only Slam so far, American men hit an average performance of just over Round 2, bolstered by good runs from Fritz, Maxime Cressey, Opelka and Korda.
So the news is not bad for the U.S. and an optimistic view is that it’s even better than neutral. American men have are seeing an uptick in performance in comparison to their pre-pandemic days.
The coming retirements of Big 3 stalwarts Novak Djokovic, Nadal and Roger Federer in the coming years will leave a vacuum and a free-for-all. Americans should seek to pounce.