October 2, 2022

WIMBLEDON, England — Just in time for the Fourth of July weekend, American men are throwing a party on British soil.

As night fell at the All England Club on Thursday, eight American men were due to advance to the third round of the prestigious Wimbledon tournament, accounting for 25% of the last 32 places. It’s the most American men in the third round of the event since 1995, when nine qualified at the height of Sampras-Agassi-Courier-Chang. It is also the record for all Grand Slam tournaments since the US Open in 1996.

Almost everywhere you looked on Wednesday and Thursday, an American was slamming, chopping or grinding his way into the last 32, and another will clinch his spot on Friday. The sun has seemingly set on the days when every American male player had a big serve and a forehand and not much else.

Some were familiar faces, like John Isner, fighting his way past hometown favorite Andy Murray. But several were part of the next wave of Yanks booming in their mid-twenties — the clique of Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul and Francis Tiafoe who first bonded as teenagers at a national training facility in Florida. And then there were a couple from the wave after that (Jenson Brooksby and Brandon Nakashima) who are still a few years away from needing a daily shave. Two Americans, Maxime Cressy and Jack Sock, one new to the scene, the other a veteran, were vying for the last available spot until rain interrupted their match on Court No. 3 on Thursday.

“It’s been a long, long progression,” said Martin Blackman, the former professional who is the general manager of player development for the United States Tennis Association.

Now, before anyone in the United States rushes to the liquor store to get Pimm’s on ice for a championship celebration, it should be noted that no one expects any of these players to actually win. the men’s singles title, at least not this year. American men’s tennis is deep but light at the top.

The United States now has eight men in the top 50 and 13 in the top 100, more than any other country. Arguably the most promising of the lot, Sebastian Korda, son of former world No. 2 Petr Korda, had to pull out of Wimbledon 10 days ago with shin splints.

It didn’t give me anything to fish for,” Canada’s Denis Shapovalov said of Nakashima, who beat him in four sets on Thursday.

Despite this week’s scramble, there are no Americans in the top 10 and only two in the top 20 – Fritz and Reilly Opelka. Russia and Spain each have two players in the top 10. Spain, the best tennis country of the last decade, has four players in the top 20.

But for a country whose stock of male talent was long considered quite insufficient and which hasn’t had a Grand Slam champion since Andy Roddick won the US Open in 2003, depth represents significant progress. . It is also a kind of motivational tool. A friendly competition has emerged between Americans in their twenties, led by Fritz, and those who have just reached the legal drinking age in the United States, or who are not there. not yet, to be the first to play in the finals of a Grand Slam tournament.

“They’re great for us,” Paul, 25, said of Brooksby, Korda, both 21, and Nakashima, 20. “They push us.”

“For tennis to develop, we are going to need a few winners in the men’s category,” he added.

The USTA knows it too. For years he has tried to perfect a system to help develop players who will work in a vast country with over 330 million people and plenty of competition from more popular sports that are cheaper for good young athletes.

In Europe, especially in Eastern Europe, promising young teenagers often leave home for academies. Academic and psychological support can be thin. A “Lord of the Flies”, sink or swim environment persists. Despite his success there producing formidable talents and champions, including Novak Djokovic, that model was never going to work with American parents.

Instead, for the past decade, the organization has tried to start a trout farm rather than find a unicorn. It has developed a three-tier program of local, regional and national camps that bring together top talent throughout the year, but also allow kids to stay home as long as possible and work with their own coaches. Airfare to the camps is not included, but just about everything else is, even some money for private coaches to attend sometimes so they don’t feel left out of the process at as a young player ages and improves.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. During the crucial developmental years between ages 15 and 22, some players choose to work with USTA coaches and coaches at their training centers in Orlando, Florida, or Carson, Calif. outside Los Angeles. Fritz was on the USTA program for six years, Paul for five years, Opelka for four years and Tiafoe for three years, Blackman said.

Others, like Korda, Nakashima and Brooksby, choose to remain largely outside the system, but they can still qualify for financial support and come to the occasional camp or report to the training center for competition.

Blackman doesn’t want the organization to preach a certain style of play either. on all Nakashima grounds.

At one such camp, a national gathering in Boca Raton, Florida, ten years ago, Fritz, Paul and Tiafoe bonded for the first time.

“It was really boring in those dorms, nothing to do, so we didn’t have much choice,” Fritz said recently.

Fritz, with his big feet and mop of hair, and the least advanced game of the group, quickly became the punching bag of the group, the friendly punching of course.

“A big goofy guy like that, you know he was going to end up being the target,” Tiafoe said.

Paul said Fritz took it well. Fritz also saw that the members of his new clique were better at tennis than him, and he began to work harder to catch up. In a few years, he had taken the lead. He is now the highest-ranked American at No. 14 and the only youngest to win a Masters 1000 tournament, the tier just below the Grand Slam, emerging in Indian Wells, Calif., earlier this year.

They remain close friends and genuinely invested in each other’s success, which helps during a long season filled with travel. Paul has been on the road for almost 10 weeks.

“I’m so homesick I want to vomit,” he said on Thursday.

Text threads and group dinners, sometimes fancy, sometimes burgers and pizza and long bullfights, help. Tiafoe reached the final of a tournament in Portugal earlier this year. Coming off the field after each victory, he found congratulatory notes on his phone from the group.

A huge and extremely difficult task for the next generation and the one just behind them remains to be done – to break into the top 10 and become fixtures in the final matches of the biggest tournaments, like the American women, led by the Williams sisters , have performed for years.

It’s getting closer.

“I expect us to do well in all of these tournaments now,” Paul said. “It’s about winning one more game and going one round deeper.”

Paul has never made the second week of a Grand Slam. On Friday, on the first day of a third round with lots of American company, he will get another chance.