Youth Comes of Age in American Tennis
Jimmy Connors keeps talking about turning tennis over to younger players. He may not have to wait much longer.
There is a rising crop of young American tennis players who have been advancing in the rankings for the last year or two and may be ready to break out the way Connors did almost 20 years ago.
Players such as Pete Sampras, last year’s U.S. Open champion, Jim Courier, who won this year’s French Open, 1989 French Open champion Michael Chang and Andre Agassi, a frequent Grand Slam finalist, are all on the verge of breaking through the ranks of the elite tennis players, such as Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Ivan Lendl.
Up and coming players like David Wheaton, John McEnroe’s younger brother Patrick, and Michigan residents MaliVai Washington and Todd Martin are also beginning to attract attention.
Ken Rosewall of Australia was 39 years old and an aging champion when a 21-year old Connors beat him in the finals of Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1974.
Now Connors, who became the story of this year’s U.S. Open, finds himself in the same position as Rosewall.
“It was time for somebody else to come in and take over,” Connors said. “I was 20, 21 years old, time for me to push guys aside. Rosewall was playing unbelievable tennis, but it was time for somebody else to come.
“Now it is time for somebody else to take my place, but if they don’t want it, I’m not going to give it to them.”
Agassi, 21 and seeded eighth, has been a finalist the last two French Opens and last year’s U.S. Open. He has won two tournaments this year, but was bounced out in the first round of the Open by former teen phenom Aaron Krickstein, 24, another Michigan product. Krickstein was later knocked off by Connors in five sets.
Chang won the French Open at 17, but has failed to repeat that performance. He frequently reaches the quarterfinals or semifinals of tournaments, but has yet to win one this year.
But Sampras, seeded sixth, and Courier, seeded fourth, may be the closest to emerging from the pack. The long time friends and sometimes doubles partners are quite different in temperament.
Sampras, the cool, quiet one, surprised many by overpowering his opponents, including Lendl, John McEnroe and Agassi, and firing 100 aces en route to last year’s Open championship.
After a sluggish start this year, he has started returning to championship form, reaching the quarterfinals with a four-set victory over Wheaton.
“It’s going to take some time, certainly to reach the level of Becker and Edberg, and those guys are still more consistent than I am,” Sampras said.
“I am playing kind of an up and down game, whereas Edberg slides all the way through. It’s tough to maintain the level of dominance those guys achieve.
“It seems like the depth of tennis is much stronger than it was say, five, 10 years ago, and guys ranked 100 believe they can beat the number two, three players in the world.”
Wheaton believes he will meet his countryman frequently.
“I think he (Sampras) can win the tournament. He proved he could win it last year,” Wheaton said.
“We are going to play many more matches. I think we are both pretty much here to stay and I’m looking forward to playing him again.”
Courier is a contrast to Sampras in his wisecracking, outspoken style. He has three tour wins this year, including the French Open and has been a semifinalist in his last three tournaments coming into the Open. He believes the media put an obituary on American tennis too quickly.
“I think you guys hyped it a bit too much, a little premature,” Courier said. “We were coming along well and had some of the top juniors in the world. The time you were crying for the next American tennis player, it didn’t take long for us to get here. We have come a little sooner than maybe we even thought.”
Courier, 21, and Sampras, 20, have known each other for nine years. Sampras plays serve and volley more often, while Courier lets his opponent’s style dictate his play, but both hit the ball extremely hard.
Courier says he and Sampras never discussed playing in a Grand Slam when they were juniors.
“I don’t think you can ever really plan that,” he said. “We were just hoping to be able to make a living out of it. We weren’t really thinking that we were going to be ranked in the top 10.”
He also doesn’t feel that facing his buddy is any big deal.
“It is just another match,” Courier added. “You go out there and give 110 percent and you don’t see a face on the other side of the net, you just see a player. Hopefully we are going to be playing each other for the next ten years.”
And maybe by then, they won’t have to worry about facing Connors in the next round.