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VOL. 132 | NO. 35 | Friday, February 17, 2017
Don Wade

Don Wade

The Press Box: Men’s Pro Tennis Needs a Slice of Apple Pie

By Don Wade

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There are a lot of ways to define the state of men’s professional tennis, but maybe the easiest is to open up the 2017 ATP World Tour Media Guide and turn to the alphabetical listing of players. Let’s try the “K” section.

It starts with Croatia’s Ivo Karlovic, the No. 20 player in the Emirates ATP rankings and the No. 1 seed at this week’s Memphis Open at The Racquet Club.

Eleven players are listed in that media guide after him, ranging from Germany’s Philipp Kohlschreiber (No. 33), to Russia’s Konstantin Kravchuk (No. 85 and playing here this week), to Russia’s Mikhail Kukushkin (No. 103 and also in Memphis).

There is one American, by way of Macedonia: 19-year-old Stefan Kozlov (No. 120).

So, how many of these players do you know? If you’re a hardcore tennis fan, you might know Karlovic. But the rest?

Anonymous to almost all Americans.

Understand, this is not to blame American tennis – not exactly – because most of the recent Grand Slam finals participants and winners represent a recycling of a very few legendary non-American names: Djokovic, Federer, Murray and Nadal, with Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka also crashing the party.

As American John Isner, 31, the No. 2 seed here and ranked No. 23, says, those guys have been “carrying” tennis for a long time. But if that’s true, it is also true they have somewhat carried the game away from American eyes.

The last American Grand Slam finalist? Andy Roddick, that Memphis Open past winner and crowd-pleaser, in 2009 at Wimbledon.

The last American Grand Slam winner? Roddick, in 2003, at the U.S. Open.

Know how long ago that was?

It was the first year the Grizzlies made the NBA Playoffs with Hubie Brown as coach and Pau Gasol and Shane Battier as the lead players. The top scorer on John Calipari’s 2003-04 Tigers team was Sean Banks. Phillip Fulmer led the University of Tennessee to a 10-3 record and a No. 15 final AP Poll ranking.

So, yes, a very long time.

Isner, a 6-foot-10 power server who has yet to reach a Grand Slam semifinals but climbed as high as No. 9 in the rankings in 2012, came well after that American wave of the 1990s that included Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Pete Sampras. They all won Grand Slams, from Sampras and his 14 titles to Chang and his one. They all won in Memphis, too.

Different day and time, but Isner is impressed by the young Americans starting to make names for themselves. From Jack Sock, 24, and ranked No. 21; to Ryan Harrison, 24, ranked 62nd and playing the Memphis Open; to Frances Tiafoe, 19, ranked 91st and in this draw; to Jared Donaldson, 20, ranked 100th and in the field; to Taylor Fritz, 19, ranked 114th and back this year after reaching the Memphis Open finals in 2016; and to Reilly Opelka, 19, ranked 180th and in the tournament.

“In my career, which is going on 10 years now, I’ve never seen a crop of players like this,” Isner said. “So many guys that are doing well at 19, 20. And they all seem to have a great head on their shoulders.”

Perhaps the young American who receives the most raves is 19-year-old Michael Mmoh, ranked 184th and who was born in Saudi Arabia; his father, a Nigerian, played on the tour and today is an Atlanta business owner.

Mmoh recently told The Telegraph in London that the young Americans are very aware of the 14-year Grand Slam victory drought.

“It’s up to us to end that,” he said.

And in time, they might.

So what would happen if one of these young guys showed up in a Grand Slam final or two?

“It would inject some life into American tennis, maybe get tennis on the main stage a little bit more,” Isner said. “For an American to come through and do something like that would be pretty special.”

It even wouldn’t have to be limited to someone under age 30. Said Isner, “I still think I’m capable of doing some special things as well.”

Don Wade’s column appears in The Daily News and The Memphis News. Listen to Wade on “Middays with Greg & Eli” every Tuesday at noon on Sports 56 AM and 87.7 FM.

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