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ATP

INSIDE THE LINES: A RETURN TO THE TOP FOR AMERICAN MEN’S TENNIS

by Mike McIntyre

February 28, 2023

Hello tennis fans and welcome to “Inside the Lines,” a column I’ll be writing for the National Bank Open presented by Rogers each week that features news and story lines from the world of men’s tennis.

Growing up as a tennis fan in the late 1980s and early 1990s, I was fortunate enough to witness an era of greatness for American men’s tennis.

Not only did I catch the tail end of the legendary careers of Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, but I got the prime years of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang, who all took turns at or near the very top of the ATP Tour during this time. All were Grand Slam champions and had represented their country at the Olympics as well as at the Davis Cup where they won the prestigious international team competition three times in the span of six years.

While my kids today get to enjoy Canadians winning such events and are big fans of Felix Auger-Aliassime and Denis Shapovalov in the men’s game, my first vivid memories of watching tennis were of Americans like Connors and Mac. Their tempers on court aligned with mine as a kid, what can I say?

Having the opportunity in recent years to interview Connors has been truly special for me as he was one of my idols growing up. During my first ever press conference with him, I was interrupted for a follow-up question at his National Bank Open Hall of Fame induction ceremony. Before I could lament the missed opportunity, Connors interjected on my behalf and said, “I believe Mike had another question for me.” For a rookie reporter, it was a very validating moment and one I’ll never forget.

In 2020 on the Match Point Canada podcast, Ben Lewis and I interviewed Connors and it was a really special opportunity to have such a lengthy amount of time talking to someone who I looked-up to growing up.

Other notable American players and results on the ATP that stood out to me back then include Agassi winning his first major at Wimbledon in 1992 as well as his unexpected title at Roland Garros in 1999, Sampras winning seven out of eight years at the All-England Club as well as Michael Chang having to resort to under-arm serves against Ivan Lendl on the road to winning the French Open title at the age of 17, defeating Stefan Edberg in the final.

As the men who carried the torch for American tennis in the 1990s began to wind down their careers, it was Andy Roddick who came along and offered the potential to pick-up where the above players left-off. Although he captured but a single major title at the 2003 US Open, to me he was far more talented and accomplished than that. How many times was he denied by Roger Federer at Wimbledon, where surely he would have beaten anyone else in the field?

Roddick’s big serve, his volleys on the grass at Wimbledon and his overall confidence/cockiness definitely resonated with me and kept American tennis fans interested in the men’s game. When he retired, deciding to hang up his racquet just before his 30th birthday, things seemed to go downhill fast for his compatriots on the ATP.

Since that time American tennis fans have been waiting for a return to glory for their male tennis players, while being fortunate enough to enjoy the great Serena Williams stand atop the WTA and capture 23 Slams, while also seeing others like her sister Venus, as well as Sloane Stephens and Sofia Kenin hoist major titles.

Recently however, American men have displayed a readiness to help the women out in terms of carrying the load of expectations for tennis south of the border. Last week, Taylor Fritz became the first American man since Roddick to crack the top five in the rankings.

“It’s a huge honour to be the first American in the Top 5 since [Roddick] was and I’m hoping that I can take it even further,” Fritz said after he reached that career milestone.

Could Fritz be a future Slam champion? Certainly in 2022 he proved he is capable of winning big matches, as evidenced by his triumph at his home tournament of Indian Wells in March over Rafael Nadal. His success there was captured by the recent Netflix release, “Break Point”, which highlighted just how meaningful an accomplishment that was for the young talent.

Fritz has shown steady improvements over the last few years and while acknowledging his achievement recently he also indicated the need to avoid letting it become a distraction.

“It’s obviously pretty exciting to be Top 5,” he acknowledged. “Now I just need to focus on the tournament week and not so much about the ranking.”

Fritz is far from alone in terms of fellow Americans in the upper levels of the ATP rankings right now. In fact, there are nine others inside the top fifty at this moment. With the exception of 37-year-old veteran John Isner, all of them are under 25 years of age which bodes well for the coming years in terms of the growth and potential of men’s tennis in the US.

While I grew up excited about the achievements and personalities of American tennis stars, I’m certainly very much enjoying the success in recent years that our Canadian stars have had. I’ve often mused how fantastic it would be if we could enjoy a rivalry between US and Canadian tennis players similar to what we’ve seen in the hockey world, both with our men’s and women’s national teams. Perhaps even a cross border home and away, best of seven series style of competition could work between Canada and the United States?

Tennis could use a shot in the arm here in North America and I think something along those lines could go a long way towards building some hype for the sport in both countries. True it’s tough to find time in the already very busy tennis season for new events, but most pros seem pretty open to playing in exhibition matches come December. We’ve got plenty of indoor arenas that time of year that could be used to host such an event, so it’s not outside of the realm of possibility. Best of all, with the recent return of top level American talent, we now have a fairly even group of tennis players between both countries who I believe will bring the sport to new heights in years to come.