- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Google “American tennis” and the results aren’t kind.

On the first page alone, headlines range from carefully cautious to utterly depressing.

“Is Jack Sock America’s next great hope in tennis?”

“Can U.S. tennis rise again?”

“The U.S. will never dominate tennis again. And neither will any country.”

Ironically, none of the initial headlines in the search results mention Serena and Venus Williams, the two most dominant players in women’s tennis since the start of the 21st century. Google’s algorithm focuses primarily on the American men — who haven’t won a Grand Slam title since Andy Roddick snared the U.S. Open in 2003.

Over the next 14 years, men’s tennis has been controlled by four men — Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray. Four generational, non-American talents.

In this era, any promising U.S. player is tagged “America’s next great hope.”

That includes the American talent at the Citi Open, happening at Rock Creek Park Tennis Center this week through Aug. 6.

“It goes in one ear and out the other,” said Jack Sock, who was the feature of a Rolling Stone profile this year asking if he was the sport’s American savior.

Sock, 24, is the second-highest ranked American in men’s tennis — ranked 19th in the world. He’s playing in Thursday’s Round of 16 at the Citi Open, against Jared Donaldson or Marc Polmans at a time to be determined.

Donald Young and Steve Johnson, two American players who’ve also been cast, at one time or another, as saviors of American tennis, were also in the field at the Citi Open, though Young lost late Tuesday. Johnson plays late Wednesday.

Savior. It’s a label not based on the reality of what happens inside the white lines on the court, but a manifestation of the emotional hunger of American fans. It’s something Sock understands.

“The U.S. fanbase is not spoiled, but we’ve had so many good players that come through here, so many Grand Slam champions, No. 1s in the world — it’s definitely understandable,” Sock said. “I definitely get it. If I was a tennis fan, I’d want someone up there as well.”

The problem is not a uniquely American problem, per se. After all, the four players atop the sport have dominated the world, not just the U.S.

Federer, who turns 36 next week, is winning at unprecedented levels, considering his age. The Swiss just won his first Wimbledon in five years, his eighth time doing so.  He has the most Grand Slam titles of all-time with 19. 

Nadal, after battling back and wrist injuries a few years ago, is having a resurgence and won this year’s French Open. The 31-year-old Spaniard has 15 Grand Slam titles. 

Britain’s Murray is in the prime of his career.

Djokovic, from Serbia, is dealing with a back problem, but modern medicine can extend careers in ways it couldn’t in the days of John McEnroe.

Rising stars like Austria’s Dominic Thiem and Germany’s Alexander Zverev, like the Americans, are often left on the outside looking in.

“It’s very unusual that you have four players like this is one generation, but I think it’s getting better for the younger players,” said Thiem, who is ranked No. 7 in the world and is the top seed at the Citi Open. “There are some tournaments where we’ve had a breakthrough against them.”

The U.S. potentially had a breakthrough at Wimbledon — with Sam Querrey, ranked 24th in the world, advancing to the semifinals. Querrey was the lone American among the country’s four best male players to skip the Citi Open —though John Isner ended up pulling out with a knee injury.

In the District, the Citi Open has seen a drought of American winners. Sloane Stephens won the women’s portion in 2015, but an American hasn’t won the men’s title since Roddick in 2007.

Citi Open tournament director Keely O’Brien said she was optimistic about the next generation of U.S. talent, even with the heavy expectations and pressures put on them to become the next star.

“I think they all really carry it well,” O’Brien said. “They’re professionals. They’re here. This is their sport, this is their livelihood. This is their passion, their love. I think some may feel some extra pressure to be in that category. But if anything, I think some of them are thriving because of it and getting noticed.”

There were times over Citi Open’s 49-year history when Americans dominated. Andre Agassi is a five-time winner. Roddick has won three times. Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe are among the other notable American winners.

O’Brien’s focus, though, centered around collecting the best talent possible to play in the tournament. In her first year as tournament director, O’Brien and her team were successful in getting names like Kei Nishikori, Nick Kyrgios, Simona Halep and the return of three-time Citi Open winner Juan Martin del Potro to play in the District.

The goal was making the Citi Open a destination for the top talent in the world.

“Fans here, love all players. I don’t think at the end of the day, it’s not the Olympics — where you’re so prideful for your country,” O’Brien said. “You have the Americans that would love to see Nishikori win and would love to see del Potro win. I don’t think it really matters. It would be great for American tennis to go up, but fandom is across the board, which is awesome. I love that.”

But until an American male breaks through on the world stage, the longing for  “America’s next great hope” persists.

“Obviously, we’re doing our best,” Sock said. “We’re not out here. We don’t want to stay around 17 or 18 in the world. We want to move up, be the next No.1 or the next Grand Slam champion. We’re all working towards that.”

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