Posted by: mdegeorge | September 9, 2011

It’s been red, white and boon for host country at U.S. Open

As Donald Young was erring himself out of Flushing, ensuring that the sports’ fearsome foursome would remain intact in the quarterfinals of 2011’s final major, he probably wasn’t in the mood to contemplate the ramifications of the performances this week and a half in New York by those flying the same flag as he.

The 84th ranked player in the world exited in the round of 16 to Andy Murray Thursday in straight sets, committing 53 unforced errors in the conclusion of the deepest run in a major in his still (no pun intended) young career. The effort will likely allow him to climb to his highest world ranking, the previous mark set at No. 73 in the spring of 2008.

Even if he's not the future of American tennis, Donald Young and his compatriots have mad the most of this year's U.S. Open. (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

He and others could be forgiven for failing to believe the 2011 U.S. Open would be a boon for players from the host country. Sure, Mardy Fish entered the tournament playing the best tennis of his life, fresh off a win against a beat-up Rafael Nadal.

But the positives for the Americans were few and far between. For the first time in a decade, Andy Roddick wasn’t the standard-bearer for the American men – that honor going to Fish – as Roddick tumbled to 21 in the rankings. The other frequent male protagonist over the last decade or so, James Blake, is smack in the middle of his exit from the sport’s upper (or rather middle) echelon at age 31. On the women’s side of the draw, Venus and Serena Williams, the only American women worth mentioning for the last five years or more, arrived off fourth-round exits at Wimbledon with seeds in the 20s and more medical procedures and injuries in the last year than tournaments played.

It had the makings of a disastrous tournament for the host nation.

But even before the backlog of washed-out matches unfurls ahead of Monday’s planned men’s final, the 2011 U.S. Open has the chance to be a defining moment in the course of the nation’s tennis program.

Four American men advanced to the Round of 16, with Young and Fish falling while John Isner and Roddick advanced to the quarterfinal. It’s the first time since 2008 that two Americans made the quarters and the first time since 2003 that Americans comprised a quarter of the round of 16. In the 90s, it was commonplace for nearly half of the fourth round to consist of Americans, the likes of Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Todd Martin, Jim Courier, those McEnroes and others frequently making deep runs at majors.

An impressive turnout on home soil isn’t anything earth-shattering. But even within that context, the Americans’ feat is rather rare. The French put five men into the round of 16 at the 2008 French Open, the only time in the last 20 years they’ve managed four or more to that level. Over that time period, the Australians have never had four men advance to the same round of 16 at their home major.

Young’s run is perhaps the most impressive of the group. He gutted out a tough five-setter in the second round against No. 14 Stanislas Wawrinka, going down two-sets-to-one before disposing of the Swiss player in a fifth-set tiebreaker. His next win was a straight-sets demolition of Juan Ignacio Chela, the 24th ranked player in the world, before running into Murray.

It’s not unheard of for an American to emerge with one impressive run at a major and then disappear. It’s looking increasingly like Melanie Oudin’s fourth-round at Wimbledon followed by the quarters at the U.S. Open in 2009 are entering that category with such esteemed colleagues as Robby Ginepri’s 2005 U.S. Open semi and Alexandra Stevenson’s 1999 Wimbledon semi.

But even if Young’s performance is a one-offer, there’s plenty more to rejoice in for the future of American tennis than the four round-of-16 finishers. The draw is littered with American surprises, and positive ones for a change.

Roddick is proving that while his powerful serve has diminished with age, he still retains the competitive fire and veteran guile necessary to win matches. Isner seems poised for a breakthrough yet again, making his monstrous serve and gargantuan frame work for him with better efficiency than ever.

Isner’s road to the final was littered with Americans, including Alex Bogomolov, who advanced to the third round at both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open this season and is quietly playing the best tennis of his life at age 28. He’s ranked No. 44 in the world, the highest in his career. While Sam Querrey was absent from the tourney, much attention was given to 18-year-old Jack Sock, a high school prodigy who won his first-round match before losing to idol Roddick in the second round.

On the women’s side, Venus withdrew from the tournament after a first-round win, though Serena is the odds-on favorite to win her 14th grand slam title and fourth U.S. Open title despite her seed of 28.

While Oudin continued to underwhelm with a first-round exit, the younger Williams was joined in the third round by a quartet of talented youngsters. 18-year-old Sloane Stephens, in only her second major, nearly got to match up with Serena in the Round of 16 before falling to French Open champ Ana Ivanovic. Stephens got by the 23rd-seeded player Shahar Pe’er in the second round.

Vania King, a veteran by tennis standards at 22, made her second third-round appearance of the year to go along with the French. She got by No. 29 seed Jarmila Gajdosova in the second round before losing to world No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki.

21-year-old Irina Falconi earned her first two grand-slam tournament wins in her fifth try, including a defeat of this year’s French quarterfinalist and No. 14 seed Dominika Ciblukova, before falling to a well-rested Sabine Lisicki.

And 19-year-old Christina McHale made waves by taking down 2011 Wimbledon quarterfinalist and No. 8 seed Marion Bartoli before falling to No. 25 Maria Kirilenko.

It’s extremely likely that Isner and Roddick will fall in their quarterfinal matches and Serena will … oh heck, who knows in a women’s draw that included a match Thursday between Williams and the obnoxiously long-named Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova in which serve was broken in each of the first six games.

Regardless, the American tennis program should feel pretty good about what can happen in the years to come.

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