Wednesday Topspin: Young Americans

Before we continue with our Davis Cup preview, let’s start with the young Americans in Dallas.

Harrison and Kudla: Nothing came easy, but it has been a good tournament so far for the local teens.  Yesterday afternoon, Denis Kudla beat Izak van der Merwe, looking strong as he served out the third set.  That’s a big result for someone outside the top 400.  In fact, it’s Kudla first match win at the challenger level.

After one set, it didn’t look nearly as rosy for Ryan Harrison.  Robert Kendrick was serving well, crushing forehands all over the court.  Ultimately, Ryan wore him down, serving a little better and playing more consistently while Kendrick did the opposite.  Harrison took the match in a lopsided (7-1) third-set tiebreak.

Kendrick is always frustrating to watch–such big shots, so little to show for it.  He can play a string of points that makes you wonder why he never cracked the top 20, and then, as we saw last night, he starts playing (and acting) like a frustrated rookie.  With a bit of recent success and a strong history in Dallas, I thought he would overcome Harrison.

American tennis: What follows is all speculation.  I’d love to be able to prove it, but I’m not sure how.

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing of late about the dearth of strong young American tennis players–with the exception of Harrison, of course.  John Isner and Sam Querrey are solid, but it’s tough to see them making it much further than they have already.  Yet, there always seem to be young Americans have some success; we just haven’t seen anyone take it to the top 10 since Andy Roddick and James Blake.

Here’s my theory.  The rigid structure of youth tennis in the U.S. allows fast-developing (often tall, big-serving) players to win early, which in turn encourages them to keep playing, and attracts the attention of coaches.  That’s how you have Querrey.  That’s how Isner got good in a relatively short period of time.  You see the same thing in Australia, I think, with the likes of Carsten Ball, Chris Guccione, and Greg Jones.

The problem isn’t attracting kids to tennis–it’s keeping them.  As a 13-year-old, I lost my share of matches to guys who were way bigger than I was, and would win service games at love while I waved hopelessly at their serves.  The big guys have skills that will lead to success in juniors, in college, and for some, a degree of success in the pros, but will only take them so far.

What I will figure out a way to study is this: What are the career patterns of very tall (and/or big-serving) players?  It seems that they rise fast, stagnate, and retire young.  A generation ago, someone like Mark Philippoussis could live on only a serve; now, the return game has been forced to improve, meaning that the big servers themselves have to improve the rest of their game.  If my theory about the career patterns of this sort of player is true, American tennis is a breeding ground for kids who will be impressive 21-year-olds and fizzle early.

That’s what’s gratifying about watching the 6’0″ Harrison and the 5’11” Kudla win matches–they don’t fit that mold.

Back to Davis Cup!

Davis Cup: Czech Republic vs. Kazakhstan: When Kazakhstan is in the world group, you know things have changed.  They dominated a Federer-less Swiss team last fall, and they might get lucky again this weekend.

The Czech team is already without Radek Stepanek, and you have to wonder about the availability of Tomas Berdych, who was forced to retire in the semifinals of Dubai.  Without Stepanek, it’s possible Kazakhstan could beat a Czech team with Berdych.

The Kazakhs feature Andrey Goloubev and Mikhail Kukushkin, both 21-year-olds on the way up.  Both have proven they will show up in Davis Cup play, having defeated Stanislas Wawrinka in their last tie.  There’s no obvious doubles team, but neither does the Czech team have one.

Perhaps more than any other tie this weekend, this contest rests in the hands of one player: Berdych.  If he’s healthy, he will probably be asked to play two singles matches and a doubles match.  If he does, the Czechs will probably win.  If he only plays his two singles matches, that leaves the door open for Kazakhstan; if he can’t play two singles matches, then we can look forward to the unlikely event of Kazakhstan in the world group quarterfinals.

My prediction: Czech Republic, 3-2.

Belgium vs. Spain: This reminds me of those matches I mentioned earlier, when I was 13, losing comprehensively to kids who were six inches taller than I was.  I can identify with the Belgians.

Rafael Nadal playing Davis Cup is good for Spain and good for the sport.  But this week, it’s just rubbing salt in the wound.  Spain boasts three players in the top 10, plus a very good singles and doubles player in Feliciano Lopez.  Belgium has a 30-year-old Xavier Malisse.

You’ll be shocked to find that I predict: Spain, 5-0.

Serbia update: Apparently, Novak Djokovic may not play this weekend.  That has to give India a bit of hope, but Serbia’s other singles players will still prove too strong.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at the remaining European ties and keep tabs on the challenger action.  See you then!

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