Ranking the 5 Americans Most Likely to Become an Elite Tennis Player
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There are more layers to the conversation of who will be the next elite American tennis player than what meets the eye.
This list will project the top five in the hunt for that supremacy.
Years ago, if John McEnroe wasn't raising a trophy, it was Jimmy Connors or Jim Courier. That theme continued with Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick.
Same went for Billie Jean King and Chris Evert. Monica Seles, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and the Williams sisters had their elitist battles too.
Now, when you raise the topic of next great American, you rack your brain for an answer, and then end up saying something like "he/she has incredible upside…" or "if everything falls into place, he/she can win."
It's not breaking news, but American tennis is in a bit of a lull—with Serena Williams as the exception.
15-time Grand Slam winner Williams undeniably still wears the crown of most elite American on the women's side, or maybe in general, now that Andy Roddick is retired.
Nobody is pushing Williams off the top spot now, but the United States is antsy for the next cream-of-the-crop American—on both the women's and men's sides.
My gut tells me the next elite American to emerge will be a woman, but here's a look at the five candidates with the best chance to earn the distinction, starting with No. 5.
The New American Citizen at No. 5
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Maybe it's coincidence that Varvara Lepchenko started blossoming around the same time that she received her U.S. citizenship, but she's on a quick rise.
The 26-year-old made a major splash in 2012, having the best year of her 12-year career.
She reached the fourth round of the French Open, the third round of Wimbledon, and played in the Olympics for the United States before losing in the second round.
She currently sits at No. 21 in the world, and second-highest American behind Serena.
Her game seems to resemble the same fighting spirit she and her family showed living in Uzbekistan.
"It's how I have gotten to where I am in life," she said. "Nothing has come easy. There were times when I wanted to give up, but then that little voice in my head says, 'No, you can't give up now. You are so close.' I believe if you want it enough, and work hard for it, you can achieve almost anything."
The country will certainly be keeping a close eye on this budding star in 2013, but for now, she's the fifth likely American to get to that next level.
Two Young Men Share the No. 4 Spot
Ryan Harrison or Jack Sock?
Gutty champion Johnny Mac isn't ready to endorse Ryan Harrison or Jack Sock as the next great American's just yet, and that's why the two could-be-stars share the No. 4 spot.
Ryan Harrison is 20 years old and ranked 69th in the World, but in tennis years, he should be further along than he is.
A lot about being elite is making a splash early and sustaining it.
The criticism is harsh but fair, and even though McEnroe says Harrison needs to find an identity, he really needs to win big first—identity will follow.
As for the other 20 year old, Jack Sock, he's more raw and a work in progress, as he fights himself as hard as he fights his opponents sometimes.
Sock is the American poster child for "he has a great upside…" as he is currently 150th in the world.
2013 will be very revealing to see how much Harrison and Sock step it up, largely because it will be the first full season where Roddick won't be there to take the brunt of the criticism.
The door is wide open for either one to claim the top American spot, but the magnifying glass will be on their every move.
The Big Man at No. 3
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John Isner comes in at No. 3.
I know he has been in the top 20 in the world the past couple years, but he isn't higher on this list because of one glaring reason: results in majors.
He is 27 years old and his best Grand Slam result was the 4th round at the Australian Open in 2010.
He is easy to root for as he has a bombastic first serve and a personality just as big, but you don't become elite by winning minor tournaments and then only showing up for the first week of majors.
While Isner hasn't reached a final of a major yet, he is flirting with having a reputation like Todd Martin—maintain a high ranking but never break through to win a Major.
It's fair to reserve judgement on Isner until after 2013, as it will be the first full year on tour with no Roddick, but his game needs to show major maturity.
He must get to the second week of a major this year if he's serious about carrying the torch for American tennis.
Otherwise, fans are just looking at another unfulfilled American hopeful.
No. 2 on This List, Soon to Be No. 1?
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If you ever played at the National Tennis Center's indoor training facility, you might have bumped into New Jersey native Christina McHale.
Ranked 33rd in the World, the 20-year-old has been tagged by some as the woman to fill the anticipated void in American tennis.
McHale responded to those lofty expectations with her modest confidence.
"To me, it feels like things are moving steadily – not too quickly but not too slow, either," she says. "For the most part, I played well all last year, but that was last year. I need to concentrate on what's ahead of me and continuing to improve my game."
Serena is still on top of the women's game, and Lepchenko has made giants strides, but McHale's work ethic, determination and sound strokes aren't going unnoticed.
So far, maturity has been her biggest obstacle as the third round of the 2011 U.S. Open has been her best result in a major in her young career.
She's another year older, and if she can start contending in the second week of majors, she will go from American hopeful to elite very quickly.
Drumroll Please for the Most Likely to Become an Elite Tennis Player...
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Currently 38th in the world and the third-best American according to the WTA rankings is 19-year-old Sloane Stephens.
Stats aside, Stevens resembles a piece of both Williams sisters when they were first coming up.
She exhibits a similar overwhelming athleticism and will to succeed.
2012 really put her on the map as she reached the second round of the Australian Open, the third round of the French Open and Wimbledon, and the round of 16 at the U.S. Open.
She's become a very tough match on the WTA, and she looks on pace to wreak havoc in 2013.
Her coach David Nankin thinks so.
"Sloane is a phenomenal athlete and probably has one of the best forehands in the world. She has so many options when she plays. So it's really about (improving) shot selection and channeling her power," Nainkin says.
Off the court, Sloane already has the personality to carry the torch of American tennis for a long time to come.
With all the parallels she's drawn to the Williams sisters, one would think that Stevens is this country's best hope for the next elite American.