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Is the Next Wave of American Men's Tennis Stars Finally Arriving?

Jeremy Eckstein@https://twitter.com/#!/JeremyEckstein1Featured ColumnistFebruary 12, 2016

(Left) Taylor Fritz  (right) Tommy Paul
(Left) Taylor Fritz (right) Tommy PaulAssociated Press

While American sports fans unwind from the NFL Super Bowl or tune into scoring sprees from the Golden State Warriors, all but diehard tennis fans may have forgotten their country’s citizens are eligible to compete for major titles on the ATP tour.

American men’s tennis has been slumbering away for years like fabled literary character Rip Van Winkle.

While it’s too early to declare a revolution, there has been an awakening. American tennis is hoping to launch a new generation of five tennis stars. SI Tennis provided a group shot of the young players prior to the Memphis Open:

SI Tennis @SI_Tennis

Fritz, Paul, Tiafoe, Mmoh & Donaldson are 1st 5 U.S. teens in @memphisopen draw since 1989 https://t.co/uuiMSUsxjP https://t.co/XmMaJBNsxf

It’s fitting Memphis is putting together a concert of its young “Fab Five” tennis performers. After all, this is the city that inspired a young Elvis Presley to rock the nation. It’s a first-time opportunity to see them all in the ATP bracket of a level-250 tournament, while the bulk of the ATP’s superstars and seasoned players rest or play in Rotterdam or Buenos Aires.

The Fab Five have already generated underground attention after torching the rest of the world in juniors tennis in 2015. Tennis.com jumped in two months ago with a not-so-subtle headline referring to them as an "American Revolution." Ava Wallace for USA Today created a slick slideshow profile to help introduce their personalities to tennis fans.

In time, tennis fans will get to know the players in proportion to how they win on the ATP tour, so for now, a quick byline will do:

Michael Mmoh
Michael MmohIan Walton/Getty Images
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The Fab Five

Taylor Fritz: The No. 1-ranked juniors player of 2015 who capped his year with the U.S. Open title. Former player and coach Brad Gilbert, who is a TV tennis analyst, compared him to Todd Martin (1990s two-time major finalist) because he is a solid 6’4”, with a powerful serve and comfortable baseline hands. Fritz is coming off a first-round win at the Australian Open. At Memphis, he has two wins for the quarterfinals (so far) after knocking off No. 2 seed Steve Johnson, which Ben Rothenberg of the New York Times described as his "arriving":

Ben Rothenberg @BenRothenberg

The arrival of Taylor Fritz is arriving. The 18-year-old beats ATP #29 Steve Johnson 7-6, 7-6 to reach the Memphis QFs. His biggest pro win.

Frances Tiafoe: He’s been working with legendary coach Jose Higueras to use his athleticism and all-court game with more forays at net. There’s an explosive quality to his game, and he might have the highest ceiling of the Fab Five. He certainly does not lack for confidence after tearing up opponents on Challengers events last year.

Tommy Paul: An indigenous American clay-courter? Hard to believe, but he hails from North Carolina, where the green Har-Tru surface has no doubt been instrumental in helping him mature into the 2015 French Open junior who defeated Fritz. An all-American clay-court final at Roland Garros? Shades of (1991) Jim Courier vs. Andre Agassi.

Michael Mmoh: Very athletic with his retrieving speed and shotmaking, Mmoh was the No. 2-ranked juniors player behind Fritz last year. He compared himself to Gael Monfils, so there’s at least latent desire to play with flamboyance. He played and lost to Fritz at Memphis in the first round.

Jared Donaldson: He's the old guard of the group, having debuted at Memphis a year ago. Coach Taylor Dent compared his backhand to Andy Murray. He has an all-around game but will need to develop his serve as a weapon.

Frances Tiafoe
Frances TiafoeClive Brunskill/Getty Images

The Greatest American Tennis Generation

Long ago, in the first decade of the Open era, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe were hot tickets for American tennis. They filled seats with blustery, in-your-face attitudes and tennis attacks. They symbolically stood as the need for the U.S. Open to establish hard courts, and they were the American face of tennis that could counter and stifle the great Bjorn Borg, who monopolized a pair of more natural surfaces in Europe.

By 1986, Connors and McEnroe would essentially be finished as major contenders when Ivan Lendl dominated to a kind of degree we are seeing from No. 1 Novak Djokovic.

People wondered what had happened to American tennis, and there was a notable absence of great young hopes.

Then, seemingly overnight, Andre Agassi was bouncing onto the scene with flowing locks, denim shorts and incredible baseline ball-striking.

(left to  right) Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras
(left to right) Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Pete SamprasROBYN BECK/Getty Images

Michael Chang pulled off the most improbable story in French Open history with his 1989 title. He would go on to another decade of consistent baseline retrieving and winning.

As Agassi got to the French and U.S. Open finals in 1990, baby-faced Pete Sampras boomed his way through the 1990 U.S. Open, dispatching Lendl, McEnroe and Agassi for the title.

Jim Courier was next, defeating Agassi in the 1991 French Open and becoming the first dominator of this generation. He claimed four majors and the No. 1 ranking with his big forehand that chose to hit through the court as often as possible. He was ahead of his time for about two years, and he helped raise the competitive bar for his American generation.

There was also David Wheaton, who was the No. 1 juniors player of 1987. Although Wheaton never became a superstar, he eventually got to two major quarterfinals and the 1991 Wimbledon semifinal after beating Lendl and Agassi. He would soon burn out.

By 1992, they had completely eclipsed their elderly brother for center stage.

Those pesky, resilient, innovative Generation Xers are the all-time standard for American tennis. Their 27 combined major titles from 1989-2002 is equivalent to the combined major titles of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray.

Then came the generational drought, when Andy Roddick was the lone American who would claim a major (2003 U.S. Open) after the Gen Xers were finished. There was no legendary entourage of American stars to flank Roddick, and by the time he retired in 2012, all chances for a major contender had long evaporated.

Taylor Fritz
Taylor FritzShaun Botterill/Getty Images

Footnote Too Important Not to Read

While the parallels between the Generation Xers and the Fab Five will no doubt be written countless more times, the important thing is for tennis fans to distance themselves from unwarranted hype. Talk about them, follow them, hope for them, but give them one other thing.

Patience.

Yes, it’s unlikely the Fab Five will burst out as top-20 players in the next couple of years, and even that could be stretching things. In 2016, they will probably combine for more losses than wins on the ATP tour, and that’s when they are able to make it past qualifying and get in some valuable first or second rounds. Maybe we will only see them all together at another American 250 series tournament, like August in Atlanta. Speaking of level-250 tournaments, Josh Meiseles of the ATP World Tour noted Fritz and Paul potentially have another chance to show off their skills at Delray Beach:

Josh Meiseles @jmeistennis

And right on cue, Taylor Fritz receives a main draw wild card into Delray Beach. Tommy Paul gets a WC into qualies.

Remember Tennis’ global “Lost Generation” (Kei Nishikori, Milos Raonic, Grigor Dimitrov, Bernard Tomic) of players in their mid-20s has been maligned for not breaking past more seasoned and legendary stars.

Where tennis used to be a very young man’s sport, and where the physicality burned many superstars out by 25-28 years old, now we have far more 30-somethings as still-relevant contenders and secondary stars. It’s a strong man’s world now. Nobody wins on sheer technique and talent. There must also be top fitness and mature strength. That’s the part that takes growing into.

If the months turn into bleak years, will their youthful enthusiasm melt into frustration? Look at Australia’s young generation, ranging from Bernard Tomic to Nick Kyrgios. Remaining mature and staying disciplined is not so easy when immediate dreams drag through time’s mire.

The Fab Five will be taking their lumps collectively as they continue to watch and push each other to succeed. One or two of them will then break off with earlier success, but some of them might not make it at all.

Right now the Fab Five fit together like Pangea, but there will be evolutionary separation. Ideally, they might make it into the top 10 and compete more severely for the rights to hold up any of four legendary major trophies.

If so, America will gather around Rip Van Winkle to get his story. Until then, just remember the part about patience.

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