U.S. men's tennis fading as San Jose event goes into darkness
As the Northern California men's tournament unfolded for the last time, it was only fitting that Rafael Nadal's comeback and the Serena Williams-Victoria Azarenka showdown were the sport's dominant headlines over the weekend. The SAP Open has spent far too many years in the shadows. Now comes the utter darkness.
In the end, it was all about Milos Raonic's third straight victory in the event, a straight-set thrashing of Tommy Haas in the final. But with most of the key Americans performing in San Jose, let's take a moment to assess the state of U.S. men's tennis, based on the top 100 rankings and beyond:
John Isner (No. 16): His dismal early season continues. First a knee injury, keeping him out of the Australian Open, then a discouraging Davis Cup defeat (to Brazil's Thomaz Bellucci) and a 6-3, 6-4 loss to Haas in the San Jose semifinals. One positive: The knee must be feeling much better. He's lined up to play the next four tour stops -- Memphis, Delray Beach, Indian Wells and Miami -- without taking a break.
It should be noted, as well, that the Haas match brought some crucial issues to life. Isner has to serve well, or he becomes vulnerable against all-court players likely to dominate the longer rallies. That was the case against Haas, with Isner serving at just 58 percent.
"That's what decided the match," he said. "But Tommy was very good. There's no shame in losing to him. He's an awesome player at 34 and doing what he's doing. He's been at the very top of the game, he's in incredible shape and he's hitting the ball really well."
Sam Querrey (21): For a fascinating few hours in San Jose, insiders pondered the notion of Querrey becoming the top-ranked American. Would anyone have predicted that, at any stage of Querrey's career? But he's earned the notoriety, and it took a typically dominant serving performance by Raonic to eliminate Querrey 6-4, 6-2 in the semifinals.
"He served unbelievable," Querrey said of Raonic. "I wasn't really even close to getting a look at his serve. I just felt like I was under pressure the whole time. We had some big servers here -- John, myself, [Ivo] Karlovic -- but Milos was the only guy in the field who was consistently over 140 [mph] the whole week. It's pretty impressive. Even if you get a racket on it, most likely you're not catching it clean or putting it back deep."
As for the prospect of bypassing a friend, Isner, in the rankings, Querrey said, "It's a goal. But I want to do it based on my results, not something where John fades back in the rankings. I want to have won a lot of matches and really deserve it. He's not going to give it up easily."
With so many towering, big-serving players in the event, Querrey drew the inevitable questions about movement -- or lack of -- and whether that presents a handicap in tennis.
"That's what you guys always say, that we don't move well," said Querrey, somewhat annoyed. "But we do. Every player over 6-foot-5 moves well in this sport."
And that concluded the interview. "Except Karlovic," a smiling Querrey whispered on his way out.
Mardy Fish (33): Still not feeling strong enough to test his health issues in a tournament. His career remains on hold until he enters an event and plays that first-round match.
Andy Roddick (40): Seriously, this isn't a joke. Not only that, but Roddick moved up two spots from last week! He's playing so very well from the couch.
Brian Baker (52): As friends and admirers continue to lament his bad luck, the 27-year-old Baker is on the sidelines in rehabilitation from knee surgery. Not that he necessarily needs the inspiration, but he should examine Haas' profile on the ATP website. Even Baker's injury history doesn't compare to what Haas has endured, and after all those problems with his hips, ankles, back, shoulder and elbow, Haas is still a force (ranked 18th) with a glowingly positive attitude to match.
Ryan Harrison (69): Unable to break through with a really eye-catching win, Harrison, 20, stands right on the edge of tour relevance. He's capable of beating anyone outside the Big Four -- and even giving those guys a run -- but there's a point where potential gives way to reality. After a disappointing San Jose loss to Benjamin Becker, tempered by the fact that he'd been ill, Harrison admitted to the improvements needed in his serve, as well as his groundstrokes on the really big points -- and his temperament remains an issue.
After beating Harrison in Davis Cup play last April, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga told reporters, "His major weakness is that he is very, very nervy. I knew that if I held on longer than him, it would be to my advantage. You look at him and think, 'OK, he's not feeling great.' "
A stirring performance at Indian Wells or Miami would bring Harrison's name back into the spotlight. He wouldn't mind a decent draw at the majors, either, after facing nightmares in the first round (Andy Murray) and second round (Novak Djokovic, twice) over the course of his last five Grand Slam events.
Michael Russell (86): He turns 35 in April, he's well past the point of dreaming about major titles, and he's hardly a big drawing card. Still, the man is worth a look if you happen to attend an event this year. Here is an athlete getting the absolute maximum out of his ability, a true fighter who never leaves a shred of doubt about his commitment or resolve. Typically, he was a pest in San Jose. He sent Donald Young home in the first round then showed signs of solving the Raonic puzzle before going down 6-2, 7-5.
Those outside the top 100 who played San Jose:
Tim Smyczek (102): Fernando Verdasco has always enjoyed San Jose's HP Pavilion indoor court, having won the event in 2010 and reached the final in 2011, but the clever Spaniard was summarily dispatched 6-3, 6-3 by Smyczek in the first round. Fans may have difficulty placing the name, but he's been grinding his way through pro tennis since 2004. He seems to be enjoying a bit of a revival, as well. The Milwaukee-raised Smyczek, 25, qualified at the Australian Open, beat Ivo Karlovic in straight sets and took David Ferrer to a fourth set. He's 5-foot-9 at best, yet he unleashed a 132-mph serve during the Verdasco match. Seems bound for a satisfying year.
Steve Johnson (136): Few players ever drew more satisfaction from the collegiate experience. Johnson, 23, won two NCAA singles titles at USC and led his team to the national championship all four years. Now enjoying a full-time taste of the pro tour, Johnson had a pretty decent run in San Jose with wins over Karlovic (fighting off two match points) and Smyczek. Some wondered if he might even get a shot at Isner in the semifinals, but then came Haas, one of his practice partners in Southern California, and a 6-4, 6-2 schooling in the quarterfinals.
That match offered a stern reminder of the demands placed on any young player with designs on excellence.
"I think I got a little complacent," Johnson told tennisreporters.net. "In college, I could get away with a few more things. I've got to learn that's probably not going to work out here. These guys, if you leave something hanging, something short, they're going to put the pressure on you. They'll take any little mistake and put it down your throat."
Jack Sock (168): If Johnson is learning hard lessons about the depth in men's tennis, Sock seems downright lost. He was relegated to the Challenger circuit for his final five matches of the 2012 season, and after taking a first-round loss to qualifier Hiroki Moriya at this year's Brisbane event, he lost in the Australian Open qualifying to No. 166 Paul Capdeville. San Jose brought a first-round loss to Australia's Marinko Matosevic and another undeniable setback.
Sock can hardly afford to look ahead to the U.S. Open, although he must be tempted. He won the Open's 2010 junior title, drew a cherished nighttime assignment against mentor and fellow Nebraskan Roddick the following year and reached the third round last year before falling in four sets to Nicolas Almagro. Power isn't the issue with Sock, still just 20.
"You can't teach the RPMs on his forehands," Roddick said after that 2011 match, which he won in straight sets. "You can't teach 135 mph in your arm, or the way his ball jumps off the court. He's just going to have to learn some of the subtleties of the game."
So far, that has proved to be a most difficult task.
Donald Young (200): He was long gone from San Jose, quickly dispatched by Russell, before most people even realized he was in the draw. There's really nothing new to report here; Young's ranking tells the entire story. Insiders feel he made a big mistake defying the USTA and going his own way -- he continues to travel with his mother and coach, Ilona -- but family ties can be awfully difficult to break. He is the Prince of Stubborn, headed nowhere in particular.