Ryan Rodenberg
Friday May 1st, 2015

While the quartet of Americans ranked in the world’s top 50—John Isner, Jack Sock, Sam Querrey and Donald Young—all prep for the upcoming French Open, a young and hungry group remains stateside in Florida’s capital for this week’s $50,000 ATP Challenger tournament, a lower-tier professional event roughly equivalent to AAA minor league baseball. Most players are ranked between 100 and 300, save for a handful of qualifiers and “wild cards” granted tournament entry at the discretion of the tournament director.    

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With first round losers in the 32 man draw taking home $520 and the winner earning $7,200, the players aren’t in Tallahassee for the money—it’s the rankings points that can be accumulated over a 52 week cycle that are more appealing. Being ranked inside the top 100 guarantees entry into the lucrative Grand Slams, such as the $29.5 million purse available in Paris in a few weeks.

Isner, Sock and Young are all veterans of the Tallahassee Challenger, now in its 16th year. The tournament is a stepping stone for those trying to climb the professional ranks. Every top player, including those named Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, played at least a handful of Challenger-level events before ascending to the big stage. 

Jared Donaldson, Frances Tiafoe, Stefan Kozlov and Tommy Paul hope to be top players too, as they all play singles in Tallahassee this week. Together with Noah Rubin, Taylor Fritz, Ernesto Escobedo, Michael Mmoh, Reilly Opelka and Alex Rybakov, this group of teens all born between 1996 and 1998 represent the best hope of American men’s tennis since a 1970-72 cohort that included some guys named Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang as well as others named Steve Campbell, Brian MacPhie, and Geoff Grant. In addition to Donaldson and Tiafoe, the Tallahassee Challenger’s quarterfinal round featured three other young Americans in Mitchell Krueger, Tennys Sandgren and Bjorn Fratangelo.

Here’s a quick breakdown of the top four American upstarts:

Jared Donaldson, 18

Already the winner of a Challenger tournament earlier this year in Maui, Donaldson is the highest ranked of the group at No. 168 in the world.  He beat former world No. 8 Radek Stepanek in Sarasota two weeks ago. His service motion is smooth and his high-arching topspin second serve reliable. While he hasn’t yet hit the gym with Gil Reyes, he is nimble around the court and constructs points well. Tuesday’s practice session with coach Tom Gullickson focused on court positioning and turning defensive scenarios into neutral ones. 

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Frances Tiafoe, 17

Tiafoe recently turned pro and signed a representation agreement with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports.  A red-hot prospect with a movie-script-friendly back story, Tiafoe moves well, has deft touch and hits heavy groundstrokes that typify the modern game. He can (and does) hit forehand winners from almost anywhere on the court. While he has ample room to improve on his serve mechanics, Tiafoe has a quiet intensity during matches and during the consecutive Sarasota-Savannah-Tallahassee events, he has won an inordinate number of three set matches. While sometimes momentarily rattled, he re-focuses promptly.  When his second round opponent Jean-Yves Aubone opted to return serve by chipping his backhand, Tiafoe shrewdly serve-and-volleyed, knocking off an easy forehand volley on a key point during the third set.       

Stefan Kozlov, 17

Kozlov succumbed to No. 164 Facundo Arguello of Argentina 6-4, 7-5 in the first round. Ranked No. 431, Kozlov has soft hands at net. A finalist at the Sacramento Challenger late last year, Kozlov was the only one of the group to play doubles in Tallahassee. His demeanor on the practice court was more serious than any of the others, something Nadal probably appreciates during their sparring sessions.    

Tommy Paul, 17

The least known of the group, Paul played a first round match against veteran Ecuadorian Giovanni Lapentti and was pushed around all over the court early on, quickly losing the first set. But he came back mid-way through the second and maintained the mental focus to put away a gimpy Lapentti 6-0 in the third set. Instead of turning pro like the others, Paul has opted for a scholarship at the University of Georgia. 

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