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Beyond the Baseline

The Toss: American tennis in 2012

John Isner John Isner reached a career-high ranking of No. 9 in 2012. (Kin Cheung/AP)

The BTB Awards are our look back at the best — and worst — of the tennis season.

2012 IN REVIEW: Report Card | Surprises | Meltdowns | Shots | Best Slam? | Quotes | Photos | Videos | Fashion | Breakthroughs | Feuds | Under-the-radar stories

Today’s Toss: Looking back at 2012, what’s the state of American tennis?

Courtney Nguyen: In going through the best and the worst of 2012 for BTB’s year in review posts, it occurred to me that on the whole, the Americans weren’t heavily featured. Outside of Serena Williams’ tremendous second half of the season, there weren't many superlatives, nor was there anything particularly horrible. The high marks -- Serena, the rise of Brian Baker and John Isner’s strong first quarter -- must be weighed against Mardy Fish’s health issues, Donald Young’s 17-match losing streak (we'll spare DY further scrutiny below, given how well-documented his struggles have been) and Andy Roddick's riding into the sunset.

So let’s start this discussion broadly: What’s your overall take on this year in American tennis?

Ricky Dimon, Writer/Blogger, Tennistalk.com: This is a question that has to be separated into two parts, one for each tour. On the women’s side, it was outstanding: Serena won basically every title in the second half, including not one, but two gold medals. Venus, despite long odds against her, also put on a good show, winning gold in doubles with Serena and playing a memorable match against Angelique Kerber at the U.S. Open. As for the younger generation, Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens are both on the brink of being seeded for the 2013 Australian Open.

On the men’s side, all you can say is: not good. This is tough to say, but the Roddick-Fish-James Blake era is over. Roddick is officially gone, who knows what the real story with Fish is and Blake is no longer a factor in any big tournaments. Baker and Isner delivered brief highlights, but neither one sustained any real success. Bob and Mike Bryan were dominant as always, but domination in doubles is never going to change anything about the overall state of American tennis (unless it leads directly to a Davis Cup title, which it did not in 2012).

Amy Fetherolf, Founder, Drop Shot DispatchThe Changeover: On the WTA side, Serena’s success makes it easy to overlook any real or perceived lack of depth in the American women’s game. As Ricky said, there are a few up-and-comers, and I think it’s always hard to predict who might become a top-10 player. But there’s less of an urgent need to find the “next big thing” right now because of Serena's presence. Plus, Venus is still a contender.

On the men’s side, things look significantly bleaker in the short term. I didn’t see Roddick’s retirement coming exactly when it happened, but Roddick and Fish were never really the “future” of American tennis, since they were both in the later phases of their careers.

Because of this, much of the media’s attention rightfully fell on Isner this year. There were flashes of hope when he scored wins over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic in the early months. But Isner’s record in majors rapidly became sobering. He went 5-4, and the average rank of the players he beat was 106. The average ranking of the players who beat him? 93. He beat one top-50 player and somehow managed to lose five-set heartbreakers in Melbourne, Paris, London and New York. It’s really hard to overstate just how bad (and demoralizing) this performance was for a player of his caliber.

Nguyen: As one who was front and center of the Isner Spring Break Bandwagon, those stats are definitely sobering, Amy. I had high hopes for Isner when the clay season rolled around, and for the most part his wheels fell off. He struggled with the pressure, travel and fatigue, and his play reflected that. And as he notched more losses to significantly lower-ranked players through the season, a pattern emerged.

I think we all knew that Isner wasn’t going to lead the ATP Tour in breaking serve, but it became abundantly clear to me -- and maybe I was late to the party on realizing this -- that his matches were basically games of chance. If he wasn’t going to break serve and get consistently caught up in tiebreakers and full-tilt matches, is this a guy on whom we can reasonably rely to post consistent results? If not, it seems unfair that he has to bear the weight of expectation as the future of American tennis.

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Fetherolf: I agree. The truth about Isner is that he’s simply not up to par on the return of serve. Looking at the numbers this year, Isner broke serve 11 percent of the time. In comparison, most of the top-10 players were breaking serve at least twice that amount (four of the top five were above 30 percent!). For a player hoping to beat the top players, that’s not good enough.

But stepping away from the ledge a bit, although Isner had some poor results at Slams, I’d expect him to do a little better next year if he’s smarter with his scheduling. And hopefully new coach Michael Sell will work with him on his return game. 

But like you say, it’s hard to put the weight of expectation on Isner’s shoulders. Especially when he does have a rather one-dimensional game.

Dimon: Courtney and Amy have brought up the expectations issue, which is exactly what we need to delve into with Isner. He has the same problem (except on a much smaller scale, of course) as Federer had in 2008. After Federer lost to Djokovic in the Australian Open semifinals, he delivered his infamous “I created a monster” quote -- suggesting that he had been so good in previous seasons that he was now expected to win every match of every tournament of every year. Big John created his mini-monster by upsetting Federer (in Switzerland, no less) and Djokovic (in Indian Wells) in the span of one month.

When Isner traveled to France for the Davis Cup quarterfinals, just about everyone expected him to routine Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. Just think about that: Isner's being expected to routine Tsonga in France and on clay. And he did just that, eating Tsonga for lunch after dining on Gilles Simon as a light brunch appetizer. Isner was never going to live up to that standard, and he didn’t -- not even close. Still, the bottom line is Isner was not a disappointment. He finished the year 14th. That’s a disappointment for the Big Four, or for David Ferrer, Juan Martin del Potro or Tomas Berdych; not for anyone else. If you consider that a disappointment, you had unrealistic expectations. (And I, for one, did. My homer, Georgia Bulldog-inspired pick at the start of 2012 was Isner's making the World Tour Finals at No. 8. But I’m willing to admit that was not one of my brightest moments.)

Nguyen: Before we move on to the women, I’m curious about your thoughts on the B-crop of American men. I don’t necessarily put Sam Querrey in this group, as he already proved before his wrist injury that he’s a top-20 player, reaching a career high of No. 17 in January 2011. It was great to see him work his way from No. 93 at the start of the year to become the No. 2 American behind Isner at No. 22. I wouldn’t bet against him becoming the American No. 1 before the French Open.

But what about Ryan Harrison, who finished the year 10 spots above where he began, closing at No. 69? Even with that modest rise, why do I feel like it was a disappointing year?

Fetherolf: Querrey was a nice surprise. He steadily climbed back up the rankings, even beating Djokovic in Paris, and I could see him finishing above Isner next year if things align right. Harrison basically plateaued. I don’t think his year could be classified as bad, but the pace of improvement left something to be desired.

Speaking of the younger Americans, I did really enjoy watching Jack Sock. He started out ranked No. 381 and playing Futures tournaments. By September, he was reaching the third round of the U.S. Open, taking a set off then-No. 12 Nicolas Almagro. He finished off by winning a Challenger tournament in Tiburon, and is now ranked No. 150. I’m looking forward to watching him next year.

Dimon: Querrey’s game isn’t particularly boring, but his results are. As long he stays healthy, you know exactly what you are going to get from him: a ranking between Nos. 15 and 25, one fourth round of a Slam, at least one 250-point title and too many random quarterfinals to count. I’m not giving up on Isner just yet. He has basically nothing to defend other than Indian Wells until the clay-court season (he can defend his Delray Beach semifinal points in his sleep). He should more than make up his Indian Wells points with decent showings in Melbourne, Memphis and/or Miami. I don’t see any Americans surpassing him before the French Open, or at any point in 2013.

Harrison did not climb as high as I would have liked, and -- quite clearly -- he didn’t like it either! Harrison got slammed by the media for outbursts (especially at the Olympics), but I saw nothing that was over the top. Given the current state of American men’s tennis, I think we need a little bit of that. Johnny Mac is long gone; even Roddick is gone now. Enter Harrison. Now it’s time (at 20 years old) to back up his attitude with results.

Serena Williams Serena WIlliams won her fourth WTA Player of the Year in 2012. (Erick W. Rasco/SI)

Nguyen: Speaking of siblings, it was Serena and Venus who kept things afloat for most of the year on the women’s side. That’s the same old story. But like both of you pointed out earlier, this wasn’t a bad year for the second crop of American women.

Everyone improved and scored significant results, whether it was McHale's upset of Petra Kvitova at Indian Wells or 19-year-old Stephens' making the fourth round of the French Open and backing it up with third-round appearances at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. The future looks OK for the women. Add to that the surprise run by Varvara Lepchenko, who is now the No. 2 American behind Serena, and there’s a lot to look forward to in 2013.

That said, I’m worried about McHale and the mono she picked up that basically knocked her out after the U.S. Open. Mono can be tricky.

Dimon: You know, the thing about Isner is … Oh, we’re on to the WTA now? Got it. McHale has the brightest future of the American women -- which makes the mono thing all the more disconcerting. She did not win a single match in 2012 after the Montreal second round. When healthy, however, she had two top-10 wins and a whole host of near-misses against heavily favored opponents. I guess it’s an encouraging sign that McHale is entered in Auckland for the first week of the upcoming season. Let’s hope she survives mono like a champ (as Federer and Isner did) and not like -- dare I say it -- Robin Soderling and Mario Ancic.

While McHale is all business (and there is nothing wrong with that, to be sure), Stephens has it all going for her. She has the game, the charisma, the spunk and the Twitter prowess to convert casual tennis fans into real WTA followers. The most encouraging thing about Stephens is that she thrives on the big stage. Her best 2012 results were at Slams and Miami (where she beat WTA Most Improved Player of the Year and eventual French Open finalist Sara Errani). It’s strong performances at those kinds of tournaments that inspire confidence and earn fans.

All of that being said, is there a rule that says Serena and Venus can’t play forever? I’m not familiar with the WTA handbook.

Fetherolf: I agree with what’s been said about McHale and Stephens. They’ve both had some great wins this year, and I hope McHale’s mono doesn’t become a long-term issue.

In addition to the American women in the top 100, there are some promising juniors like top-ranked Taylor Townsend, Samantha Crawford and others. But the way things are going, the Williams sisters could be around for a long time before we have to start worrying about the United States having another top player on the WTA Tour.

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