- Frances Tiafoe, Amanda Anisimova and Danielle Collins all impressed at the Australian Open. Their ascendancy is a great sign for the future of American tennis.
For American tennis fans, the 2019 Australian Open will be remembered as a breakout tournament for a new crop of young players.
Over two weeks in Melbourne, U.S. fans got new faces to root for, while older mainstays like John Isner, Sam Querrey and even the Williams sisters left disappointed. The older guard that came of age in the 2000s still have much to give the sport. While fairly recent breakout American stars like Sloane Stephens, Madison Keys and Coco Vandeweghe are still in their primes, they all came to prominence over six years ago. Meanwhile, prior to this month, the only American man to make a Grand Slam quarterfinal under the age of 30 since 2011 had been 26-year-old Tennys Sandgren, whose impressive run in Melbourne last year was met with backlash over his alt-right Twitter activity. It also hasn't lead to a sustained patch of success, as he remains outside the world's top 40.
So, for the first time in what feels like forever, American tennis fans are watching a crop of new players coming of age concurrently on the biggest stage. While the only American player left in any draw is Rajeev Ram, in mixed doubles, the success of players like Frances Tiafoe, Amanda Anisimova and Danielle Collins has injected life into into the future-of-American-tennis conversation.
Projected post-Australian Open ranking: 23
Collins has bucked all trends in her career. First, she chose to play college tennis over trying to make it as a pro. NCAA tennis has been bypassed, especially in women's tennis, for years as most top players go pro rather than spending four years of earning time on campus. Collins went gone the other way, graduating from Virginia in 2016 with two NCAA singles titles and a master's in business. By the way, she's made use of that business degree by starting her own jewelry company, which is quite the side hustle for a top-30 player in the world. After a year toiling in the ITF circuit, she had a breakout year on the WTA and made a meteoric rise to the top 40. This momentum culminated in her run to the Australian Open semifinals over the last week and a half.
It's worth remembering that while Collins has spent just two years on the WTA Tour, she's not the youngest up-and-comer at 25. On the flip side, she is just as experienced as most of her opponents. She's only nine months younger than Sloane Stephens, and Stephens' run of success around the same age is a good template for what Collins can do. And like Stephens, Collins is very streaky. After a strong quarterfinal showing in San Jose last year, Collins lost eight of her next 10 matches. That was offset by a 17-4 record after last year's Aussie Open, allowing her to collect plenty of points. Stephens has slightly more talent and a higher ceiling, but Collins is making up for lost time quickly.
But what did we learn from this tournament? Well, winning on a big stage is certainly impressive, particularly after never winning a Grand Slam match before, and her path to the semifinals (Goerges, Vickery, Garcia, Kerber, Pavyluchenkova) was no cakewalk. But it's Collins' attitude that was most impressive. For those who weren't watching the first round, Goerges actually served for the match up 6-2, 6-5, but Collins roared back to take the tiebreak and the third set to complete the upset. Her desire to compete for every ball and outlast her opponents has taken opponents by surprise.
From a tactical perspective, Collins' strength is her two-handed backhand, which absolutely pummeled Kerber and Garcia in those two matches. Her forehand has a weird motion and is actually quite reminiscent of Tiafoe's exaggerated windup, but she has a consistency that many others lack on that wing. Her biggest weakness is her net game; in her quarterfinal against Pavlyuchenkova, she made just four net approaches across 191 total points.
But with her groundstrokes and ability to defend, she can succeed without it. She also prefers a "feisty match" as she puts it, and has marked her presence in the tournament with several loud "C'mons!", sometimes directed at other players.
That feistiness could rub some the wrong way, but it also could work to her advantage. Collins' game is based around playing the game passionately, and tennis needs new energy from time to time. It certainly helps for her marketability and brand recognition, two concepts she is obviously well-versed in.
Projected post-Australian Open ranking: 30
The youngest American man to reach a Grand Slam quarterfinal since Andy Roddick in 2001, Tiafoe is the best young American talent we've seen in a generation. With his LeBron-inspired celebrations and winsome personality, he's poised to become the face of this new wave. The only thing that's left to do for Tiafoe is making these deep runs at majors a regular occurence. As our own Jon Wertheim and others have noted, Tiafoe is steadily improving, and this level is just a new peak for him. And yes, American sponsors (read: Nike) are ready to throw huge piles of cash at the media-savvy and charismatic 21-year-old.
Let's make this clear right away. The USTA desperately needs Frances Tiafoe to be reach his full potential. The country has been a sleeping giant on the men's side for over 15 years. Sure, young Americans don't necessarily need to have a male star from the U.S. inspire them, but not having a Grand Slam finalist for going on 10 years is a little much. Until 2017, the nation of Latvia had more Grand Slam semifinalists in the decade than the United States. Perhaps the last decade of American men's tennis has simply been an existentialist play entitled Waiting for Tiafoe, and only now has the ending finally revealed itself.
WERTHEIM: Just How Good is Frances Tiafoe?
Tiafoe plays offense and defense, something that his counterparts (Fritz, Donaldson, Opelka, etc.) have not been able to do. Against Anderson, he defended like David Ferrer with considerably more athletic ability. In his next match against Seppi, he ground down the veteran with baseline play and slices and outlasted the Italian over five sets. In the win over Dimitrov, he attacked the Bulgarian’s weaknesses and moved to the net with intent. It’s a variance that you've rarely seen from young Americans over the last few years and will never see from Isner or Querrey. Tiafoe also mixes in aggressive drop shots, something he started workgin on in challengers and has improved immensely.
Tactically, he is significantly more varied and exciting than the typical big-serve, big-forehand brand we've used to. It's a blend of different styles that's very entertaining and easy to root for.
Can that style lead to bigger success down the road? There's no reason not to think so. Outside of Djokovic and Nadal, Tiafoe can reasonably expect to have a chance to beat every other player on the men's tour, even when his opponents are at their best. I can confidently say this because he's already done it: Tiafoe has wins over Zverev, Del Potro, Cecchinato, Carreno Busta, Shapovalov and Berdych in his young career. It's clear that Djokovic and Nadal are miles ahead of everyone at this point, and behind them it's wide open now that Federer is slowly declining and Murray is headed toward early retirement. If Tiafoe can make a deep run at a couple Masters 1000s and perform passably on clay, he could find himself well inside the top 20.
He definitely still needs to improve on everything to stick in the top tier, as we saw in the Nadal match. But his biggest strength is his absence of a glaring weakness, and his game will only improve as he gets more experience. If this result had come with Tiafoe at age 26 or 27, like it did for John Isner or Tennys Sandgren, the long-term outlook would be much bleaker. But Tiafoe has plenty of time to get better. He also has the mentality and the hunger to adapt and improve, something which has been utterly absent from top American tennis players this decade. He has a legitimate chance to win Grand Slams in the not-so-distant future.
Projected post-Australian Open ranking: 61
Anisimova made headlines by defeating everyone's trendy pick to win the tournament, Aryna Sabalenka, in straight sets in the third round. The 17-year-old American has an exciting game and all the talent in the world. Women's tennis has not really had a teenaged superstar since Maria Sharapova, but Anisimova certainly looks capable when her game is in full flow. Her backhand and forehand are solid, and her serve is great for her age and only going to improve. It's worth nothing that, like Collins, while it seems like Anisimova has come out of nowhere, she showed obvious signs of a breakout in 2018 as well—she made her first WTA final in Hiroshima late last year and also scored a huge win over Petra Kvitova at Indian Wells.
It is tempting to say Anisimova has fully arrived, but for the long-term health of collective expectations, some cold water might be necessary.Don't forget cautionary tale of CiCi Bellis, who made headlines when she upset Dominika Cibulkova in 2014 at age 15, becoming the youngest player to win a match at the U.S. Open since Anna Kournikova in 1996. Bellis made the top 35 in 2017 just after turning 18, but she has had a series of injuries and surgeries that have derailed her career. Anisimova is a better prospect than Bellis, but there is always a risk of injury and inconsistency for players who are just getting started on the Tour.
After the Kvitova upset, Anisimova suffered a right foot injury in Miami that kept her out for four months. She might have been able to return earlier, but her camp decided to play it cautious, and rightfully so; keeping her healthy should be a top priority right now. Although making the round of 16 at a Grand Slam is a great start, there are many young WTA players who have made huge strides at a young age and then burned out quickly. Anisimova may have the most talent of any young American we've seen this side of the Williams sisters, but the modern game has seen many players hit their peak in their mid-to-late twenties. There is no rush for Anisimova to be No. 1 in the world by 19 as there might have been 25 years ago. While it would be fun to watch Anisimova play a huge schedule and hit 70-75 matches as a 17-year-old, it's also potentially dangerous. The game is so much more physically demanding than it was in the days of Seles and Hingis. Anisimova is going to win Grand Slams down the road. Let's not screw it up for her before she can even vote.
Projected post-Australian Open ranking: 36
Kenin lost the earlier than Anisimova and Collins, but she also faced the toughest player in world No. 1 Simona Halep. Kenin had a great month of January, taking her first WTA title in Hobart and playing well against Halep in the second round. She's another talented prospect, but she has the least power of the three and seems to dip into the dreaded "pusher" territory at times. You won't see it in highlight videos since they only show her bombing winners, but she junkballs more than she needs to, and she needs to develop some aggression before making another leap. She hit just three aces over six sets and nearly five hours of tennis in Melbourne.
The variety and ball control in Kenin's game is analogous to someone like the recently retired Agnieszka Radwanska. She is good enough to be a top 15 regular as she gets older and stronger, and she's already set to hit a career high of No. 36 after just celebrating her 20th birthday. It's even harder to hit Kenin off the court than Collins and Anisimova. In her big wins, she defends about as well as anyone, but she doesn't have the tools to hurt people in the latter parts of tournaments right now.
The beauty of tennis is that many different types of athletes can succeed, and with a little more aggressiveness, she can shift into a Halep-like defensive counterpuncher rather than a pure defender, and eventually challenge for big titles. The downside is that her projected ceiling is not as high as Anisimova, or even as high as Collins. Kenin is going to have a breakout tournament at some point in her career, but we've also seen these types of defenders lose a lot of steam down the road. Radwanksa herself never won a Grand Slam, and similar players like Daria Gavrilova and Anna Schmiedlova have done a ton of yoyo-ing around the rankings. We'll see if Kenin is headed in the same direction.
Projected post-Australian Open ranking: 48
While we're on the subject, Fritz scored a great win over Gael Monfils in the second round and didn't embarrass himself against Federer in his third round loss. Fritz is more of a traditional male American tennis player than Tiafoe. He's a baby-faced guy with a massive serve and a heavy forehand. It wasn't long ago that Fritz was considered the next big thing. However, after making the top 50 in 2016 as an 18-year-old, Fritz lost a lot of matches, had some injury issues, and became a father. His ranking suffered, and he has had to fight his way back to the top 50 through challengers and qualifying.
While falling back into the minor leagues after an early headstart has been crushing for many young players, the extra work has actually paid off for Fritz. He has added strength and spin to his serve and really worked on his backhand. As a result, he is now a much more complete player than he was in 2016. The results are going to come. He's made the third round of the last two majors, and it's clear he can really play. Fritz's main problem will always be consistency over the course of a week, something that Tiafoe has found repeatedly but Fritz has not. His warmup tournament in Auckland was a great example: his win over Isner was impressive, but a straightforward loss to Cameron Norrie in the next round was very disappointing. But like Tiafoe, Fritz has shown an aptitude for working on his game, and he has the raw skills to be a top-10 player at the very least. If he gets some favorable draws in the Sunshine Double, watch out.