Let’s not be too blunt. Still, truth be told, for decades the men’s game in America has, shall we say, under performed.
During the days of Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe, rebels Jimmy Connors and Johnny McEnroe, and the one-of a-kind generation of Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang, America was front and center in the conversation when it came to men’s tennis.
In 2003, after a strapping Texan, Andy Roddick, won the US Open, tennis lovers confidently assumed that US dominance would continue. Wrong.
Unpredicted by anyone, a long slow drought descended. Yes, as arid winds began to blow there were occasional oases in the enlarging desert. Roddick reached the finals of four other Slams. James Blake gave us a good dose of US Open night magic. We won the Davis Cup in 2007. Sam Querrey took it to Novak Djokovic at Wimbledon. More to the point, the extraordinary John Isner emerged, served up a 2010 marathon match for the ages and has been a top-20 player for a decade. More recently, young, eager talents like Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka and Frances Tiafoe have begun knocking on the door.
But who’s kidding whom? In the era of Roger, Rafa and Novak, it seemed that American men’s tennis wasn’t even getting invited to the party. Far from the main table, too often we were left chewing on modest morsels. So our country called on its best coaches. A massive tennis mecca in Lake Nona, Florida was constructed, in large part to address the gnawing shortfall in men’s tennis. A common question among insiders was: “Have there been more committees formed in American tennis on how to get young people playing, or on the perplexing problem of creating a top male champion?”
After all, in an era when the Big Three have won 53 of the last 62 Slams, pros from a long list of other nations are still far more likely to win Slams than American players. Serbia, Spain, Switzerland, Austria, Germany, Argentina and little Greece all come to mind. Plus Russia has four fabulous players, Canada boasts quite a trio – Milos Raonic, Denis Shapovalov, and Felix Auger-Aliassime – and Italy has more prospects than Rome has fountains.
Our expectations have dropped.The longstanding best player in America, John Isner, is 35 – and has won just three match in the last three Slams. It’s been cause for celebration when an American like Tiafoe gets a set off a top player like Nadal. Now there are “mission accomplished” whispers when an American long-shot like Tennys Sandgren makes it to the second week of a Slam. But going into the Miami Open, despite our many solid prospects, not a single US man was ranked in the top 25. The shortfall was the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Of late, no one has really wanted to talk about it.
Suddenly that’s changed. People want to talk about a lanky, stylish, appealing 6’ 5” American kid – Sebastian Korda. After he stormed from behind to score his first-ever top-20 win over Fabio Fognini, Jim Courier heard something in the Miami night: “Toot, toot – that’s the sound of the Seb Korda hype train leaving the station.” But tea-leaf readers had already sung the praises of the wonder kid who seemed to have it all.
“I’ll say it in no uncertain terms,” gushed Andy Roddick. “This is our best prospect in a long, long time. I’m very bullish on Seb Korda.” And for good reason. The kid has a pedigree like few others. His family roots are deep in one of the great traditions of our sport – the “You say Lendl, I say Navratilova” heritage of Czech tennis. Seb has good looks, great calm, a wisdom far beyond his 20 years, seemingly flawless power groundstrokes, surprising speed, Medvedev-like lightness and a high tennis IQ. Blessed with a blue-sky personality, he seems to have everything – except vanity, hubris and a go-to victory celebration like his dad’s scissor-kick leap.
As a teen, Seb named his cat after his idol, Rafa, and was once told by his mom to move on the court like a cat. His play brings to mind the seamless, worry-free ease of “the Big Cat,” the former ATP star, Czechoslovakian Miloslav Mecir.
More to the point, Seb is the product of one of heck of a super-jock family. His mother, Regina Rajchrtova, was No. 26 in the world. His dad Petr was No. 2. His two sisters are elite LPGA golfers. Plus, he’s been around one tennis whiz after another: Andre Agassi, master USTA coach Dean Goldfine and former No. 8 Radek Stepanek. Like his dad, he excelled in Melbourne (Korda senior won the 1998 title, Seb won the 2017 junior crown). And both had a meteoric rise. In just five seasons Petr rose from No. 511 to No. 8. A year ago, Seb was No. 224. Now, he just might break into the top 30.
Korda may seem like an overnight sensation (or should we say “Seb-sation”). As a Florida kid, he started playing hockey at three. But when he eventually arrived on the Challenger tour he was slapped around like a puck. He lost his first eight minor league matches. His prospects were modest. No wonder that in September in the Czech Republic, he made a safe bet, saying that if he got through the French Open qualifying, he’d swim Prague’s considerable Charles River. Indeed, in Paris, Seb beat the now famous Russian “secret weapon,” Aslan Karatsev, in the final round of the 2020 French Open qualifying and took off from there. He downed Isner, and, as he continued winning, he openly gushed about his run and the possibility of playing Nadal in the fourth round. “I’m over the moon. Rafa is my idol,” he confided. “Everything he does is just perfect. Ever since I was a kid I was over the moon watching him play.”
In three mercifully brief sets, Seb won only four games against the King of Clay, . But amazingly, he not only was the last American man standing in Paris, he set a slew of French Open marks:
- Youngest American man and first male player born in the 2000s to reach the fourth round since Michael Chang in 1991.
- First American player to reach the fourth round in his first attempt since Michael Russell in 2001.
- Lowest-ranked American player to reach the fourth round since Todd Martin in 1991.
Some dared to wonder whether American tennis might at last have an heir apparent. Early this year, at the Delray Beach Open, he again beat Isner and streaked to the final.
At the Miami Open he continued to move with grace and power. He served big, ran with ease to the corners, showed deft hands and hit eye-popping half-volleys and dropshots as he overpowered Radu Albot in the first round. He then shocked the oh-so-Italian Fabio Fognini, as he came from way behind to get his first win over a top-20 player. With yet more dazzling play, he squashed Cinderella’s pumpkin when he beat the No. 17 seed and Dubai champ, Aslan Karatsev, 6-3, 6-0.
For the first time since 2004, four Americans had reached the fourth round of the Miami Open. But Isner, Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe all faltered. For the second time in five months, Seb would be the last American standing in a big tourney. Yes, Korda is fun-loving and laid back. His sisters call him goofy. Against Diego Schwartzman he showed the stealth of (what else?) a cat, and the heart of a would-be champion.
In a fierce yet artistic battle against the No. 9 from Argentina, Korda gained a match point – but blinked. So what? Composed and aware, he regrouped, tapped his street-fighting skills and secured a marathon 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 victory, his first-ever win over a top 10 player.
“I think mentally I was great out there…I stayed calm,” mused Korda. “Even in the tight situations I believed in myself and I went for it. I’m super proud of that.” He added, “My parents are super big on just baby steps. You can play tennis for so long if you stay healthy for 15-plus years…it’s incredible. There are a lot of years ahead of me…I’ll always put my head down and keep working, and hopefully one day I could achieve something that my dad achieved.”
The lanky, vastly appealing Seb has already achieved something that no American man has done since Roddick won the 2003 US Open. He’s created a buzz – and, most importantly, hope. Clearly the hype train has left the station. A bit of a Coco Gauff-like frenzy just might be in the works. Broadcaster Steve Weissman joked, “His mom told him to be like a cat on the court; don’t make a lot of noise. Well, he’s making a lot of noise.” Prakash Amritaj said, “I don’t think anything is too much for this kid. The sky’s the limit.” Lindsay Davenport added, “Everyone can start to have some belief.”
“I’d be shocked,” said Jim Courier, “if Korda is not top 20 in the next couple of years.” Yet at the supersonic rate Korda’s moving, he could be there in the next couple of months. If somehow he actually continues his break-out run, beats the considerable Andrey Rublev and goes on to miraculously win the Miami Open, he’d be the US No. 1 – and No. 29 in the world. And American men’s tennis might at last be back in the conversation with a superstar to thrill us in our sport’s greatest events. And wouldn’t that be “Seb-sational?”