Glee on the Grass – American Hopes Surge at Wimbledon

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Bill Simons

Wimbledon

For too long, it was too easy.  Generation after generation, American men swept to Grand Slam titles with a deceptive ease. It seemed like just a trip to the mall. American ascendance could easily be traced back to Big Bill Tilden, Don Budge, and slim Jack Kramer. Then Connors and McEnroe rocked the casbah and took tennis to a whole new stratosphere. 

Next, as if on cue, America’s greatest generation – Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang – came along, and between them collected 27 Slams. We assumed the baton would be passed to young buck Andy Roddick. The Texan claimed the 2003 US Open, and all was good. A bit fat and quite content, clearly American men’s tennis would continue to prosper. 

But then the unthinkable happened. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, a devastating drought descended. To some it seemed to be of biblical proportions. American men were not only failing to win Slams – they rarely even reached quarters or semis, and definitely not finals. So we adapted, lowering our expectations. An American guy reaching the second week of a Slam became cause for celebration. 

Despite gifted athletes, good intent, hard work, great coaches and plenty of money, an American man hasn’t reached a Slam final since Andy Roddick in 2009. There hasn’t been a US Slam semi-finalist since John Isner at Wimbledon in 2018. Not surprisingly, everyone, especially the players, were sick of talking about it.

But now, at Wimbledon, there’s glee. John Isner put on a master class and dismissed Andy Murray on Centre Court. Max Cressy downed No. 6 seed Felix Auger-Aliassime. Brandon Nakashima dismissed No. 13 seed Denis Shapovalov. Steve Johnson downed No. 18 seed Grigor Dimitrov. No. 103 Jack Sock, whose career was thought to be dead in the water, is through to the third round. Taylor Fritz overcame his injuries and Jenson Brooksby came out of his slump. Eight of the 16 Americans in the draw reached the third round – the most since 1996. 

Sure, none of the 15 American men at the French Open reached the second week, but today at Wimbledon, Americans were giddy. US fans on Court 2, players in crowded press conferences and reporters in the media center could hardly contain themselves. Yes, Isner, Cressy and Johson fell today. But Tommy Paul and Frances Tiafoe are through to the fourth round and four other Americans are still in the other side of the draw.

Tiafoe, who downed Alexander Bublik, was asked why Americans were doing so well. “Because we’re damned good,” he quipped. Others pointed to the fact that America’s power players were now unleashing on Wimbledon’s slick grass. 

Taylor Fritz was upbeat about the future. “It’s great,” he said. “We don’t have what everyone’s looking for in terms of the world No. 1 or a Grand Slam champion, but we have…more depth than we’ve ever had.

“We have so many guys seeded in the top 32…Soon we’re going to have a lot of guys contending to get to the second week, quarterfinals. The good news is the majority of the field is younger. We’re only going to keep getting better.”

To break through to the top, Taylor told IT, “It’s just a matter of improving our games. Becoming stronger, better players…We can go really deep, but to beat the best it’s going to take a little bit more. Luckily…there’s still a lot of time for improvement.”

Tiafoe said Americans are happy for each other, feed off each other and practice together. No one is jealous or envious. “One guy does well, the next guy wants to step up. It’s all good. We just gotta keep going.”

As for past problems, Frances said, “I don’t think it was an American problem. I think it was a Big Four problem…a lot of great players in that era didn’t win Slams.” After his win today, he said, “It’s great – but you don’t stop here. How about a quarters, a semi, and so forth?”

Yes, Isner told IT that America first has to get a couple of guys in the top ten. And Wimbledon is just moving into the fourth round. But it’s wonderful to see six American men and three American women – Coco Gauff, Amanda Anisimova and Jessica Pegula – still in the draw.

At least on this happy Friday, US fans can focus on Americans – not the Big Four, flashy Canadians or some 6’ 6” Russian star. With eight Americans in the top 50, it’s clear the USA has strength in numbers. Things are trending upward nicely. 

Skeptics say. “Hold on, let’s not get out over our skis.” Hopefully, this week’s surge isn’t a false flag. Still, US patriots are daring to recall the good old days, and hope that a long awaited moment will come, sooner than later, when an American man might just lift a bright, shiny Grand Slam trophy. 

VENUS UNPLUGGED: Venus Williams played for the first time since August. She joined with Brit Jamie Murray to win their first-round doubles match. Open and jolly, she told IT about her life off court and the impact of the movie “King Richard.”

“I was very busy when I wasn’t on tour. It’s easier to be on tour than off tour,” she noted. “I think I should just come on back so I can sleep a little more.

“I have a lot of work off tour. I’m a professional athlete, so that’s who I am. But I’ll be all right without [being on the tour]. I’ll be all right if I’m here, I’ll be all right if I’m not.

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“The film has…resonated with so many people…it’s motivated them to get closer to their families or to live their dream. I think that’s gone beyond what we could have ever imagined. Then the Oscars were beyond my dreams.

“We definitely had our hands full when we weren’t on tour. We have so many more projects we’re working on, too, which is beyond exciting – it’s great.”

As for playing with Jamie, Venus said, “I’ve been trying to play with him forever. He plays hard to get…I haven’t played in a year so you don’t know what you’re going to get…I saw the grass and I got excited. I was at the French Open – it’s a beautiful event – but my heart didn’t beat the same way.”

After she and Jamie won, Venus said, “It was like, ‘Oh, my God, wow.’…[I] felt something in my heart…You never know where I’ll pop up.”

THE PROBLEM WITH TIM: The little-known Dutchman Tim van Rijthoven beat Reilly Opelka and Nikoloz Basilashvili to become the first wildcard to reach the round of 16 since 2015. He’ll next play Djokovic on Centre Court. He said that it would be a dream – magical. But Tim could have a problem.

You see, years ago, when Tim Henman was rocking Wimbledon and Henmania was sweeping through England, one of Britain’s leading writers, Martin Amis, wrote in the New Yorker that if Tim Henman ever wants to win Wimbledon, he’ll have to do one simple thing: change his name. 

Amis contended that Henman was the first person named Tim to achieve anything at all. “‘Tim,’ I’m afraid, doesn’t have the ring,” Amis explained. “The name lacks gravity…the Tims of the world had all their ambitions crushed, all their aspirations dashed, by being called ‘Timmy’ during childhood.”

GO FIGURE: Frances Tiafoe’s average game today took 1:25. That’s less time than a changeover…Today is the 55th anniversary of the BBC first televising Wimbledon in color…Jack Sock nearly missed out on getting a wildcard  for Wimbledon, but then battled his way through qualifying and is now through to the fourth round. Just about a year ago, the former No. 8 in the world had no ranking at all. He said his journey has been “brutal, to say the least. I went from the top 10 to no ranking at all in four years. It’s been a long road back.” 

QUESTION OF THE DAY: A reporter asked the ecstatic British veteran Heather Watson, who’s had modest results since she reached Wimbledon’s third round 10 years ago, “Did you think your ship had sailed?” 

BATTLING YOURSELF: At times the Wimbledon’s scoreboard is odd. Today it read Maria vs. Sakkari. For a moment we thought Greek Maria Sakkari was playing herself. But the Greek was playing Tatjana Maria. BTW: the German Maria, who has two daughters, upset Sakkari, the No. 5 seed, 6-3, 7-5.

THE MAN WHO CANNOT AVOID CONTROVERSY: Nick Kyrgios is not only vastly creative on court, he’s vastly creative off court, too. Has anyone in tennis history, even John McEnroe, found more creative ways to stir controversy? He spit in the direction of a Wimbledon fan. He almost hit an Indian Wells ball boy. In Miami he said the ATP didn’t give a f–k. We could go on. 

Anyway, yesterday he told the Tennis Channel that he’s such a big Boston Celtics fan that he would tank if his team lost. “I’ve literally thrown tennis matches if they’ve lost in, like, double overtime,” he confided. “If someone plays me and they know the Celtics have lost, that’s your chance.” As for his upcoming match with Stefanos Tsitsipas, the Aussie said, “Unlucky for Stef – the NBA season is over.”

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