Bill Simons and Vinay Venkatesh
“It felt unbelievable to kick their ass baby – yay! ” – John McEnroe
It’s been since the Bush administration that an American man has won a Slam. And no US guy has reached the final of a major since Roddick in 2009. But unmistakably, an inspiring American wave is rising. It feels so good.
Coco Gauff, 19, won the US Open, and the dazzling Ben Shelton showed us his extraordinary upside as he powered his way to the semis in New York. Plus, American fans can point to strong results by Taylor Fritz, Frances Tiafoe, Tommy Paul, Chris Eubanks and Seb Korda.
While the US may not have a top 5 player now, we have incredible strength in numbers that often works very nicely in team competitions. After four years of futility, last year, led by Americans, Team World won its first ever Laver Cup. Earlier this year, we won the United Cup in Australia.
This weekend, led by Shelton, Tiafoe, Fritz, and Paul (and with some timely help from Canadian Felix Auger-Aliassime and Argentina’s Francisco Cerundolo), Team World trounced Team Europe 13-2, with surprising ease. No Novak, no Rafa, no Roger and no Carlos Alcaraz – no problem.
The Team World rout was the most impressive display of American men’s tennis strength since in 2007 when we won the Davis Cup in Portland, some 350 miles south of Vancouver. This year’s Laver Cup gave us glorious glimpses of the Ben Shelton’s easy power. Mark Petchey noted, “You can really get seduced by the beauty of power and there’s so much of it from Ben Shelton’s arm. It’s like a firecracker going off.” Shelton won the first day in singles and then scored two more doubles wins.
No. 8 Taylor Fritz again showed how he loves to excel in team competitions as he lifted his level and punished No. 6 Andrey Rublev. No. 11 Frances Tiafoe came out of his recent funk, imposed his game, and gave fans one of the shot combos of the year – an unbelievable, balletic backhand half-volley flick followed by a backhand volley winner.
Along with Nick Kyrgios, Tiafoe is the best team guy in the game. He lights up locker rooms and arenas. Joy, spontaneity and fun-loving trash talk are his thing. Jim Courier asked, “If there was a rule for a team having too much fun, have you guys gone over the line?” Team World started fast, had a great camaraderie and didn’t look back, as Shelton and Tiafoe clinched the win with a convincing win over Rublev and Hubie Hurkacz.
Unfortunately, it’s been eons since the US has prevailed at the finish line in the most important team competition of all — the Davis Cup. We haven’t won in 16 years, and a week ago America, and Tiafoe in particular, faltered badly in Croatia against not-that-fearsome teams from Holland and Finland. Seven of the eight teams in the Davis Cup quarterfinals in November are European.
Oh, well, such is sports – sorrow in Croatia, joy in Vancouver. Plus, Laver Cup fans were elated when the most beloved player in tennis history opened up in a fun, revealing on-court interview.
Roger Federer, who recently invited 250 friends and fans aboard a boat for a celebration on Switzerland’s Lake Lucerne, told the adoring throng that he loved the camaraderie of the Laver Cup and that he was “absolutely open” to becoming the captain of Team Europe someday.
When Jim Courier, in the well-named Rogers Arena, asked Roger whether he missed tennis, he replied, “I miss everything about the tour. The exciting moments, the break points saved, winning match points, holding up trophies [he’s lifted 103 of them], walking past fans, taking selfies and being part of one big happy family.
“[But] I made myself a promise that I would be no stranger to the game…I did it for 25 years. It was incredible and I’d do it all over again. And it came to an end in a great way.
“Now, I’m a professional driver, an organizer, a logistics man. It’s definitely a test…I’m still in the gym four or five times a week…But I’m a little heavier now. I’m working on it.”
Of course, superstardom has its privileges, and Federer revealed how the rock group Coldplay invited him to sing with them. Roger had his doubts, so he asked his daughter, who said, “Of course, Papa! You only live once – you’ve got to do it.”
Federer, who sang in front of 80,000 people, reported, “I’m finished with my musical career. I finished on top. I dropped the mic and I’m good.”
A fan asked Federer, a father of four, what advice he’d give teenage girls. Rarely have we seen Roger so perplexed. Although hesitant and cautious, he finally opened up and confided, “I’m just happy to live in my own house. It’s tough times, but my God, I can’t believe they are who they are at 14…It’s complicated, but in a good way.”
Scratching his head, he added. “I like it because my girls have a strong character. It’s all good…They come home and cry instead of doing that away. They still share their emotions with me and we talk about everything. I love the honesty. So it’s all good.”
When Tiafoe asked him who should play him in the movies, he flashed his sheepish smile and replied, “Leonardo DiCaprio.” (Editor’s question: Who brags with more appealing ease than Roger?)
Then Rafa Nadal asked him a cheekish question with a wink in a video: “Who’s your favorite doubles partner?” Roger joked back: “I mean, I thought it was my wife [Mirka] until this guy showed up.”
Federer added that one of his favorite Davis Cup matches was between John Isner and Dominic Thiem. He explained, “I love big servers. I know some people get bored with it, but I think it’s the best thing ever when it’s just raining aces.”
When a 9-year-old asked the icon (who’s famous for having the most beautiful stroke ever, his one-handed backhand) for advice, not surprisingly, he said, “Have fun when you go to practice. Listen to your parents. Listen to your coaches – they’re right. And maybe you will have a better career with a double-handed backhand.”
As for his life these days, Roger said, “It’s a really intense, beautiful life that I’m living. We’re having the best time. A lot of things are going on, and I have a lot of control in my schedule now. I’ve done a lot with my foundation and I was just at the UN fighting for early learning. I went with my kids to South Africa for the first time and I’m looking forward to what’s next. Some tennis has to be sprinkled in there – somewhere, sometime – so I’ll be around, and seeing you!”
STAKUSIC KICKS KIICK TO CLAIM BERKELEY TITLE
During the US Open, Floridian Chris Evert was talking football and jokingly asked, “Is Don Shula still coaching Miami?” The storied Dolphins are still a key part of the NFL narrative, and their bruising running back, the late Jim Kiick, was famous for – what else? – kicking butt.
And for six straight matches at the Berkeley Tennis Club’s storied center court the 28-year-old daughter of the late football star did just that. The athletic qualifier Allie Kiick kicked butt.
But in the finals of the Berkeley Tennis Club’s Women’s $60,000 Challenger, Marina Stakusic turned the tables. As soft winds cooled an appreciative crowd, the 18-year old did what many a young Canadian woman (think Bianca Andreescu and Leylah Fernandez) has done. She came come to America to kick butt.
Never mind that Kiick had upset Katie Volynets en route to the final, Stakusic promptly showed why she hadn’t lost a set all week. Calm and efficient, the teen from Missisuga, Ontario could be Canada’s answer to Brit Emma Raducanu. Quiet and solid from the baseline, she ran Allie to the alleys. At times Kiick was reduced to kicking herself. She had few answers. The Floridian was broken early in the first set and quickly fell behind 6-3, 5-0.
But the recent University of Florida grad knows a thing or two about comebacks. She’d come back to battle on the circuit after five surgeries. Today she stormed back to win four games in a row.
The Berkeley Tennis Club is lined with oak and palm trees. But today was all about a gal from the land of maple leaves. On her second match point, Stakusic watched with glee as a Kiick backhand found the alley. Marina claimed the Berkeley title on a court where the likes of Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith and Sofia Kenin have prevailed.
Kiick congratulated Marina on her methodical 6-3, 6-4 win and stated the obvious: “You are going to be a heck of a player, and you’re only 18.”