In Australia, the world is upside down. Not only because of time zones and the difference in seasons, but because we also seem to go back to the past. American tennis is reborn, as it was at the height of the 1990s. The talent is raw, the hopes are real and the potential is immense. The year 2024 will be that of the United States.
Do you remember 1995? That year, the show Satire du monde by JiCi Lauzon was nominated in the comedy show category at the ADISQ gala, the Montreal Canadiens drafted the enigmatic Terry Ryan in eighth place and the film Forrest Gump was all won at the Oscars.
Around Halloween that year, four Americans were in the top 10 of the ATP rankings. Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang and Jim Courier ruled the roost on the professional circuit. We were right in the heart of the glory years of American tennis. These four tenors were in some ways the founding fathers of modern tennis, at least in North America.
Like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the 18th century, they invented a way of doing things in their own way. At the very least, they have created standards of excellence. Standards which were heavily damaged in subsequent years.
Aside from Andy Roddick, few Americans can claim to have continued the tradition established by the quartet starting in the mid-1990s. But things are about to change. And the Australian Open could be a turning point.
Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul, Ben Shelton and Frances Tiafoe are ranked 12th, 14th, 16th and 17th, respectively. Each of them is knocking on the door of the top 10. Above all, they are ripe to go a long way in a major tournament.
In 2023, Tommy Paul lost to Novak Djokovic in the semi-final in Australia. Ben Shelton also faced the Serbian in the semi-final of the US Open. Fritz and Tiafoe reached the quarter-finals of the same tournament.
“In recent years, what has really made a huge difference is their competition structure,” explains Guillaume Marx, head of high performance at Tennis Canada. American players benefit from a number of tournaments and competitive opportunities at all levels that are exceptional and very difficult to replicate. »
The proof: Ben Shelton managed to climb into the top 100 without ever leaving the United States. He used his passport for the first time in January 2023 to go play in Australia.
The resources injected into American development are indeed paying off.
“We travel to find quality competitions, but they have it at home and they have benefited enormously from it,” adds Marx. They make an absolutely huge investment in tournaments, in competition quality, which keeps their players highly motivated, without having to travel all over the world. »
Fritz, Paul, Shelton and Tiafoe, a group that should be given a nickname worthy of 1980s rock groups, are proof that investing in talent can pay dividends. For the first time in a long time, American tennis can dream of a major individual men’s title. The last one to win one was Roddick in 2003.
And in an Olympic year, what’s more, it is possible to believe in a gold medal.
Taylor Fritz is arguably the most mature player of the four. At 26, he has long been among the brightest projects in American tennis. He climbed into the top 5 in February, but a stormy end to the season set him back. He still won two titles, in Atlanta and Delray Beach. Then, even if his name is rarely mentioned when we talk about the best servers on the circuit, the Californian obtained a very interesting return in 2023.
Fifth in the number of points obtained on first ball (78.3%) and second ball (55%) and seventh in the number of games won on serve (86.5%), Fritz has also learned to better manage his emotions on the ground, which makes him more dangerous.
Tommy Paul lost two finals last season, but he blossomed in Toronto. His quarterfinal victory over Carlos Alcaraz in three sets put him on the map. Paul doesn’t look like much when he shows up on a tennis court with his cap on backwards and his polo shirt a size or two larger, but there is style and Roddick quickdraw. The New Jersey native could crack the top 10 as soon as this year.
Ben Shelton was the big revelation of 2023. A little thanks to his 230 km/h serves, a lot thanks to his attitude. Despite being 21 years old, the left-hander fears no one. He was injured last year, which slowed his rise somewhat, but none of his opponents should feel confident facing him over the coming months. It seems to be designed for big moments. Between the arrogance of youth and the certainty of being able to compete with anyone, Shelton should find a healthy balance.
Frances Tiafoe has slowed down over the past year, but the 25-year-old remains the most versatile of the bunch. With a title on grass and another on clay in 2023, he has his chances in all tournaments. His usual poise should allow him to bounce back. He entered the top 10 momentarily in June and could return there fairly quickly.