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At Wimbledon, American men throw a 4th of July party

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WIMBLEDON, England — Just in time for the Fourth of July weekend, Americans throw a party on British soil.

As Thursday night fell at the All England Club, eight American men qualified for the third round of the prestigious Wimbledon tournament, accounting for 25 per cent of the final 32 spots. That’s the most American men in the third round at the event since 1995, when nine qualified in the heyday of Sampras-Agassi-Courier-Chang. It is also the most at any Grand Slam tournament since the US Open in 1996.

Just about everywhere one looked on Wednesday and Thursday, an American man was punching, chopping or punching his way into the last 32, and one more will secure his spot on Friday. Apparently, the sun has set on the era when every American male player had a big serve and a forehand and not much else.

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Some were familiar faces, like John Isner, who hammered his way through home favorite Andy Murray. But several were part of the next wave of Yankees on the rise in their mid-20s: the clique of Taylor Fritz, Tommy Paul and Francis Tiafoe who first came together as teenagers at a national training center in Florida. And then there was a couple from the later wave (Jenson Brooksby and Brandon Nakashima) who are still a couple of years away from needing a daily shave. Two Americans, Maxime Cressy and Jack Sock, one new to the scene and one veteran, were dueling for the last available spot until rain interrupted their match on Court No. 3 on Thursday.

“It’s been a very, very long progression,” said Martin Blackman, a former pro and general manager of player development for the United States Tennis Association.

Now, before anyone in the United States rushes to the liquor store for Pimm’s on ice for the championship celebration, it’s worth noting that no one expects any of these players to win the men’s singles title, at least not this one. year. American men’s tennis is deep but light at the top.

The US now has eight men in the top 50 and 13 in the top 100, more than any other country. Arguably the most promising of them all, Sebastian Korda, son of former World No. 2 Petr Korda, had to withdraw from Wimbledon 10 days ago with sore legs.

“He gave me nothing to catch,” Canada’s Denis Shapovalov said of Nakashima, who beat him in four sets on Thursday.

Despite this week’s stampede, there are no Americans in the top 10 and only two in the top 20: Fritz and Reilly Opelka. Russia and Spain each have two players in the top 10. Spain, the best tennis country of the last decade, has four players in the top 20.

But for a country whose pool of men’s talent has been seen as rather thin and hasn’t had a Grand Slam champion since Andy Roddick won the US Open in 2003, the depth represents significant progress. It also serves as a kind of motivational tool. A friendly competition has sprung up between Americans in their twenties, led by Fritz, and those who have just reached the legal drinking age in the United States, or are not yet, to be the first to play in the final rounds of a Grand Slam tournament.

“They’re great for us,” Paul, 25, said of Brooksby, Korda, both 21, and Nakashima, 20. “They push us.”

“For tennis to grow, we are going to need some winners on the men’s side,” he added.

The USTA knows it too. For years, he has been trying to perfect a system to help develop players that work in a vast country with more than 330 million people and lots of competition from more popular sports that are cheaper for good young athletes.

In Europe, especially in Eastern Europe, promising young teenagers often leave home for the academies. Academic and psychological support may be lacking. A “Lord of the Flies” environment persists, of diving or swimming. Despite his success there in producing some formidable talent and champions, including Novak Djokovic, that model was never going to work with American parents.

Instead, for the past decade, the organization has tried to create a trout farm instead of finding a unicorn. He developed a three-tiered program of local, regional and national camps that bring together top talent throughout the year, but also allow kids to stay home as long as possible and work with their own coaches. Airfare to camps isn’t included, but most everything else is, even some money for private trainers to attend sometimes so they don’t feel left out of the process as a young player grows and improves.

There is no one size fits all approach. During the crucial developmental years between the ages of 15 and 22, some players choose to work with USTA coaches and trainers at their training centers in Orlando, Florida, or Carson, California, outside of Los Angeles. Fritz was part of the USTA program for six years, Paul for five, Opelka for four and Tiafoe for three, Blackman said.

Others, like Korda, Nakashima and Brooksby, choose to remain largely outside the system, but may still qualify for financial support and attend the occasional camp or show up at the training center for competition.

Blackman also doesn’t want the organization to preach a certain style of play. Cressy’s serving and volleying game is as valuable as Brooksby’s finesse, Tiafoe’s serving and forehand power and Nakashima’s all-court focus.

At one of those camps, a national gathering in Boca Raton, Florida, a decade ago, Fritz, Paul and Tiafoe came together for the first time.

“It was really boring in those dorms, there was nothing to do, so we didn’t have a lot of options,” Fritz said recently.

Fritz, with his big feet and mop of hair, and the least advanced game of the group, quickly became the punching bag of the group, friendly punches, of course.

“A big dumb guy like that, you know he would end up being targeted,” Tiafoe said.

Paul said that Fritz took it well. Fritz also saw that the members of his new clique were better at tennis than he was, and began to work harder to catch up. In a few years, he had moved on. He is now the highest-ranked American man at No. 14 and the only one of the youngest set to have won a Masters 1000 tournament, the level just below the Grand Slams, emerging in Indian Wells, California, earlier this year. year.

They remain close friends and genuinely committed to each other’s success, which helps during a long season full of travel. Paul has been on the road for almost 10 weeks.

“I’m so homesick I want to throw up,” he said Thursday.

Texting and group dinners, sometimes fancy, sometimes burgers and pizza, and long bull sessions help. Tiafoe reached the final at a tournament in Portugal earlier this year. As he walked off the field after each win, he found congratulatory notes on his phone from the gang.

There is still a huge and extremely difficult task ahead for the next generation and the one right behind them: to break into the top 10 and become fixtures in the final matches of the biggest tournaments, the way American women , led by the Williams sisters, have done so. during years.

Its coming.

“I hope we do well in all these tournaments now,” said Paul. “It’s about winning one more match and going deeper one more round.”

Paul has never reached the second week of a Grand Slam. On Friday, on the first day of a third round with a lot of American company, he will get another chance.

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