The U.S. Open Series kicked off this weekend in Atlanta, and North American fans already have something to moan about: Sam Querrey, the No. 2 American behind Atlanta top seed and No. 12 John Isner, was defeated by Dudi Sela in the second round by the lopsided score of 6-2, 6-4.
Querrey is 6-foot-6, and he has a flamethrower for a serve. Sela is 5-foot-9, and he has a funny first name.
This wasn’t exactly the way most U.S. tennis fans wanted to see Querrey set forth on the heavily publicized “road to the U.S. Open.” The USTA and other American operators have been getting a lot of grief for failing to produce elite players in the wake of the Sampras-Agassi era. But you can’t blame the infrastructure of American tennis this time.
The reality is that the establishment led by the USTA has done an awful lot to create friendly conditions for homegrown players as they prepare for the final Grand Slam event of the year.
Most of the credit for creating the U.S. Open Series goes to the USTA’s former CEO of Professional Tennis, Arlen Kantarian. At the time, Kantarian was thinking the tennis world could be more or less divided into spheres of influence, with something like self-sustaining mini-circuits leading up to each of the Grand Slams -- sort of like the way the European and PGA golf tours are organized.
It didn’t take a genius to see the possibilities. After all, a de facto Roland Garros series already existed in Europe. It did, however, take a visionary to try to implement the vital changes that would make the series worth its name in the U.S. market. Those changes included securing a comprehensive television package, which Kantarian did in partnership with ESPN.
Since then, the series concept has taken a beating despite the continued success of the Euroclay circuit in May and June. Given the demands of the present-day game, the tendency of the elite players is to reduce the number of tournaments they play in advance of any major. Novak Djokovic, who doesn’t play unless his commitment to the ATP’s mandatory Masters 1000 tournaments requires it, may be the face of the future.
The idea of the tune-up tournament sounds almost quaint now. The only exception is that quick transition from clay to grass, when more players feel the need to have a trial run. But Djokovic even skips those. And with Wimbledon moving from the last week of June into the first week of July next year, the players get more time to rest and/or practice on grass.
So the U.S. Open Series, which consists of 10 tournaments (five each for the ATP and WTA), is on shaky footing if you take the global view. But on the brighter side, it has evolved into an excellent training ground and laboratory for domestic players.
Isner knows this, and he appreciates it more than most. He’s entered in every one of the men’s U.S. Open Series events and plans to take full advantage of whatever boost he can get in the rankings. Besides, one of the events (Winston-Salem, North Carolina) is in his home state, and his participation so dominates the event that they could just as soon call it the Isner Open.
All this could prove valuable spadework for an as-yet-undetected resurgence in the American men’s game. When the players are ready, the game will be, too. It also helps make the U.S. Open Series seem more relevant to the overall game than it would if the intent were simply to create, for commercial purposes, a series of linked tournaments at a time when top players are interested in playing less, not more.
All we need now is for a few American players to step up. If and when that happens, the U.S. Open Series may end up looking like a helpful and successful idea.