Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Gullikson on U.S. hopefuls: 'Rising tide lifts all boats'

Tom Gullikson, left, the USTA lead men's national
coach, chats with 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) Reilly Opelka,
19, at the recent $100,000 Fairfield (Calif.) Challenger.
Photo by Paul Bauman
   This is the first of a three-part series on the bright future of U.S. men's tennis.
   One spectator took particular interest as U.S. prospects dominated the recent $100,000 Stockton (Calif.) Challenger.
   Tom Gullikson, the USTA lead men's national coach, watched proudly as Frances Tiafoe, Noah Rubin, Michael Mmoh and Mackenzie McDonald monopolized the semifinals.
   The quartet are among 10 Americans age 21 or younger ranked in the top 350 in the world. A surprising second is Italy with five, although four of those players are 21 and the top-ranked young Italian (No. 207 Matteo Donati, 21) would be seventh among the U.S. players.
   The United States has one 21-year-old (McDonald from Piedmont in the San Francisco Bay Area) in the group, three 20-year-olds (Rubin, Jared Donaldson and Ernesto Escobedo), three 19-year-olds (Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka and Tommy Paul) and three 18-year-olds (Tiafoe, Mmoh and Stefan Kozlov).
   "A rising tide lifts all boats in the harbor," Gullikson, a 65-year-old former top-five doubles player, said in Stockton. "When you look at our group of players between 18 and 21, and compared with the rest of the world, we have 10, 12 guys that all look like they could be very good professionals and get to the top levels of the men's game. Clearly, there's a lot of development or improvement that needs to happen before they all get there."
   Half of the 10 prospects played in Stockton. Absent were Donaldson, Escobedo, Opelka, Fritz and Kozlov. However, Kozlov played in the $100,000 Tiburon Challenger the week before and the 6-foot-11 (2.11-meter) Opelka in the $100,000 Fairfield Challenger the week after. Both lost in the second round, with Kozlov falling to Mmoh.
   Fritz leads the young Americans at No. 73 in the world. Next are Tiafoe, who beat Rubin in the Stockton final, at No. 102 and Donaldson at No. 109.
   Fritz skyrocketed from No. 694 to No. 232 after winning back-to-back Challengers in Sacramento and Fairfield last October.
   "He made a meteoric rise, and he wasn't the most highly touted junior of that group," Gullikson noted. "But when the others see the success of guys their age, they say, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' "
   Except that Fritz is 6-foot-4 (1.93 meters) with power. So is budding star Nick Kyrgios, 21, of Australia. And the brightest prospect of all, 19-year-old Alexander Zverev of Germany, is 6-foot-6 (1.98 meters).
Gullikson, right, and USTA coach Robby Ginepri, left,
liked what they saw in the recent $100,000 Stockton
(Calif.) Challenger. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Gullikson said the USTA's recently established Team USA department "has two main objectives. How many players can we get in, say, the top 230 in the world so we can flood the Grand Slam qualifying events with Americans? Obviously, the more we get in, the more might win three rounds and get through (to the main draw). ... And how many players can we get in the top hundred? We want them to go much higher, but the reason we picked the top hundred is then you're straight into all four Slams. You're playing at the biggest venues against the biggest players, and that's where you want to be."
   As examples of the first goal, Gullikson mentioned Donaldson and Ryan Harrison at this year's U.S. Open. Both reached the third round (to earn $140,000 each) as qualifiers. Donaldson stunned 12th-seeded David Goffin of Belgium in the first round, and Harrison ousted fifth-seeded Milos Raonic of Canada in the second round. But Raonic, the runner-up at Wimbledon earlier in the summer, was plagued by cramps.
   "We're not trying to help develop players to do well in the Futures or the Challengers, with all due respect because they're a great piece of this developmental puzzle," Gullikson continued. "We want guys to be top hundred, top 50, top 30, be seeded in Slams. Then we want to replenish our Davis Cup, Fed Cup and Olympic teams."  
   The ultimate goal, of course, is to produce Grand Slam singles champions. The United States, which has the richest tennis tradition in the world, hasn't had one since Andy Roddick in the 2003 U.S. Open.
   In fact, since Robby Ginepri retired last year, no active American man has reached a Grand Slam semifinal in singles. Ginepri attended the Stockton Challenger as a USTA coach.
   But there's only so much the USTA can do, according to Gullikson.
   "I don't think any kind of system or structure can create a great player," he cautioned. "It comes from inside. It comes from the heart; it comes from the head. The USTA can create a really supportive environment and supply the latest training techniques and supply coaching help, physios, strength and conditioning coaches, and a facility like the one we're building in Florida, the home of American tennis with 102 courts that's going to open in late December or early January. We also have the training center in Carson, California.
   "I think we can create an environment that's conducive to people maximizing their potential."
   Next: "Tennis players have to be unique people," says U.S. prospect Noah Rubin.  

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