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A nation pins its hopes on America's young guns

Tornado Alicia Black during the Junior event
by Michael Beattie
Wednesday 2 July 2014

As the clouds left the All England Club on Monday, the last of the Americans left with them.

Even after hammering 52 aces past Spain’s Feliciano Lopez, John Isner could not prevent the United States from slumping to a 103-year low at The Championships – in 2014, for the first time in over a century, no US singles player reached the fourth round at Wimbledon.

There are all manner of hypotheses for this apparent American decline – the ever-increasing globalisation of tennis, the competing sporting interests for young athletes growing up in the United States, and the changing nature of the sport from a server’s paradise to a baseline battle, to name but a few. But as the post-mortem continued elsewhere, out on court at the All England Club an impressive crop of US youngsters offered hope for the future.

Of the 128 players in the Boys’ and Girls’ singles events at The Championships, 18 are American, a tally matched only by Great Britain. Five – three boys, two girls – were among the 32 seeds. And listening to three of those seeds talk about their games, experiences and expectations, one thing is clear – US tennis will rise again. 

At the age of 16, Michael Mmoh, Stefan Kozlov and Francis Tiafoe rank among the top 15 boys in the world. “The ’98s [those born in 1998] are doing really well,” Mmoh said after booking his spot in the second round with a hard-earned 6-7(2), 6-3, 6-1 win over Germany’s Jan Choinski.

“Last year all three of us ended the year inside the top 10 – Kozlov was No.3 – and there’s a lot of very good US juniors coming up. I hope that a good percentage of them make it. Not everybody’s going to make it, but these guys are good, they’re really talented, and they work hard too.”

Mmoh, the son of a Nigerian professional tennis player, began taking tennis seriously while living in Saudi Arabia. His family returned to the US when he was 11; by the age of 13, he was enrolled at the world-famous IMG Academy Bollettieri Tennis Program. Three years later, he feels the experience has prepared him well for the next stage in his development.

“The atmosphere [at Bollettieri] is the best part,” said Mmoh. “There’s never going to be a day when you’re hitting with someone below your level. You’re always hitting with someone that’s either above you’re level or competing.”

With his height and broad shoulders, the Junior world No.12 already fits the mould of a senior pro, but knows he still has some way to go before he is ready for the ATP World Tour. “It’s going to be a big jump, for sure. Physically I’m ready, maybe not as much mentally, but I just need to improve my game day by day. I believe I’ve got a shot. I just need to be patient and not get too caught up on points.”

Mmoh’s cautious determination is typical of the new generation of US players, less inclined to the type of bombastic statement that has haunted Donald Young since he promised to win each Grand Slam twice to prove it wasn’t a fluke. Miami resident Kozlov, ranked No.6 at Wimbledon, is similarly measured when asked about the future – no mean feat for a player who can already count Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray among his occasional practice partners.

“Roger I hit with at the US Open, and Miami once,” Kozlov explained. “Rafa was Miami, so was Andy – all at different times of the year. I had unbelievable hits with them – most of all, just fun. It gave me confidence.”

It also gave Kozlov, whose ex-pro father now runs a tennis academy in Florida, a sense of how his shots stacked up against the very best the game has to offer. “I don’t think it’s a huge gap, but they’re obviously the best in the world,” he added. “It’s not all because of how they hit the ball – it’s their head, movement, fitness, all that stuff.”

For Kozlov, a former under-14 No.1, the thought of carrying the torch for American tennis in the coming years is nothing to be afraid of. “I don’t think it’s pressure – I think it’s actually more helpful,” he said. “It’s more adrenaline for us. It’s fun, you know, to see who will be next.”

With 15-year-old starlet Cici Bellis crashing out in the first round against British wildcard Maia Lumsden, No.3 seed Tornado Alicia Black (above) is now the highest-ranked American in the Junior draws.

First, that name: Black’s parents changed her name to Tornado at the age of three, coinciding with the birth of her younger sister, Hurricane Tyra Black. “They came up with the names for tennis,” Black admits, and the young duo certainly turn heads at tournaments worldwide. The name may grab your attention at this year’s Championships, but it is Tornado’s hustling game that will hold it.

The USTA have high hopes for the 5ft 5in 16-year-old, who has recently been training with Lauren Davis, Madison Keys and Shelby Rogers. “They’ve said they believe in me, that I can be top 10. ‘These are the things you need to do, things you need to focus on, work on, and we believe you could be a top-10 player’,” Black said.

“But I think if I focus on that then it’s going to get to my mind, so I’m just going to focus on doing my own thing. If I get there, great; if I don’t, I’ll know I tried my best.”

Ask them about there heroes, and they unleash the teenager in them. “I’m a big fan of Serena, and I like Eugenie Bouchard a lot, like the way she plays,” Black admits. “I like Federer, but I’m still trying to meet him. My friends got a photo with him a couple of days ago while I was at practice. I was so mad! Then yesterday, Jim Parsons – Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory – was here, but someone was standing in front of me and I couldn’t get there in time.”

Kozlov has not only met his idol – “Federer, though I think he’s everyone’s hero” – but played with him. For both Black and Mmoh, however, the wait goes on.

“Tennis heroes? Andy Roddick,” says Mmoh instantly. “He’s the first person I watched that I really liked, and once that happens you keep on following him. He wasn’t a dumb player, he was a role model on how to play the game.

He was very intelligent on the court – everybody just thinks of his serve, but he was actually much more than that. It would be really nice to meet him.”

Every nation needs its heroes – pehaps, in a few years, instead of Andy and Serena the US will have Tornado, Stefan and Michael. The sun may be setting on one generation of American tennis players, but it is rising on another – and, from the vantage point of The Championships, the future looks bright.

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