the Insiders


August 31, 2011 3:14 PM


Where's Tennis' Next Big Thing?

Early this afternoon, there was a buzz throughout the grounds in Flushing Meadows at the U.S. Open....

Early this afternoon, there was a buzz throughout the grounds in Flushing Meadows at the U.S. Open.

A 16-year-old American named Madison Keys had taken the first set off of a ranked opponent, number 27 Lucie Safarova, at Louis Armstrong Stadium. Might we have a bright new star on our hands? After the first set, one magazine writer tweeted that Keys might be the Melanie Oudin of 2011, referring to the teenager who went on a spirited run to the Open quarterfinals two years ago.

Just over an hour later, Keys, overwhelmed by 55 unforced errors, lost the match and the air was immediately sucked out of the press room.

If there's been one early story line developing at the Open, it's been the evident lack of stories. Three days in, the word around the press room has been that this year's tournament has been, frankly, a little boring. It's underscored a developing issue for both the men's and women's games: Where's the emerging talent? There have been no new bright young Americans to mint as a future star; there have been no teenagers or twentysomethings on the women's draw or the men's side to consider as a Djokovic or Serena slayer later on in this tournament.

Ryan Harrison, the 19-year-old American who created a stir here last year with a win over a ranked opponent, lost in the first two hours of the tournament on Monday and was dubbed a "brat" by tennis analyst Mary Carillo for his misbehavior on the court. Oudin has flamed out since 2009 and lost in the first round as well.

After Keys lost today, American tennis analysts Patrick McEnroe, Chris Evert and Pam Shriver took it as an opportunity to make a referendum on the American game. Prognosis: Not good.

But it's not merely the Americans. Where are our foreign future superstars?

Four years ago, Novak Djokovic, who had never made a Grand Slam final, hijacked the Open, stormed to the finals and announced himself as the next great player (this year, he's the runaway favorite). Likewise, a year later, Andy Murray reached the finals and then Juan Martin del Potro did the same (and won) a year later.

But where are our Djokovics of four years ago or even our Ana Ivanovics?

The problem now is there's no clear second tier, no clear farm system for emerging talent. Caroline Wozniacki, after a run to the 2009 finals, has yet to win a Grand Slam; it took number 2 Vera Zvonareva three sets to win a match today; WWD cover star Victoria Azarenka, hopeful for a breakout Open, has the not-so-welcome gift of playing Serena Williams in the third round (assuming they both get there, which is a safe bet).

On the men's side, no player exists as a legitimate threat to the Federer-Djokovic-Nadal stranglehold. The closest guy appears to be Mardy Fish. He's 29. Anyone else poised for a similar threat is also someone who has been around the game for a while.

Perhaps as the greatest indication for the depth problem -- and for the New York sports press and tennis writers -- is tonight's yawn-inducing lineup: Andy Roddick and Maria Sharapova. Big-time players, sure, and obviously favorites for a while here, but they are names that have been well known in these parts for 10 years and seven years, respectively.

Where's the next class of talent? Well, during the same moment that the USTA announced that Venus Williams had withdrawn from the U.S. Open, Christina McHale, a 19-year old from New Jersey beat former Wimbledon finalist Marion Bartoli. This has already become her greatest run at a Grand Slam and if she can move to the fourth round, watch the entire press corps descend upon her. They need the story.
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