In 2018, when Jenson Brooksby was a fresh-faced 17-year-old making his US Open debut, his coach Joseph Gilbert told him to take a good look around the locker room.
“I was like ‘Hey man you’re really young and this isn’t a young locker room.’” Gilbert remembers telling Brooksby to take note of the fact that half of the guys in the room were 30 or older. “I was like ‘just hang here for a little bit and half the guys are going to be out of here,’” he said.
Fast forward to 2022 and Gilbert’s projection is coming to fruition. The game’s iconic stars – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray – are aging, and for American men’s tennis it means their time to shine could be coming soon.
A quick glance at the men’s singles draw at Indian Wells hints toward a bright future for the locals. A look at the ATP’s top-50 also inspires a newfound sense of hope.
The seven Americans in the third round at this year’s BNP Paribas Open is the most at Indian Wells since 1994; seven Americans in the top-50 ATP Rankings coming into Indian Wells is the most at the tournament since 2004.
Numbers tell the story of depth, and historically depth has always been a breeding ground of champions.
Players like Frances Tiafoe, the current world No.30, are taking note.
“It’s just fun to be a part of,” Tiafoe says of the current crop of American stars. “This is our year – guys are going to try to knock on the door of the Top-10. We’re all dangerous, everyone can do great things.”
Without prompting, Tiafoe alludes to the same opportunity that Gilbert has been telling Brooskby to pay heed to.
“There’s an opening in tennis,” Tiafoe says. “Rafa and these guys aren’t playing every week. Novak, whatever he’s going through. Fed and Andy on the brink.”
With the fabled Big Four “on the brink” Tiafoe says the lay of the land is far less daunting. The current top-10 is not nearly as intimidating as it used to be.
“You know these top guys are good, but they’re beatable,” he says. “It’s exciting times for us, there’s finally an opening for us, and I think we’re going to take it.”
Of the seven players remaining in the draw at Indian Wells this week, five are 24 or younger. Once thought of as a group that missed its chance at the top, the foursome of Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Tommy Paul and Tiafoe have reversed course and are now consistently pushing their way up the rankings.
Jose Higueras, former Director of Coaching for the USTA who has coached a who’s who of tennis stars that includes Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Carlos Moya, says that the American men are no longer getting lost in the shuffle.
He believes that the aforementioned quartet are headed for bigger things.
“For whatever reason, and it happens in the world of athletics, they kind of got sideways somehow, because they were better than Thiem, Zverev and all those guys,” he says, referring to their distinguished junior careers. “For some other reasons that we don’t know, they kind of got a little sidetracked, but they never stopped being good.”
Of the 11 Americans inside the top-100, five are 24, and three more are 21 or younger. The two groups are now battling for precious rankings real estate, and the competition creates a rising tide that is lifting all of them higher.
“I feel it fuels them, and so the better each one of them does, the higher belief they have as a group,” Gilbert says. “It happens in all sports, it happens at our academy, you see these players you grew up with your whole life, and if they can do it you can do it.”
“This group that’s coming through with Korda and Nakashima and Brooksby is a phenomenal, phenomenal group,” she says. “They’ll keep pushing each other. They all have different strengths.”
36-year-old John Isner, who relishes his leadership role amongst the group, believes that the Grand Slam drought that American men have experienced since Andy Roddick won the US Open in 2003, could soon come to an end.
“It’s not as dire as people perceive it to be,” Isner says of the skepticism that tends to prevail in the media, which has a habit of unfairly comparing today’s stars with the Samprases, Agassis, McEnroes and Connors of yesteryear. “There are some – I actually do think – potential Grand Slam winners in this crop of men’s players right now.”
Impossible comparisons aside, the future looks extremely bright – and wide open – for the Americans. As men’s tennis transitions into a new era, it does not seem outlandish to think that the stars and stripes can reclaim a sliver of the rarified air that was once purely the domain of the Big Three.
“Now it’s going to be a little bit more of an open playing field of who is going to dominate,” Gilbert explains. “It’s no surprise that Medvedev is No.1 now, we saw that coming and he is the guy to beat to an extent of that younger generation. But it’s definitely a little bit of a more open feel. So then it is exciting for all these young guys.”