Commentary

Past and future collide in U.S. tennis

Originally Published: July 29, 2010
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003, officially taking the baton from Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and the rest of the "greatest generation" in American tennis.

"No more, 'What's it feel like to be the future of American tennis?'" Roddick exclaimed. "No more."

Now Roddick and the rest of his generation -- James Blake, Mardy Fish, Robby Ginepri et al -- are the old guard, feeling the next wave coming up behind them. Marathon John Isner and the surging Sam Querrey have made a strong push this season, reaching the top 20 to become the second- and third-ranked Americans, respectively.

With big guns like Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer still a couple of weeks from returning to the tour after Wimbledon, one of the things to watch will be this inter-generational group of Americans battling among themselves to establish a pecking order going into the U.S. Open.

Is this when the torch will be passed, or can the old guys hold off the younger guns for yet another year?

Last week's final in Atlanta set the scene nicely, pitting the veteran Fish against rising star Isner. Fish, 30 pounds lighter and on the best run of his career, fended off Isner in three sets to win his second straight title and show that his cadre has no intention of gently fading into the night.

The match lasted 2 hours, 45 minutes in temperatures that reportedly topped 150 degrees, with Fish reaping the full benefits of his new fitness regime. "A year ago, I would have fallen over in the second set, or probably played a match to where I knew physically I couldn't last, so I'd need to change my tactics," he said.

The 28-year-old has always possessed latent talent and worked hard to remodel his weaker forehand a few years ago, but undergoing knee surgery last year forced Fish to confront his training habits as well. "I didn't feel like I had a lot to do with the reason why I had the knee surgery, until I really sort of said 'Maybe I've got a little too much weight on my knees.' I've worked hard, put away a lot of things I enjoy."

For Fish, making the most of what's left of his career meant giving up French fries. For James Blake, it's meant giving up some of his famous stubbornness.

In his recently released memoir "Hardcourt Confidential," U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe relates the difficulty of trying to get Blake to drop his string tension from 68 pounds to 58 pounds to get a little more power in heavy conditions.

"Some time later, we finally got James to drop down to a compromise 64 pounds -- we almost threw a party to celebrate," McEnroe said.

But Blake has shown more flexibility of late. Having always adamantly maintained that childhood coach Brian Barker was the only one he could work with, Blake made a switch last fall, hiring Fish's former mentor, Kelly Jones.

[+] EnlargeJames
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesJames Blake's precipitous fall from the top 10 has forced him to make changes.

Blake took U.S. Open champion Juan Martin del Potro to five sets at the Australian Open in January, but knee trouble sidelined him for 10 weeks between March and June. Although he underwent PRP (platelet-rich plasma) therapy on his knee, Blake refused to have painkillers and anti-inflammatories for the injury. His reluctance was understandable in context -- he grew up with his mother's aversion to such medicines because of their potential effects on the stomach, a sensitivity that could only have been indirectly heightened when stomach cancer claimed his father's life six years ago.

But after a dispiriting loss at Wimbledon, Blake decided to try anti-inflammatories. The results have been positive, and retirement talk has been shelved. "I've done a complete 180," he said. "Wimbledon was a pretty disappointing time. I wasn't able to train, but now I'm feeling great; the knee is feeling good."

Blake began his hard-court campaign in Los Angeles this week, snapping a four-match losing streak with a convincing straight-sets win against Leonardo Mayer. At 30, he won't be returning to the top five, but a few good tournament runs could still be in store.

Who knows, he might even unbend on his go-for-broke approach next.

As for Roddick, his constant search for any new edge is well-documented. Last year's book by uber-agent Donald Dell, "Never Make the First Offer," offers a glimpse of the former No. 1's determination to stay in the hunt at the top. Roddick's clothing company, Lacoste, offered him a mid-seven-figure deal to sign with it but wanted to drop the figure by 75 percent if Roddick fell outside the top 15. Dell recalls Roddick's response: "If I ever drop below No. 15, I'm going to retire from tennis anyway, and Lacoste can do whatever it wants."

Roddick, who will turn 28 next month and is currently ranked No. 9, could find himself confronting that self-imposed ultimatum in about eight months if his results falter. Quitting doesn't seem to be on the agenda, but his previously unassailable position as the top-ranked American could be under threat from either Isner or Querrey, if that happens.

Both of the two younger Americans have been building their games and names this season. Playing his first tournament since taking part in the longest match in history at Wimbledon, Isner reached the final in Atlanta, dispelling fears he would take a long time to recover from his 11-hour effort at Wimbledon. If anything, he picked up where he left off -- three of his four matches last week were marathons lasting at least 2 ½ hours.

What's more, it was the former NCAA standout's third final this season. At 25, but only in his third year on tour, he has improved his fitness and removed of the wild errors from his game, while his 6-foot-9 serve only gets more fearsome.

Querrey, 22, has won three titles this year on three different surfaces and, apart from that French Open flameout, has steadily improved his shot selection and intensity during matches.

So a fascinating clash of generations is shaping up -- even though the players themselves don't see each other as being in two opposing camps. Thanks to Davis Cup, they have all spent time together as players and practice partners, and maintain good relations. Fish tapped Isner good-naturedly on the leg as they began their third set in Atlanta last week. Blake played doubles with Isner last week and is playing with Querrey this week.

The future is on its way, while the past isn't quite ready to depart. It's making for an interesting time in American tennis.

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.