Australians vs. Americans, which country has the better tennis future?
Australia and the United States are cousins at the family party.
They are former British colonies, crazy about sports and have tennis associations pouring revenue into youth development. With young players getting extra wild cards and places in big tournaments, they rise up the ranks quickly. One can argue whether this is actually bad for developing a Grand Slam champion, which neither country has done since Lleyton Hewitt and Andy Roddick, but it has developed the two best cohorts of young players in professional tennis.
But which country has the better young talent? On the women’s side, it’s hard to argue with the USA, which has Sloane Stephens and Madison Keys as established stars. Danielle Collins and Amanda Anisimova both made breakthrough runs at the Australian Open, adding to a wealth of young talent to follow Serena and Venus Williams. Australia has Ashleigh Barty and some promise with Alja Tomljanovic and Daria Gavrilova, but none of them have reached the heights of the Americans. The American women's tennis development program just has so many good players in the pipeline, and Australia can't say the same.
But for the men, the race is much closer, and the rest of this article will be an in-depth dive into which country has the better future. To set this up, we have a best-of-seven matchup between the seven most interesting players for both nations. Remember, we’re not talking about which country can win right now–we’re talking about the next 5-6 years of tennis. In order to keep it interesting, the age cut-off will be age 27, and the matchups are not strictly based on current ATP rankings. All rankings are live rankings taken from live-tennis-eu.
1. Alex de Minaur (No. 28) vs. Frances Tiafoe (No. 30)
The two breakout stars of January on the ATP will end the January close in the rankings and with major momentum heading into the first North American hardcourt swing. Tiafoe has the more impressive resume in Slams and in big victories so far. His wins over Kevin Anderson and Grigor Dimitrov are more impressive than anything de Minaur has done so far. Both players have one ATP 250 title, with de Minaur’s coming earlier this month in Sydney.
De Minaur is a year younger and seems to have the more consistent game. He beat Tiafoe in the U.S. Open last year, the only head-to-head matchup between the two.
But that's only one match, and the results don’t really differentiate the two. De Minaur has zero wins against the top 20, going 0-13 in his career. Tiafoe is 5-19 against the top 20, but he’s had an extra year on tour. Both players are good on all surfaces and specialize in their return games. Both players are talented ball strikers and have fantastic movement.
No one knows how de Minaur will build out his game going forward, but it’s clear he’s going to need to gain some power and work on his serve to go along with his elite tactics and movement (yes, de Minaur fits with all the tropes of the scrappy white wide receiver). He might not be able to do that. Tiafoe, on the other hand, has looked like a complete player at 21 this week. His serve has improved dramatically over the last year, his return game is elite, and he seems to have finally perfected the mental part of the game. It's really close, but right now, this one goes to Tiafoe. 1-0 to the Americans.
2. Jordan Thompson (No. 61) vs. Taylor Fritz (No. 48)
Taylor Fritz reached No. 53 in the world as an 18-year-old, but has had trouble sustaining his success on the Tour until mid-2018. He reached the third round at the Australian and lost to Federer, while Thompson was bounced in the second round by Andreas Seppi. Fritz is the better player now and should be the better player going forward. He has a better serve, more power on his groundstrokes, and is considerably more aggressive than Thompson.
Thompson, who will turn 25 this year, is an interesting player who is reaching a new career high after toiling around in Challengers for the last six years or so. Thompson’s game is very similar to Gilles Simon, and while he defends the baseline well and has a decent net game, he does not have the temperament or the weapons to play aggressively. The vast majority of his points are from dominating Challengers, and he’s frequently skipped bigger events to dominate Asian Challengers and pick up guaranteed points. That could be a sign of smart scheduling, or that he knows he can’t string together wins at Masters events.
Give me Fritz. 2-0.
3. Bernard Tomic (No. 86) vs. Ryan Harrison (No. 94)
This is the definitive Post-Hype matchup. Both Tomic and Harrison were touted as the next big thing around 2011, and neither has delivered on that potential. Both have gained a reputation for dubious on-court behavior, Harrison with a bad temper and racquet smashes, Tomic with very obvious tank jobs and indifference.
Tomic dropped out of tennis, did an Australian reality TV show, and then ground his way back to an ATP title and the top 100 last year. Harrison has been ranked as high as No. 40, but he’s had an awful year and is currently at No. 94.
It’s very easy to make fun of Bernard Tomic and assume that he’ll implode again in a few years, but that’s not really fair to his tennis ability. While his off-the-court demeanor is bad, he’s still a very competent tennis player when he’s on, and from a tennis perspective, it’s so easy to drop down into the minor leagues and then wash out forever (ex. Jerzy Janowicz). Tomic didn’t do that. He fought his way back, winning 50K Challenger quarterfinals in front of 25 people. Remember, because he’s such a jerk, Tomic has gotten virtually no wild cards or special treatment. Harrison, on the other hand, might find himself dropping out of the top 100 soon, and there might not be a way back.
Tomic takes this one. 2-1, Aussies are back in it.
4. Nick Kyrgios (No. 67) vs. Reilly Opelka (No. 98)
Nick Kyrgios is a Ponzi scheme. Every time you invest effort into being a fan, none of it is goes anywhere, and he funnels it into increasingly bad performances. In this matchup of big servers, Kyrgios clearly has more talent. His serve is just as effective, and he has the ability to hit big shots and create opportunities due to being good at tennis.
Over the last 52 weeks, Opelka’s break percentage is 14 percent, while Kyrgios’ is just 11.7 percent. While Opelka has been playing weaker competition, that 11.7 percent number is just abysmally bad for Kyrgios. You would expect Opelka’s percentage to go down to around 10 percent, like his doppelganger John Isner, but Kyrgios isn’t much better and he isn’t seven feet tall.
We’ve seen that Isner, simply by default, has been able to rise and stay in the top 20 for the last decade. There’s no reason Opelka can’t hit the consistency as he learns how to play the game. Unlike many Americans, Opelka has actually racked up some impressive wins on clay in the Challengers. At 21, John Isner hadn’t even left college yet, and Opelka is definitely ahead of the “big man servebot” schedule. Kyrgios could be out of tennis in two years. If you want a safe bet, you should take Reilly Opelka going forward. 3-1 to the US of A.
5. Alexei Popyrin (No. 123) vs. Mackenzie McDonald (No. 83)
By ranking, this matchup shouldn’t be close, but the reality is far different. If you weren’t able to watch Popyrin play due to time differences, you should check out some highlights. The 19-year-old has serious potential and is as good of a shotmaker you’ll see from someone under 21. He was destroying Dominic Thiem before Thiem retired due to injury and took Lucas Pouille to five sets.
Mackenzie McDonald is the latest NCAA tennis star to make his way onto the ATP Tour. At 5-foot-10, McDonald is short by tennis standards, and he’s never going to develop an elite serve. To make up for this, McDonald has an extremely interesting return strategy, heavily inspired by Kei Nishikori and Diego Schwartzman. McDonald is not afraid to do things like rush the net after hitting returns and use weird angles to dictate play.
But Popyrin projects as the better player. He’ll have some growing pains, but there are not many 19-year-olds who can serve as well as he can and hit shots like this:
In their one head-to-head meeting in 2018, Popyrin emerged victorious in a tight third set. Popyrin makes this 3-2.
6. Thanasi Kokkinakis (no. 134) vs. Christopher Eubanks (No. 155)
This one is easy. Kokkinakis may be lower in the rankings, but he has proven that as long as he can stay healthy, his ceiling is somewhere in the top 20. His win over Federer in Miami last year has not led to a huge run of success, but it’s only a matter of time if he can stay healthy. He has shown better focus and motivation than Tomic or Kyrgios, and arguably just as much game.
His American matchup in this article is 22-year-old Christopher Eubanks, but you can replace the Georgia Tech standout with other Americans in the top 200 like Noah Rubin, Tommy Paul or Mitchell Krueger depending on preference. Eubanks had the best run at the Australian Open though, and given his massive serve and power game from the baseline, he has the highest ceiling. Eubanks played well in his first round match against Nikoloz Basilashvili, taking a set and showing off the serve with 21 aces. However, though both players lost in the first round at the Australian Open, Kokkinakis is the better player now and going forward. It’s tied at 3-all.
7. Alex Bolt (No. 128) vs. Denis Kudla (No. 59)
Finally, we end with two 26-year-old journeymen who are experiencing career renaissances. Alex Bolt achieved the result of his life by upsetting Gilles Simon to reach the third round in Melbourne. Bolt’s a great story; he quite tennis and was a construction worker before deciding to come back. As for tennis though, he has more of a shot against Kudla than the rankings would suggest.
Kudla, a former U.S. Open junior finalist, was touted as the future of American tennis earlier this decade, but has pretty much not lived up to that potential. At the beginning of 2018, Bolt was ranked No. 189 and Kudla was No. 190. Kudla has surged back through the rankings after winning two Challenger titles and playing well during the grass court season, making a ATP 500 semifinal in Halle in the process.
Bolt has never had any major expectations. However, he seems poised for a similar surge through the rankings in 2019 after his run at the Australian Open. They played in the qualifiers of Atlanta last year, and Bolt actually won in three sets. From a talent perspective, they are not too different. It’ll come down to consistency. If Bolt can keep up this level, there’s no reason he can’t find himself in the top 100 and beyond.
However, you need to go with the experienced veteran going forward. Kudla’s body of work is more impressive and he’s done it at this level before. That seals it for the Americans, but it certainly is closer than the USTA would like. Both countries will be hoping Stefanos Tsitsipas and 17-year-old Rudolf Molleker don’t dominate the sport for the next decade.