The Tennis Handsomes

Catching Fire

Catching Fire
Credit: Keith Allison

Bye-bye Williams sisters and all that. It’s week two of the French Open now, and almost no American players are left. But just yesterday, there she was: Sloane Stephens, a 19-year-old sunbeam straight out of Florida and one of the last Americans standing. She’s black, with a smile inherently genuine, and a game unafraid of big names. She reached the round of 16 at the French Open this week, losing late Sunday in a close two-setter against seventh-seed Sam Stosur. When asked if she used a sports psychologist to mentally prepare for big court pressure, Stephens said no, just her grandparents.

Women’s Tennis Association officials across the country are right now placing Sloane Stephens icons on secret altars to the gods of the Next Big Thing. She’s a star no one knows. By the end of the summer, I bet that’ll change.

The American men also disappeared early from the singles bracket in Paris. In the second-longest match in French Open history, John Isner, the great American hope, loped unimaginatively into a loss. Roddick and Blake, of course, fizzled immediately (I no longer even bother watching their matches). And Donald Young—the perpetual dream, the longtime Future of American Tennis—can’t seem to end his 2012 skid. After the best run of his career at the end of last season, Young inexplicably decided to switch racquets (from Dunlop to Prince). His record since then? A 3-12 slide. Call me crazy, but I’d advise digging out the old frame.

If you want to keep your eye on Americans in Paris, however, there’s no shortage. Just look at the doubles draw, particularly the men. Those ubiquitous Bryan twins are floating around, along with a whole ream of American veterans that you’ve never heard of. (Cerretani, anyone? Lipsky? Rajeev Ram?) These guys have been grinding out doubles wins in obscurity for years. But even better, Ryan Harrison, the 20-year-old rising singles star, is skipping grass court warm-ups this week to forge through the doubles draw, too. Maybe, like his peer Jack Sock (he of last year’s U.S. Open Mixed Doubles title and this year’s groin tear), Harrison can get used to grand slams by winning doubles titles there first.

All these players, especially the almost seven-foot-tall Isner, can look forward to better results on grass (across which the ball skids quick and low). After Paris, that’s the surface to which the season turns next. We’ll go to a few pre-Wimbledon tune-ups next week, but I’m not looking for tournament wins. It might be an impossible concept within these borders, but let’s lower the bar for American success. Even in losses, we saw sparks this week from Stephens and Harrison, and that’s enough for me: I don’t need trophies held aloft; all I really want are things that sparkle.

Nic Brown is the author of the novel Doubles and the story collection Floodmarkers. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Harvard Review, and Epoch, among many other publications. He is currently the John and Renee Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. More by Nic Brown