Big things expected from young Americans in '04

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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - The great Andre Agassi still looms large, but the crop of young Americans, spearheaded by world No. 1 Andy Roddick, should wreak havoc on the ATP next season.

Pete Sampras is gone and the current world No. 4 Agassi, at the age of 33, is always a year-to-year proposition to return to the tour, so the American youngsters (aside from Roddick) need to stake their claim on the circuit to give us the next pack of American stars, i.e. Sampras, Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Todd Martin.

The 21-year-old Roddick has already arrived, as evidenced by his world No. 1 ranking, his title in the Champions Race and his first-ever Grand Slam crown at the 2003 U.S. Open. The Nebraska native heads up the "New Balls Please" generation, which includes the likes of international stalwarts Roger Federer, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Guillermo Coria, Lleyton Hewitt and Marat Safin (when he's playing).

Roddick was second on tour this year with six titles, including lucrative back-to-back Masters Series shields in Montreal and Cincinnati, and eclipsed more than $3 million in prize money. His big victory in Cincy came at the expense of his good friend Mardy Fish, who is perhaps the Americans' next-best young star. Fish had a match point against Roddick in Cincy, but Roddick was able to blast his way out of trouble en route to a three-set win at the ATP Tennis Center.

Mardy Fish
Mardy Fish is one of several up-and-coming American stars.
The hard-hitting Roddick reached at least the semis in three of the four Slams this year, including his popular title run in New York.

The 21-year-old Fish, who will turn 22 on December 9, possesses a lethal service game (like his buddy Roddick) and has been improving every year. The Minnesota native finished '03 at No. 20 in the world, giving him his first top-20 finish, and his first career ATP title came in Stockholm in October.

The American charge is joined by world No. 32 Robby Ginepri, No. 33 Taylor Dent and No. 37 James Blake. And if you wanted, you could toss No. 29 Vincent Spadea and No. 51 Jan-Michael Gambill into the mix, but Spadea is no youngster at 29, nor is Gambill at let's forget them in this equation.

Ginepri is most certainly on the rise. The Florida native, like Fish, also broke through for his first career title this season, albeit at a weak tourney in Newport where he beat lefthanded Austrian Jurgen Melzer in a grass-court final on the grounds at the Tennis Hall of Fame.

The 21-year-old Ginepri is fresh off his non-ATP title in Portland, where he captured the inaugural SuperSet competition, an eight-man, one-set, sudden- death, winner-take-all tourney created by Australian sports promoter Steven Duvall. The windfall for Ginepri's title was $250,000, not bad considering that's more than half of what he earned for the entire '03 season ($469,121). The Portland field included the likes of Agassi, Dent, Blake, Spadea and Gambill -- Ginepri's victim in the final.

Dent, the son of former ATPer Phil Dent of Australia, is another one of the huge-serving Americans, and his game could carry him far at important places like Wimbledon and Flushing.

The 22-year-old Californian blasted his way to a trio of championships in '03, including a big upset against his countryman Roddick in a final in Memphis. His other titles came back-to-back in Bangkok and Moscow, where he upended the French Open champion and U.S. Open runner-up Ferrero and Sargis Sargsian in the respective finals. Dent soared into the fourth round at the U.S. Open, only to lose to the ageless Agassi.

Blake is still part of the young American pack, but he dropped off a bit this year after finishing at No. 22 in '02. Blake, who will turn 24 next month, crossed the finish line at No. 37 this season, one in which the New Yorker failed to title and dropped five of his last six matches, including three opening-round setbacks. Needless to say, the athletic star is looking forward to a bounce-back year in 2004.

If you want to talk Davis Cup, I think the Americans realistically can win it next year, even without Agassi. With singles options like Roddick, Fish, Ginepri and Dent, and a world No. 1 doubles team, which currently is the Bryan brothers (Bob and Mike), captain McEnroe (Patrick McEnroe, that is) should be chompin' at the bit for the February tie versus Austria.

By the way, the 31-time champion U.S. hasn't hoisted the 103-year-old Davis Cup since 1995 and hasn't reached the final since '97 when it was destroyed by Sweden, 5-0. Ouch!!!

Don't be surprised if as many as five Americans (Roddick, Agassi, Fish, Ginepri, Dent) reside inside the top 20 next year. Maybe that's not a stretch, considering Roddick, Agassi and Fish are already there, so I guess I'm predicting that Ginepri and Dent will join the exclusive club.

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Scott Riley
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