American men's tennis looks to the future

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PHILADELPHIA (Sports Network) - With the careers of the current batch of great American tennis stars in the latter stages, is there anyone on the horizon ready to fill the voids that will be left by Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, and I guess even Todd Martin?

Four of the aforementioned players are still competing on the ATP Tour, as the one-time world No. 1 Courier called it a career earlier this season, after winning four Grand Slam titles among his 23 overall championships.

American men have virtually dominated the game over the past decade and change, boasting three top-ranked stars, in Sampras, Agassi and Courier, and combining to hoist 24 Grand Slam trophies (no thanks to Martin here) -- eight Wimbledons, six U.S. Opens, six Australian Opens, and four French Opens.

As we all know, Sampras has piled up seven Wimbledon crowns, while Agassi became one of only five players to corral the career Grand Slam.

Sampras, Agassi and Courier all assumed the lofty No. 1 perch in the 1990s, and the 29-year-old Sampras recently regained the top spot in the world with hopes of finishing numero uno for a record seventh time in eight years.

The quintet of veteran Americans has also combined to win 173 ATP titles to this point, including 63 by the great Sampras and 45 by the not-quite-as-great Agassi, which places both men in the top-10 in that category.

But who'll replace Sampras, Agassi, Courier, Chang, and I guess even Martin, on the American side?

Tennis has been busy promoting its next generation of male stars, mostly in the form of the "New Balls Please" campaign, but there aren't too many Americans in sight amidst all the promotion. The tour's been pushing the likes of non-Americans Gustavo Kuerten (Brazil), Marat Safin (Russia), Lleyton Hewitt (Australia), Juan Carlos Ferrero (Spain), Nicolas Lapentti (Ecuador), Nicolas Kiefer and Tommy Haas (Germany), Roger Federer (Switzerland), etc. I think we (USA) get the picture.

But the omissions of Americans by the ATP is not an oversight or an intention to slight the U.S. men, it's just reflect's the state of the game right now, with most of the brightest stars coming from countries in Europe, South America and Australia (a country and continent all wrapped up in one).

So who are the American young guns?

The most-promising "up-and-comers" would have to be matinee-idol Jan-Michael Gambill, Andy Roddick and Taylor Dent, with honorable mention to Alex Kim and the disappointing Justin Gimelstob.

The 23-year-old Gambill has one ATP title to his credit (Scottsdale 1999); the 18-year-old Roddick, who turned pro this year, captured the 2000 Australian Open junior title with a blistering serve and punishing ground strokes; the 18-year-old Kim is the reigning NCAA champion; and Dent, like Roddick and Kim, is a teenager with plenty of world-class...dare I say it...potential.

Gambill, or "Hollywood" as he is known on the tour, is the men's equivalent to Anna Kournikova -- an underachieving tennis player and an overachieving sex symbol. The Spokane, Washington native recently posed shirtless as one of People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People in the World 2000," very respectable plaudits for a man who has appeared in only two finals since turning pro in 1996.

But unlike Kournikova, at least Gambill has a trophy in his case.

The young Americans are gonna have to wait their turn, however, as Sampras and Agassi are hardly ready to hand the American tennis reins to the "next generation." And from what I can see, the latest batch of Americans is in no hurry to force out the Sampras' and Agassis of the world.

Of course American tennis has been strong as long as I can remember, since becoming a fan of the great game in the 1970s. Sampras' stellar group of fellow Americans was preceded by one that included legendary Hall-of-Famers John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors in the '70s and '80s. The U.S. has also featured the likes of stalwarts Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe, Vitas Gerulaitis and Roscoe Tanner over the last 30 years.

Is there another Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe or Connors in the Gambill-Roddick-Dent-Kim gang?

Remember that Sampras was 19 when he won his first U.S. Open, so it could be time for the young bucks to step up and show their stuff. And Agassi was 22 when he secured his first Slam title, the 1992 Wimbledon championship.

Surely Pete and Andre intend to stay on top of the American ledger for two or three more years, contending for the coveted majors and desired world No. 1 status. So this next generation of performers will have to press on and be patient, but at the same time, prove to the American fans and themselves that U.S. men do have a bright future in the sport.

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