By Matt Cronin, special to USTA.com
MELBOURNE - The United States entered the 2011 Australian Open on familiar hard courts with tempered expectations, and after the tournament shut it doors on the final Sunday, that seemed to be the right frame of mind, as its only title holders were the remarkably consistent Bryan brothers, who won their 10th Grand Slam title.
There were a couple of more respectable performances in doubles, with left hander Eric Butorac reaching the doubles semis with former UCLA standout Jean-Julien Rojer, Fed Cupper Bethanie Mattek-Sands reaching the mixed semis with Horia Tecau and the doubles quarters with fellow American Meghann Shaughnessy, while another, Fed Cupper Liezel Huber reached the doubles quarters with Nadia Petrova.
But tennis success if still largely based on singles results, especially in the United States, which has produced a ball machine full of Grand Slam singles champions
That the US did not have a male or female reach even the singles quarterfinals didn't satisfy anyone, even if going into the tournament. much of the nation realized it would miss the presence of defending champion Serena Williams, who had been the tournament's most dominant player over the past eight years.
However, on the men's side there was some reason to hope that at least a couple of guys would reach the second week, as the U.S. had four men seeded: Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey and John Isner.
Unfortunately, Querrey fell to Lucasz Kubot in the first round, Fish got sick and lost to Tommy Robredo, Isner lost a five-set marathon to Marin Cilic in the third round, and Roddick fell in the fourth round to Stan Wawrinka. Young hopeful Ryan Harrison, who won the USTA Australian Open Wildcard tournament, went out in the first round
"We've got a lot of work to do," said USTA Player Development chief Patrick McEnroe. "We all saw it coming in the last couple of years and that's part of the reason why the USTA put some more resources into Player Development, because we knew that we were winding down. The positives I take out of it are we had a lot of young girls in the draw. None of them did anything, but that's the first step. Hopefully they will start pushing each other and it's reasonable to assume by the US Open that we will get a few more into the main draw."
Some of those young women, who range from the age of 17 to 20 include Lauren Davis, Melanie Oudin, Christina McHale, Irina Falconi and CoCo Vandeweghe, but none of them made it out of the first round. The US's most notable veteran player, seven-times Grand Slam champion Venus Williams, had to retire with an injury, while other veterans such as Mattek-Sands all fell in before the third round.
Former US Open quarterfinalist Oudin went down to the talented Czech Klara Zakapalova, while Vandeweghe qualified, but lost quickly to Alize Cornet, and McHale lost a tough three setter to Carla Suarez-Navarro.
"Melanie is a grinder, a good match player and her forehand is pretty good, but her serve is a liability and she has to keep getting stronger," McEnroe said. "She's been out there for two years amd the rest of the field has figured her out. She's a hard worker, as is Christina, and the question is for Melanie is how good she'll be for her size, but I think she'll figure out a way to her maximize potential. Right now in the women's game players are maturing later because game is so physical. CoCo has to get fitter, and she just hired a nutritionist, and since she started working with the USTA 's Tom Gullikson, she's done well. She's got a big game, but has to manage it better."
Roddick has been the U.S.'s highest ranked male player since 2003 and he consistently catches flack when he doesn't go deep in the majors, but as he noted after his loss to Wawrinka, he's not the only American male out there. The 29-year-old Roddick and the 29-year-old Fish still have the chance to be impact players in the next two to three years, but it may be up to the younger Isner and Querrey, along with teens Harrison and Jack Sock (both who reached the finals of a Challenger and Future this weekend) to carry the torch. McEnroe likes Harrison's attitude and how he works, but added that he has to improve his backhand.
"We have a couple of good prospects coming up on the boy's side, but our best group is 15-16 years old and are about four years away," he said. "We feel like things are in place, but the reality is we are going to get into some lean times.
"Sam and John are in the mix and I'm hoping to see some improvement from the both of them. Sam needs to toughen up mentally. Physically he's done a lot of good work, but now he's going to have to compete and play as hard as possible when he's not playing well. Isner competes well, but he has to improve his game, his return, and hit a little bigger off his backhand. He has to put the time in. I know what a gamer he is and he'll always be in matches based on serve and competitiveness, but his game must improve if he's going to take the next step."
Fish developed a thyroid condition over the last month so it's hard to say when he'll be back at full strength. But top 10-er Roddick is healthy again and McEnroe, who was his long time Davis Cup captain, believes he needs to make some changes. Roddick hasn't reached the quarterfinals of a major in his past four Grand Slams.
"Andy had to tweak a couple things in the way he's playing and it's up to him and if he's willing to do that," he said. "He seems to listen, but I don't see a realization in a lot of his matches that I'm watching that playing defense is working. It's not that I feel he needs to go for broke out there, but he needs better positioning, to cut the court off more. He likes to go out there and grind, grind, grind and that's what made him as good and consistent as he's been, but I'd like to see him use his improved fitness and mobility to go to the ball. Don't wait for it, go get it. You can step in and take time away from players without going for broke, without playing a high risk game and he has to find a way to tinker with that."
Next weekend, the US Fed Cup team will face Belgium and Australian Open and US Open champion Kim Clijsters. A slew of critical U.S. indoor and hard-court events will also kick off, including San Jose, Memphis, and Masters Series tournaments at Indian Wells and Miami, which is as great opportunity for U.S. players to make progress at home.
"We looking for gradual improvement in the next few months. There are plenty of tournaments to play and we'll just pushing them," McEnroe said.