Who are the best U20 players at US Open in the Open era? (Part I)

Tennis - Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Marat Safin Lleyton Hewitt and Novak Djokovic top the list

by Jovica Ilic
Who are the best U20 players at US Open in the Open era? (Part I)

After examining the best results of the U20 players (teenagers and those who were turning 20 in particular season regardless of the date of birth) at Wimbledon in the Open era (read more about that HERE) the time has come to make an overview of the best results for the players from this age group at the US Open since 1968 and remember some big names who had made a deep run in New York despite their youth and inexperience.

In the first article, we will explore the opening 22 seasons between 1968-1989 with Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe as the leading figures. The results were not that good for the youngsters at the US Open on grass until 1974, with Vijay Amritraj as the only quarter-finalist in 1973, with the Swedish sensation Bjorg Borg reaching the last 16 at the age of 17.

1975 was the first edition on Har-Tru clay and Borg was the semi-finalist, demolishing the first three rivals in two sets (best-of-three matches before the fourth round) and he toppled the one and only Rod Laver in four sets to enter the last eight.

There, he overpowered Eddie Dibbs in just under three hours to set the semis clash against Jimmy Connors who ousted him 7-5 7-5 7-5, breaking the Swede in the 12th game of each set to march into the final. The same players had met in the final of 1976 and Bjorn Borg had become the first U20 player in the final of the US Open, with only six to match that result so far! Local hero John McEnroe had burst onto the scene in 1977 and he reached the semis at the first US Open played on hard courts at the new complex in 1978.

Jimmy Connors was too strong, defeating the young compatriot 6-2 6-2 7-5, and we had Johan Kriek in the quarter-final as well, with two U20 competitors reaching the last eight in New York for the first time in the Open era.

In his final U20 season, John went all the way in 1979 to win the title and conquer his first Major crown, avenging that defeated against Connors in the semis and beating Vitas Gerulaitis in the title match to write history as the youngest champion in 31 years.

McEnroe needed two hours and 14 minutes to beat Vitas 7-5 6-3 6-3 in the first all-American US Open final since 1953, dominating with his serve&volley game and getting broken only once in the entire match. John had a great start, breaking in the third game and serving for the set at 5-4.

He lost serve in the worst possible moment but managed to stay focused, earning another break in the following game before closing the set with a good hold for a 7-5. Gerulaitis was broken twice in the second set, in games five and nine, and McEnroe earned two more breaks in the third set to seal the deal and become the champion at the age of 20.

Ivan Lendl and Ramesh Krishnan were the quarter-finalists in the next couple of years before Jimmy Arias advanced into the last four in 1983 (Mats Wilander was the quarter-finalists and three more players reach last 16), losing to Ivan Lendl in straight sets.

In the quarter-final, Arias prevailed over Yannick Noah 7-5 in the fifth set but he couldn't do much against the Czech who scored a 6-2 7-6 6-1 win to reach the title match just like in 1982. The American had three set points on the return at 5-4 in the second set but once he squandered them he faded from the court, taking just one game in the final set with a break when he was already 2-0 down.

A year later, Ivan Lendl had to defeat another youngster in order to reach his third consecutive US Open final, prevailing over Pat Cash 3-6 6-3 4-6 6-7 7-6 in three hours and 49 minutes, saving a match point in the 12th game of the decider! Lendl played against break points in only five service games, dropping serve three times from eight opportunities he gave to Cash who fends off six out of 10 break points to stay in touch until the very last point.

They hit around 100 service winners, with Lendl dominating from the baseline and Cash at the net in a great mixture of attacking tennis and solid rallies. Pat earned a break already in the second game of the match and he won the opener 6-3.

Ivan recovered his game in sets two and three, serving well and moving two points away from the win at 5-5 in the fourth set tie break. Nonetheless, he missed a forehand and Cash sealed the set with a service winner, converting his third set point to make the result even at 2-2 and set up the deciding set.

The Czech hit a double fault to lose his serve at the start of the final set, getting broken for the first time since the second game of the match, but he pulled it back immediately to avoid chasing the result. Cash had to save a match point in the 10th game which he did with a service winner, and he got the opportunity to serve for the match after breaking Lendl in game 11.

Ivan saved a match point in that 12th game and he pulled the break back after two errors from his rival, with the winner having to be decided in the fifth set tie break. From 4-4, Lendl won three points in a row and converting his second match point when Cash netted a volley.

An angry Aussie threw his racquet into the stands and it was caught by Peter Husting of Winnetka, who was rooting for him during the entire match. 1986 was very significant as well, with two U20 players in the semi-final for the first time in the Open era.

Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg were the new force in men's tennis and they were already seeded third and fourth, both reaching the semis where they were halted by Ivan Lendl and Miloslav Mecir. Lendl ousted Edberg 7-6 6-2 6-3, with the first set lasting 70 minutes and a one-way traffic in the rest of the clash.

The second semi-final was much more intense, with Mecir ousting Becker 4-6 6-3 6-4 3-6 6-3 for an all-Czech final. Boris won the opener with a break in game nine, saving three break points in the following game to bring the game and the set home.

Miloslav responded with breaks in games four and eight in set number two and he moved in front with a break in the seventh game of the third set. Boris managed to extend the match with a solid display in the fourth but it was all over when he suffered a break in the second game of the deciding set, with Mecir serving well to set the final clash against Lendl.

Andre Agassi is the final hero in the first part of this story, reaching the semi-final of the home Major as a teenager in 1988 and 1989. An 18-year-old had beat five American players including Michael Chang and Jimmy Connors en route the last four where Lendl had to spoil the party again, beating the long-haired young star 4-6 6-2 6-3 6-4 in two hours and 23 minutes for Agassi's first loss after 23 wins in a row! The youngster broke the US Open legend twice in the opening set but he couldn't keep the same pace in the rest of the match, with five breaks in total for Ivan in sets two and three and one more in the last game of the match to book the place in another final and halt the U20 player just before the title match for the fourth time! The same thing happened in 1989 as well, with the Czech ousting Agassi 7-6 6-1 3-6 6-1 for the mind-blowing eighth straight US Open final! Andre led 5-2 in the opening set but Lendl was not to be denied, climbing back to take the set in the tie break before an easy 6-1 in the second.

Agassi won the last three games of the third set to keep himself in contention but he suffered two more breaks in the fourth set to hit the exit door and miss a chance of reaching the final, something he will finally change in 1990.

The U20 players who had reached at least the fourth round at the US Open between 1968-1989:


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