September 2023 Issue

Frances Tiafoe, Jessica Pegula, Tommy Paul, and More: American Tennis Has Never Been Hotter

On the eve of the US Open, VF catches up with the next generation of star players.
14 American tennis stars are collaged together.
Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.

American tennis history is filled with the boldest of boldface names—trailblazers and superstars such as Althea Gibson, Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, Stan Smith, and Chris Evert among many, many others who reached the heights of global fame and renown. While each generation had its own heroes, it wasn’t until the ’90s, when an explosion of talent and personality brought us Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Todd Martin, and Michael Chang, that a whole cohort of Americans dominated the global stage at the same time.

Their contrasts in styles, personalities, and paths to greatness commanded unrelenting coverage and a place in popular culture until the ’00s introduced two Williams sisters from Compton, California, who first challenged, then dominated, and ultimately transformed the sport in their own image—Venus becoming the activist heir to Billie Jean King, and Serena ascending to dizzying celebrity heights. They have largely evolved away from playing just as recreational participation and interest in the professional realms are on the cusp of surpassing the glory days of the ’80s.

After decades of hand-wringing about who would take up the mantle, their heirs are now coming into their own. The current field of American pro tennis players is the most exciting, talented, and varied we’ve seen in decades—men and women alike. Both tours’ deep benches are dominating the sport’s competitions, and the global sport closest to paying men and women equally for their efforts is benefiting doubly for it.

But easily my favorite part about this new crop is their swagger. Their lack of baggage. Their feeling that American tennis history is just that—history. And their determination to write themselves into it. Behind the scenes at the French Open in Paris, VF surveyed the rising stars of American tennis as they headed into another spectacular season.


Age: 25
From: Hyattsville, Maryland
Highest ranking: 10

Suit by Versace; tank top by Calvin Klein; boots by Christian Louboutin; necklace by Her Children.Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.

There aren’t many stories more American than that of Frances Tiafoe—the son of immigrants who fled war in Sierra Leone, who grew up in the College Park, Maryland, public tennis facility where his father served as a maintenance worker. A spare office at that center became a regular bedroom for Tiafoe and his brother, where they lived and trained while their mother worked the night shift as a nurse.

As he has built a tennis résumé on his commitment to every point of every match, week in and week out, the evidence of his formidable work ethic born on those public courts needs little explanation. But my favorite thing about him is how freely his racket swings and his emotions flow during his epic battles on the biggest stages. Even casual fans will remember the electric run he had last year at the US Open before falling to the preternaturally gifted Carlos Alcaraz and the late-night heroics they both displayed. What I hope fans remember most—and look for when Tiafoe plays—is the infectiousness of his joy.


Age: 29
From: Buffalo
Highest ranking: 3

Dress by Dion Lee; necklace by Tiffany & Co.Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.

Jessica Pegula is the daughter of self-made billionaires Kim and Terry Pegula, owners of the Buffalo Bills and Sabres. The interest generated by her parents’ assets likely dwarfs her prize money, but through unglamorous, determined tennis, Pegula has worked her way into the top five rankings for women in both singles and doubles—the latter alongside her young American partner, Coco Gauff, herself a rising phenom who combines the best of her women’s-tour foremothers in her political outspokenness and fighting spirit. After a grueling match in Charleston, South Carolina, this year that saw her claw back from a deep deficit, Pegula described herself as a “tough out,” a throwaway phrase that happens to capture her perfectly. She’s been known to move on from her increasingly rare losses with Doritos and postmatch beers, with a nonchalance that only adds to her mystique.


Age: 23
From: Bradenton, Florida
Highest ranking: 25

Suit by Prada; T-shirt by Calvin Klein.Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.

Sebastian Korda’s Czech-born father, Petr, won an Australian Open in the late ’90s, and the younger Korda’s leonine frame and on-court poise invites us to contemplate a person who was born to do this. He’s already won an Australian Open junior title, and his mother and two sisters are also accomplished athletes—sister Nelly won a gold medal in golf at the most recent Olympics, for starters.


Age: 26
From: Paris
Highest ranking: 31

Jacket and pants by Gucci; T-shirt by Calvin Klein; shoes by Ferragamo; necklace by David Yurman.Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.

Korda’s brother in debonair elegance is Maxime Cressy, the French American tower whose serve-and-volley style is all too rare in current tennis. Cressy is on a one-man mission to bring it back, in retro short shorts that emphasize his stretch. My hope is that he inspires a sea of imitators in the surging numbers of new recreational tennis players emboldened as much by his brave play as by his fits.


Age: 26
From: Voorhees, New Jersey
Highest ranking: 14

Coat by Lanvin; T-shirt by CDLP; pants by Zegna; necklace by David Yurman.Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.

Tommy Paul, who often stays with family at their rural farm in New Jersey and whose threads lean more Carhartt than Celine, is—outside of Tiafoe and Taylor Fritz, who enjoyed an incredible run last year at Indian Wells—the next American man poised to break through to the top echelons of the game. Last year, he fell to eventual finalist Casper Ruud in five tight sets at the US Open and took down Rafa Nadal at the Paris Masters. This year he’s already made a Grand Slam semi in Melbourne and his second final, in Mexico.


Age: 20
From: Atlanta
Highest ranking: 35

Trench coat by Loewe; pants by Loro Piana; boots by Marsèll; necklace (top) by David Yurman.Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.

The collegiate alums Ben Shelton, Danielle Collins, Brandon Nakashima, and Mackenzie McDonald demonstrate another kind of confidence: the berserker energy and battle-tested self-belief that comes from playing the highest level of collegiate tennis in front of bloodlusting home crowds, or even better, in the openly hostile territory of the SEC, ACC, and Pac-12. Amid the ebb and flow of crowd energy on the pro tour—between the empty stands at unremarkable pit stops and Grand Slam center stages—these four summon the fiery intensity of a deep NCAA rivalry and convert spectators dazzled by their ability to make a war out of a match.


Age: 28
From: Piedmont, California
Highest ranking: 48

Sweater by Ferragamo; necklace by Her Children.Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.


Age: 29
From: St. Petersburg, Florida
Highest ranking: 7

Dress by Paco Rabanne; bracelet (bottom) and ring by Boochier; bracelets by Cartier.Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.

Collins is the most proven of them, going up against Ash Barty in last year’s Australian Open final and making Barty’s historic win—an Australian woman’s first home Slam title in 44 years—into a mesmerizing battle of attrition. While the Aussie crowd was never hers to command, Collins turned Rod Laver Arena into the Thunderdome.

Along with Coco Gauff and Madison Keys, Collins has come closest among this new crop of Americans to claim a Grand Slam trophy. Keys galloped to a finals showdown against fellow American Sloane Stephens at the 2017 US Open. She has built her decade-long résumé on hot streaks, and when she’s on fire, her powerful serve and forehand can leave little to her opponent to control. But it’s her anti-bullying initiative that’s perhaps most impressive—and one that she uses to champion women and girls in classrooms and on the sports field.


Age: 28
From: Rock Island, Illinois
Highest ranking: 7

Dress by Proenza Schouler; sandals by Brother Vellies; jewelry by Sarah Madeleine Bru.Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.

It’s because of this work making sports a more hospitable place for young women that younger players on the tours can have a better professional experience, and perhaps the youngest talent on the WTA poised to break through is Alycia Parks. Her brand of swagger is brand-new—she exploded onto the pro tour in 2021, announcing her arrival at the US Open by tying Venus Williams’s record for the fastest serve by a woman at the tournament—a slick 129 mph—and impressing the establishment with blistering ground strokes flung off her six-foot-one-inch frame.


Age: 22
From: Atlanta
Highest ranking: 43

Clothing by Altuzarra; sandals by Roger Vivier; earrings by Sarah Madeleine Bru.Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.

The Atlanta native backed up her debut with a remarkable 2022 that saw her crack the top 75 in rankings. This year she’s already won a singles title, indoors in Lyon, France, with a win over Caroline Garcia, France’s top player and last year’s WTA Finals champion. Parks is poised for great things on fast surfaces.


Age: 30
From: Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
Highest ranking: 30

Dress by Coperni; shoes by Manolo Blahnik; earrings by Bottega Veneta; cuff by Tiffany & Co. Elsa Peretti; ring by David Yurman.Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.

After a disappointing wave of one-dimensional American players—especially men who lacked elite skills beyond a serve and a forehand—we’ve suddenly got a crop of credible contenders who represent just about every pathway to professionalism, from Shelby Rogers’s homeschooling to Keys’s academy bona fides, to Michael Mmoh’s journey from prodigy to top 100. You want grit? You got it. You want the kind of flair historically associated with the European grass-and clay-court specialists? Coming right up.


Age: 25
From: Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
Highest ranking: 82

Tank top by Louis Vuitton Men’s; necklace by Her Children; cuff by Eliburch Jewelry.Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.

One of the more notable aspects of this generation of Americans is how clearly they’ve absorbed the genetic strains of their American forebears—the Williams sisters’ all-court games, Agassi’s and Lindsay Davenport’s nuclear ground strokes, Jennifer Capriati’s spirit. But it’s also how they’ve incorporated more global styles of play, from the chip and charge of Sampras to an emphasis on doubles as a viable path to success. They’re alchemists, blending the best of what has come before and sloughing off weighty expectations that have burdened past generations. They’re activists, leading the conversations around equality, inclusivity, and mental health that push the game to be better. And they’re inventors—they’re making the game their own.


Age: 23
From: Thousand Oaks, California
Highest ranking: 52

Clothing and tights by Ferragamo; earring by Charlotte Chesnais; bangles and ring by Tiffany & Co.; shoes by Jimmy Choo.Photograph by Dana Scruggs; Styled by Nicole Chapoteau.