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Sam Querrey serves to  Tennys Sandgren in a men’s singles match on July 8. Both me were once crowned national champions at Kalamazoo. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)
Sam Querrey serves to Tennys Sandgren in a men’s singles match on July 8. Both me were once crowned national champions at Kalamazoo. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)|Associated Press

The Nats at the Zoo: The Best of American Tennis

Neal Abrams looks at the National Junior and Boys 16 tournament played at Kalamazoo College.

Neal Abrams

Neal Abrams

Everybody who is anybody in American tennis knows what the Nats at the Zoo is. For those uninitiated few, the Nats at the Zoo is the annual National Junior and Boys 16 tournament traditionally played over the first week of August at Kalamazoo College in Kalamazoo, Mich. It represents the best tennis the United States has to offer, as it hosts close to 400 of the best Junior players in the whole country. These future pros slug it out at Stowe Stadium and the related courts at Kalamazoo College under the watchful eye of Tournament Director Mark Riley, the tennis coach of Kalamazoo College, and the caretaker of the legend that “The Zoo” has become.

The tournament has been magnificently hosted at Kalamazoo for 77 years, ever since Dr. Allen Stowe brought the National Juniors to Michigan back in 1943. After presiding over the growth of the tournament for 14 years, Dr. Stowe handed the reigns over to the legendary Rolla Anderson, who served as its director from 1957 to 1993. The tournament’s history is glorious and the players that have come through Kalamazoo reads like a Who’s Who of American men's tennis.

First, let's look at those who never won a title at Kalamazoo. The competition in the National Juniors and Boys 16 is so intense, that many future Grand Slam singles winners have entered multiple National Junior Championships and have never come away with the Gold Ball, signifying a United States National Champion. These include John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Andy Roddick, and Jim Courier. McEnroe and Agassi did manage to take home gold balls with their doubles titles (McEnroe with Larry Gottfried, and Agassi with John Falbo), but this illustrates the incredibly high level of play of those who gain entry into Kalamazoo.

How do you get in? Well, the USTA (formerly the USLTA, for those seniors who may be reading) is split into 17 Sections. Each Section gets to endorse a certain number of players, based on the number of USTA members who reside in that section. Additionally, the USTA has a standing list of players who have participated in high level (National, International, ATP or ITF) tournaments who have done well. These players get invited straight into the tournament based on where they stand on that list. And finally, the USTA will give wild card entry to those who simply don’t play Sectional or other Junior tournaments, but have been identified as an elite player.

Since Kalamazoo is the National championship of the United States, entry is limited to U.S. citizens. At one time, the tournament was not “closed” to U.S citizens, and Rod Laver, the Aussie who was the future two-time Grand Slam winner (all four tournaments in one year), won the 18’s in 1956. Back in the day, each draw (Juniors, and Boys 16) was a complete 128 draw with a few preliminary rounds to accommodate the extra number of players who may have either qualified for entry or were invited to play and gained entry with a wild card. Today, each draw is a 256, with a significant number of byes given, because there are significantly fewer than 256 players who qualify for the National Championships. It is generally understood that each draw will include 192 players, each.

For those who recognize names from tennis history, some of the entries who have successfully won the Gold Ball awarded to the winners include Bob Lutz, Dennis Ralston, Stan Smith, Cliff Richey, Erik Van Dillon, Dick Stockton, Jimmy Connors, Brian Gottfried, Billy Martin, Ferdi Taygan, Larry Gottfried, Van Winitsky, Aaron Krickstein, Jay Berger, Michael Chang, Justin Gimelstob, Taylor Dent, Sam Querrey, Donald Young, Tennys Sandgren, Jack Sock, Tommy Paul, and Frances Tiafoe. Needless to say, winning Kalamazoo spotlights a player as a future professional, and often times, a future champion. Another footnote to note is that having all the best U.S. Juniors in one place for about 10 days, makes it pretty easy for college coaches to identify and try to woo particular players for their programs. NCAA recruiting rules must be followed, but needless to say, there are many college coaches at Kalamazoo, and their names and programs are published so that the kids know who’s there to romance them.

Winning the Junior title not only gives the champion a gold ball, but more importantly, the Junior winner is awarded a direct entry into the U.S. Open main draw, often played just three weeks later, at the end of the summer. For the winner of the Boys 16, an invitation to take part in the U.S. Open Junior tournament awaits, and the allure there is the opportunity to play against the best Juniors from around the globe. Winners of both of these events represent the best that the U.S. has to offer, and more often than not, these players become the pros that you and I root for in the very near future.

This year, the draws are as stacked as ever. The two top seeds in the Juniors draw are both former champions as top seed Brandon Nakashima, 18, of San Diego, won the Boys 16 title in 2017 and got to the finals of the Juniors last year. He spent this past spring semester as a freshman at the University of Virginia, a top flight D1 tennis program. In his first taste of intercollegiate competition, Nakashima played mostly #2, and went 17-5 in dual matches. The second seed, Martin Damm, from Bradenton, Fla., who is still only 15-years-old, stands 6’6”, and won the Boys 16s last year. Damm, who is beginning to make a name for himself internationally, got to the semis of both the French Open Juniors and at Junior Wimbledon this year. As long as Damm continues to develop it seems to me that we’re going to hear a lot of him in the very near future. You can’t teach height, and he’s got it. You can’t teach a player to be left-handed either, and Damm is a southpaw. That dynamic naturally adds a big hook on his serve, coming down from a mountaintop, as he uses his height uniquely to his advantage, especially on his serve. The third seed is Toby Kodat, a French Open Junior finalist from May and another Bradenton resident who trains at the IMG Academy. Fourth seed in the Juniors is Ohio State frosh and New York state resident Cannon Kingsley. Kingsley just last week got to the quarters of a $25,000 pro tournament in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Fifth seed is Govind Nanda, who spent the last semester playing #3 as a frosh for UCLA, going 17-5 during the Spring. Nanda has had some success on the ITF pro Tour, winning a $25,000 tournament back in January, as well as experiencing some success at Kalamazoo, having reached the finals in juniors doubles last year, and also reaching the finals of the Wimbledon Juniors doubles just last month.

Current Kalamazoo matches can be watched in real time both streaming directly from four of the courts at Stowe Stadium and some individual matches broadcast on ESPN, as matches have been on TV since 1980. And as an aside, since 2004, pros have been allowed to compete in the National Juniors and Boys 16s, as long as they meet the age requirements held for entry into the different divisions.

Kalamazoo is, and always has been, in the full consciousness of American tennis. It has become synonymous with excellence in Junior boy’s tennis and gives the public a preview of tomorrow’s best tennis players today. This year is no different, and if you have interest in watching some fine tennis from guys who will be tomorrow’s champions, tune in to ESPN, get Internet streaming direct from Stowe Stadium or head to Kalamazoo College so you can watch the champions you don’t yet know fight it out to take home that little gold ball symbolizing that they have won the National Junior or Boys16 championship.