Men's Tennis: How the French Have Become the New Americans of the Sport
As John Isner fell to Feliciano Lopez at the Australian Open, so too did the hopes of an entire country as for the first time in the tournaments history, an American was not in the final 16 of the Australian Open.
Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, John Isner, Sam Querry, Ryan Sweeting—the list simply goes on and on.
And it's perhaps a sign that the United States is not what it once used to be in the men's tennis field. They are no longer the nation with the depth and the talent, and they are no longer hold the dominance that they once held.
No, unfortunately that title falls to someone else.
And even worse, it falls to the French.
Going in to the third round of the Australian Open 2012, there were six still French players alive, and despite the fact that four of them lost, both Jo-Wilfried Tsonga and Richard Gasquet are still left to fly the red white and blue for the French.
And whilst it might appear that having two players through is no signal of dominance, it's the final piece of a puzzle that has taken over twenty years to finish.
In 1990, there were 14 American players in the top 50 men's tennis players in the world, and there were three Frenchmen. With the likes of Ivan Lendl, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, John McEnroe and Michael Chang all in the top 20, the stock of Americans in men's tennis looked strong.
And strong it was, as for six years, the United States held strong with eight or more men in the top 50, whereas for the French, they hold only two or three. Without the likes of Guy Forget and Cedric Pioline, the French would have had even less to get excited about.
However, at the end of 1997, the tide began to turn as fewer Americans started to feature in the ranks and a greater number of France's tennis hopefuls began to appear. Despite Sampra, Agassi and Chang all sitting in the top ten, the United States was not having the depth that it once began to have. The dominance was still there, but the depth was not, as the likes of Nicolas Escude, Fabrice Santoro and Sebastian Grosjean began to infiltrate the lower end of the top 50.
As Grosjean and Arnold Clement began to climb the rankings over the next few years, Michael Chang began to drop off and it was left to Sampras and Agassi to fly the flag, but even they did not have the dominance that they once had. Australians like Hewitt and Rafter began to trouble the Americans, and a young, exciting Swiss player by the name of Roger Federer was lighting up the field.
By the end of 2002, both the United States and France had relatively equal players in the top 50, and France was beginning to establish itself as a tennis powerhouse. Yet with young prospects of Andy Roddick, James Blake and Mardy Fish, the Americans weren't too concerned yet.
And they were correct as by the end of 2003, America was back to having seven men in the top 50, and France were left with just Grosjean and Clement. Times seemed to be blossoming for the Americans as Roddick went to the world No. 1 ranking, and had won the US Open in the same year, restoring the nation's hopes it seemed.
For as long as Roddick, Fish and Blake were in the field, it seemed like the Americans were no longer worried about their stature in world tennis, seemingly thinking they were perched at the top.
Yet when Federer, Nadal, and later Djokovic came along, the United States began to realize that not only did they not have the depth they once had, they no longer had the class. Roddick was not as good as Sampras and Fish was never going to be an Agassi.
And as for the French? Well, they were quietly content with their new breed of tennis players that had unknowingly flown under the radar of the tennis public. They had their exciting players in Tsonga and Monfils who were engineering a new, athletic manner of tennis, and they had their fighting types in Gasquet, Gilles Simon and Paul-Henri Mathieu.
Whilst the stock of the Americans fell further and further, the French began to rise and rise, as Tsonga pushed Djokovic in the final of the Australian Open and in doing so, opening up the floodgates of quality French tennis players to come through the ranks.
And so, at the end of the 2011 season, the Americans were left with just Roddick, Fish and big-serving John Isner in the top 50, whereas the French had five, and 10 of the top 100.
The 2012 Australian Open, if nothing so far, has shown us that the United States is not the strong tennis playing nation that it once was with incredible class and depth; it is fragile and vulnerable and does not appear to have the brightest outlook for the future.
It has shown us that the likes of Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish, John Isner, Ryan Sweeting and Ryan Harrison are not in the class that many would like them to be; in fact, they're not even close.
And it has revealed to us that France are the new kids on the block, and they're not willing to be kicked off their perch in a hurry. Wilfried-Tsonga and Gasquet move through to the round of 16, and the likes of Nicolas Mahut, Michael Llorda, Gael Monfils and Julian Benneteau all impressed in their time at the Australian Open, proving they are all players for the future.
A future that America, for the moment, cannot claim they have.
How long it will take for another Sampras or or Lendl to come along we will never know, and just how dominant the French depth will be still remains to be seen. But this we do know; the Americans have definitely fallen off their perch on top of the mantle of men's tennis, and they don't appear to have a way to climb back up.
In the words of John Isner, who was the final American to fall at this year's Australian Open:
That's not a good effort from the Americans this tournament. It's ugly, to be honest..."
The French might not have a Federer or a Djokovic in their grasp but yet, but if their stock continues to flourish the way it currently does, then it surely cannot be too many tournaments away from occurring.
And as for the Americans, they'll have to be content to not winning the Grand Slams for a few years, and not being the world No. 1, and not having all the attention.
And they'll have to get used to losing to the French. Which is something that nobody wants to get used to.
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