Australian Open Wrap-Up: The Sad State of American Tennis

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Australian Open Wrap-Up: The Sad State of American Tennis
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In Asian philosophy, the concept of yin yang, represented by the half black, half white circle, describes how polar opposites or seemingly contrary forces are interconnected and interdependent in the natural world and how they give rise to each other in turn. 

Perhaps that’s the cosmic underpinning to the current state of men’s tennis.  The glow of a golden era led by the triumvirate of Djokovic-Nadal-Federer counterbalanced by the prolonged crisis plaguing the top players from the United States. 

I have long been aware of this sad state of affairs from America’s foremost tennis expert, my grandfather.  He reminds me of this, in the most colorful language I ever hear him use, whenever we discuss the subject, usually during every grand slam tournament or when the Sony Ericsson Open, an ATP Masters Series event, takes up residence about a half mile from his apartment.

Even the depths of my grandfather’s vocabulary falls short in describing the woeful health of American men’s tennis.  That American men haven’t been making the headlines in recent majors is part of the problem, certainly few players besides those named Rafa, Roger and Novak have.  But what the Big Three’s dominance disguises is the growth of the sport throughout Europe, South America and its emergence Asia. 

While the three giants reign supreme at the moment, there’s an inevitable rise of young talents which has paralleled the globalization of the sport.  Bernard Tomic (age 19), Milos Raonic (age 21), Alexandr Dolgopolov (age 23) and Kei Nishikori (age 22) among others attest in a tangible way to the emergence and re-emergence of tennis in new nations as well as traditional hotbeds.

To appropriately grasp how bad it’s gotten for U.S. tennis we must first realize how good it could have been.  American tennis serendipitously arrived at an ideal baton-passing moment between past and future, on home soil nonetheless, at the 2003 US Open.  

The future seemed bright.

Pete Sampras officially retired at a ceremony on the same court he had won the championship on the previous year.  Andre Agassi, though the number one seed in New York, had won the last of his eight career majors at the Australian Open earlier that year.  So Andy Roddick heralded his arrival, blowing through the field with booming serves that matched the buzz of the LaGuardia flights, before dispatching Juan Carlos Ferrero in straight sets for his first grand slam title.  By the end of the year, the 21-year old Texan was number one in the rankings, poised to spearhead a new generation of American tennis stars. 

But the transfer of success from Sampras, Agassi and Jim Courier to Roddick, Mardy Fish, James Blake and others was short-lived.  A month into 2004, Roger Federer, on the strength of his second grand slam triumph, his first of four in Melbourne, took over as world No. 1.  Roddick’s US Open win remains the only grand slam of his career and stands as a distant reminder of the last American victory in one of tennis’ four major tournaments. 

Federer’s reign at the top of the tennis world has only been eroded in the last few years by Nadal, and Nadal’s more recently by Djokovic.  In fact, only three men not named Roger, Rafa or Novak have won a major since the ’03 Open—two Argentineans, Gastón Gaudio at the ’04 French Open and Juan Martín del Potro at the 2009 US Open and the big-serving Russian Marat Safin at the 2005 Australian Open.

Roddick did return to four more grand slam finals, facing and losing to Federer each time. He never again approached the top ranking, never overcame his main rival (2-21 record vs. Federer), never developed a game suitable for clay and was never at the vanguard of a new era in American tennis.  It’s unfair to isolate Roddick’s career when the likes of Mardy Fish, James Blake, Taylor Dent, Robby Ginepri and Justin Gimelstob have been more disappointing. 

Quinn Rooney/Getty Images
Is anyone going to beat these guys?

These players, while not expected to challenge regularly for major titles, haven’t even built solid competitive careers.  Blake and Dent stand out from the bunch with one career win apiece at third-tier tournaments on the tour.  Mardy Fish, in the twilight of his career, showed surprisingly good form in 2011, climbing up to eighth in the world rankings but an elite tournament victory remains elusive.

The full scope of the decline is all the more significant when you consider:

  • Since 2000, American players have won four of the 45 grand slam tournaments played.  In the decade of the 1990’s, Sampras, Agassi and Courier combined to win 21 of 40.
  • In the last two Australian Opens, no American has progressed past the fourth round.  This year was the first time since 1973 (when no American man traveled down under) that an American failed to progress past the third round.
  • Agassi was the last American to make the quarters at Roland Garros, doing so in 2003.  The low point of futility in Paris came in 2007 when not a single (of the eight who entered) American got past the opening round.  Just for comparison, 11 of the 14 Spaniards and 10 of the 14 Argentineans who entered that year made it to the second round.
  • In the nine most important tournaments after the grand slams, now known as the Masters 1000 series, American players have captured seven titles (five for Roddick, two from Agassi) since 2003.  In the 1990’s, Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Michael Chang won 32 of a possible 90.

Why has the U.S. fallen so far behind the rest of the world in tennis?  For one, the sport’s share on the crowded American sports conscience has shrunk.  American football, basketball, baseball and even extreme sports are more popular in the mainstream and the youth of our culture. 

The appeal of stardom in the NFL or the NBA is a more powerful draw to young athletes here than pursuing a future in tennis.  Most tennis matches burst to life with brilliant shot-making and extraordinary athletic efforts, but a lot of its substance comes from players who are patient architects of points.  This important facet of the game runs contrary to our Sports Center highlights of instant gratification and sports consumption habits.

Tennis also requires an intense commitment to coaching, training academies, tournaments and travel—prohibitively expensive barriers to entry.  It's difficult to find public courts in good condition anywhere, harder still amongst America’s inner cities where a dormant reservoir of talent may reside.  Both factors prevent tennis from shedding the stigma of a country club sport and leave it unable to attract a diverse body of participants.

The current crop of American players includes John Isner, Sam Querrey, Ryan Harrison and Donald Young, young and unproven talents but miles behind players of similar age from Europe and South America.  The U.S. Tennis Association has made strides in making the game more approachable to kids, initiating ten-and-under programs complete with smaller courts and equipment.  Additional investments in player development should bear some fruit in future professional ranks, but the wait for American men to once again return to the top of the game lingers on ambivalently.

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