Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic have brought forth an exciting era of tennis that includes a deep field of talent and a number of potential stars. Many would call this time a Golden Age as fans watch the game evolve with new styles and unprecedented levels of greatness.
But where are the Americans?
Every Grand Slam presents the same question as American Men and Women professional tennis players are routinely eliminated in the first few rounds. (Serena Williams may be temporarily excused from this discussion.)
By now, American fans are mostly numb to the plight of compatriots getting mowed down by the rest of the world. Even the most optimistic Andy Roddick supporter knows that his time to win another Grand Slam has passed. September, 2013 will mark ten years since his lone Grand Slam win. But America cannot place the burden of blame on Roddick, James Blake, John Isner and others.
When will America produce its next great champion?
Andre Agassi's autobiography, Open, begins with a vivid portrait of young Agassi hitting hundreds of tennis balls from a ball machine in his backyard court. It is a portrait of a prodigy who invested countless hours to hone his craft.
It was also the kind of sacrifice that required a lot of routine and dedication. American youths are not renowned for their dedication to subjects such as mathematics and physics, which require years to master.
Tennis can be a lonely sport for the very talented athlete. Promising youth must be shuttled to top venues in order to find other talented competitors. There is much less group training in tennis than other sports and the majority of talented young athletes will never really try their hand at tennis.
On the other hand, golf, which also requires individual training and discipline has flourished the past decade with more youth than ever learning the game. The Tiger Woods effect is obvious, and golf is now seen as a cooler sport than it once was. If American tennis had a Roger Federer, it could influence a rising generation of tennis stars.
How many American youths can name the young player in the New York uniform? A month ago the answer would have been "few or none." After a week of starring for the Knicks, however, Jeremy Lin has become a national sensation.
Could this happen with tennis?
It will take a young American man or woman nothing less than a Grand Slam title and the cover of Sports Illustrated in order to bring even a fraction of the attention that Lin has garnered to American tennis. It will take a true superstar caliber player, not a flash in the pan.
Football and basketball attract the attention, glamor and fame of celebrity. American kids have spent the past two generations wearing Air Jordan shoes and New England Patriots jerseys. Team sports gobble up the lion's share of young athletes because of its promise of glory and fame, and also because of its widespread accessibility.
Even TV has a hard time showcasing the sport. Yes, only the U.S. Open is able to televise matches in prime time, but it's always been that way. How many 8-12 year-old children watched Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal battle in the Australian Open Final—arguably the greatest match of all time? The NBA's All-Star Slam Dunk contest saw millions of youths tune in for the exhibition.
Men's tennis matches can last five or six hours. That's longer than a Yankees vs. Red Sox game. In that amount of time a child can send several hundred text messages, check Facebook, phone friends, go to basketball practice and still have time for whatever else kids do. Few will lose sleep for tennis.
It's one thing for junior tennis players to play in USTA matches, but how many American champions were developed through the USTA? This is the answer many seek when hoping to propagate new players.
Many have blamed the USTA for failing to adequately train talented juniors. Greg Couch's "American Horror Story" described the USTA's development training program as disastrous. Couch claimed the program couldn't identify talented players, and that it supported poor coaches.
Patrick McEnroe was recently put in charge of turning things around. According to Couch, McEnroe's solution was to hire foreign coaches, provide more opportunities to practice and train on clay courts, and set up more training centers.
Are clay courts superior to teaching young players to set up long points? It would be interesting to study the theories of training instructors. Do they teach a set of fundamental standards, or do they encourage experimentation and evolution of techniques? The USTA will have a difficult time improving its methods without the devotion of significant resources to the effort.
L. Jon Wertheim's Strokes of Genius documents an interesting piece of young Rafael Nadal's development. Nadal's lifelong coach, Uncle Toni, had the foresight or fortune to develop young Nadal as a left-handed player, even though he is a natural right-handed person. Would the USTA have implemented such an unorthodox approach?
When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989 tennis was also enriched with a trickle of players from Eastern Europe, Russia and surrounding countries.
Some players such as Yevgeny Kafelnikov made an immediate impact. (Kafelnikov denied Pete Sampras his greatest chance to win the French Open with a semi-final victory in 1996. He went on to capture the title and the 1999 Australian Open.) Marat Safin also won two Grand Slams.
For women's tennis, Maria Sharapova made a splash in tennis and marketing.
Most U.S. kids do not have a life or death incentive to play tennis. But many kids from impoverished countries see sports like tennis as their way out of the cycle of poverty. Currently, about 40% of the WTA top 100 is from Russia and its former satellite countries, according to Tim Heckler's "Global Changes, not Coaching, Means Fewer Americans in Tennis’ Top 100."
There is simply a deeper, more global field for Americans to compete with, and it's only getting deeper.
I'm surprised that there has never been an immortal Italian player. I spent two years in Italy and saw almost as many hard courts and clay courts as soccer fields. Southern Europe is warm and conducive to playing tennis almost year round. There is also a healthy respect for tennis, and outside of soccer is one of the most popular sports.
Why has the tennis world only been teased with occasional Italian tennis talents like Adriano Panatta—who twice defeated Bjorn Borg at the French Open and won the 1976 title—and Andrea Gaudenzi?
Maybe Italy is not doing anything wrong, but their number just has not come up. How was Swiss tennis before Roger Federer?
Spain and France have had a little more success, but even these Western European countries that value and love tennis cannot control the fate of developing superstars.
How does England feel about raising a Wimbledon champion?
The United States has greater numbers of potential players and resources than other countries, but success is still a lottery that takes into account countless factors like genetics, training, money, opportunities, values, and desire. America is still more likely than other countries to produce tennis opportunities, and yet is consistently unable to do so.
American tennis is not as bad as the occasionally observant mainstream media would believe. The Grand Slams receive the most attention, so performances during this time tend to frame media perspectives who are looking for stories of champions or failures.
There are currently six American men ranked in the ATP top 65, ranging from #8 Mardy Fish to promising 19-year-old Ryan Harrison. And while it seems unlikely they will threaten for Grand Slams in the near future, it has been hard for almost everyone not named Federer, Nadal, or Djokovic. Maybe Donald Young isn't the future of American tennis, but maybe he will carve out a nice career. That's not so bad.
On the women's side, seven players find their place in the top 100, led by Serena Williams at #11. Some observers feel that Vania King and Sloane Stephens could one day challenge for Slams. Whether they do or not, they deserve space to grow and be supported. They should not have to answer to the media's star search.
During the Ivan Lendl years, as the 1980s was roaring to a finish, the American media was alarmed about the lack of good American players. With John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors now out of the spotlight, the continental view was that America had lost its grip on tennis.
In 1988, Andre Agassi made it to the semifinals of the French Open.
In 1989, Michael Chang won the French Open.
In 1990, Pete Sampras defeated finalist Andre Agassi, while disposing of Lendl and McEnroe.
In 1991, Jim Courier won the French Open.
The next wave of American tennis players had arrived and would combine for 27 Grand Slam victories. So, why didn't anyone see this coming?
The next wave could already be in motion, or it might not arrive for years. Maybe one champion will rise up the ATP or WTA tour standings in the next few years and change the course of tennis. We just don't know yet.
But for now, all we can do is enjoy the global game of tennis. Whether or not American tennis competes for Grand Slams is not really for us to choose.