Some people say that sports and politics don't mix.
But when you're talking about Americans playing tennis in France, how can you not discuss the international atmosphere?
There are a number of conclusions, both sports-related and non-sports-related, that one can draw from the dismal first round in which Andy Roddick, James Blake, and six other members of Team USA said bon voyage to Roland Garros. And there are also a lot of things to say about the waning state of the sport in this hemisphere.
Let's run down the list:
1. The French swallowed their pride when they elected Nicolas Sarkozy. So maybe that's why it feels good when we do the same.
For those who didn't follow the massively important French election, let me catch you up on what happened: They picked a pro-American candidate to lead their country into the future.
This is quite a big deal, especially given the huge spat that developed over Iraq. Their new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, loves the United States... something which did not sit easy with a people who felt that they were completely right about those mysterious weapons of mass destruction.
But they picked him anyway.
They swallowed their pride, and that's not easy.
As a huge U.S. tennis fan, I have long maintained that this decade of our subpar play is an aberration. Sure, we still have two of the world's ten best men, but they aren't exactly McEnroe, Sampras, Agassi, or Connors. Andy Roddick doesn't even hold a candle to Jim Courier.
For years, I've called the new millennium a "transition period."
Americans need to admit that we've lost a step. We are not as competitive as we used to be. We have utterly conceded the clay surface, on which three recent Americans have hoisted the trophy...and it's simply because we stink. We let our best young talents focus on higher-paying sports like football and basketball, and we've failed to let pioneers like Arthur Ashe bring diversity to the court (at least in the Men's tennis game).
We blew it. Plain and simple. And our friends in Europe have every right to criticize our performance on their stage.
2. Before we get too critical, let's remember that this isn't about them, it's about us.
Whenever America underperforms on the international stage, people denounce our country as xenophobic or closed-minded. They claim that our ambassador athletes prove only how little we care about international competition.
I'm starting to hear people make this argument with regard to tennis.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Our country is embracing world sports more than ever before, as proven by the FIFA World Cup. As we enjoy the last few weeks before Beckham-mania strikes Los Angeles, let's reflect upon what we were doing around this time last year: We were watching soccer and talking about people like Luis Figo and Wayne Rooney.
The television ratings prove that Americans care more about the World's Game then ever before. College students have started to bring Arsenal and FC Barcelona posters home from their semesters abroad, and the message is finally starting to get heard.
Our tennis success is dwindling not because of our xenophobia, but simply because we don't like tennis.
The game is too high-scoring. The athletes have almost no personality. Too many young people see too many old people doing it. It's an expensive hobby.
Blah, blah, blah, blah.
There are plenty of potential reasons why people in the United States are inclined to find time for anything but tennis. It would be foolish to single out any one reason, or try to rank the five or six key explanations for the sport's demise. The plain fact is that Americans aren't into it. And the fact that the rest of the world still loves the sport will mislead everyone into making the same old unfair Ugly American stereotypes.
Let's stop it before it starts.
3. You have to admire the French for their consistent love of the sport.
This may sound like a backhanded compliment, but I've got to say it: The French deserve a lot of credit for cherishing tennis even though they aren't very good at it.
They've won their own major tournament only once in the last twenty years...and that's only if you count Mary Pierce as French!
Do you know how much attention the U.S. Open would receive had we displayed a similar level of failure? Absolutely none. Heck, we haven't won the tournament in four years, and I'm starting to feel like it's on life support.
Again, there are a lot of reasons for tennis' demise in the United States. The lack of star power is one of them, though it probably reflects a downturn that was already in the works. In any event, the U.S. Open's ratings won't set any records this year, and few of us will wake up early to watch it the way we did in, say, 1995.
My take: French culture isn't as bandwagon-like as American culture. And the French deserve a pat on the back for that.
In conclusion, those of us who call the U.S.A. home can spend the next two weeks reflecting on what went wrong at Roland Garros, or we can use this time to think about the diplomatic, cultural, and sociological implications of that damned clay-court tournament.
Thanks for bearing with me as I pursued the latter.