Breaking Down Why US Men's Tennis Has Struggled Since Sampras and Agassi Left

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Breaking Down Why US Men's Tennis Has Struggled Since Sampras and Agassi Left
Nick Laham/Getty Images
Andy Roddick Reacts to Winning 2003 U.S. Open

From the time the ATP began the modern ranking system in 1973 until Roddick became world No. 1 in 2003, 21 men held the top spot in men’s tennis.

Roddick would become the 22nd and the sixth American to ascend to the No. 1 ranking as defined by the ATP.

Of these 21 men, only five were from the United States. They spent 883 weeks at No. 1 while the other 16 combined held the No. 1 ranking 689 weeks.

In other words, players from the USA held the top spot in men’s tennis 56 percent of the time in the first 30 years of the ATP ranking system.

Pete Sampras held it the longest—286 weeks. Jimmy Connors was next with 268 weeks. Those two alone dominated the No. 1 ranking for over 10 and a half years.

John McEnroe added 170 weeks while Andre Agassi stayed on top for 101 weeks. Jim Courier staked out 58 weeks in total as No. 1.

In the first 30 years, the USA held the No.1 ranking almost 17 years while the rest of the world came in with 13.

Since 2003, Roddick’s 13 weeks at No. 1 are all that the United States has in the record books for almost another full decade.

During the last nine years, the United States spent only 2.8 percent of the time at No. 1.

As we near the 40-year mark in tracking the ATP No. 1 ranking, the United States has slipped to 44 percent—down from the high of 56 percent during the first 30 years.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
Sampras and Agassi dominated tennis in the 1990s.

So what accounts for this downfall of the United States in men’s tennis? Why has the No. 1 ranking fallen out of the grasp of players from the USA?

 

Style of Play

The days of serve and volley tennis mostly passed away with Pete Sampras, although it still exists today in very limited quantities.

For the most part, serve and volley play generally could not conquer on clay after 1973 once finesse was replaced with power.

In later years, however, matches on grass and hard courts seemed to be reduced to a big booming serve followed by a quick trip to the net to volley back a weak reply.

Points were over too quickly—or so it seemed to the majority. The 1998 Wimbledon final between Sampras and big-serving Croat Goran Ivanisevic proved the point. The whole match seemed to be a big serve, a volley at the net followed by another big serve, and a volley at the net.

Fans called that boring.

The move to slow the game down got underway. Balls became softer and the texture of grass changed—both allowing the opposing player more time to react.

At the same time, clay was becoming faster while hard courts were also evolving allowing balls to bounce higher with less pace. The surface of the court began to matter less and less.

Gary M. Prior/Getty Images
Sampras defeats Ivanisevic in 1998.

For example, it has been widely felt that Rafael Nadal could never have won Wimbledon as it was played in the Sampras' heyday. That he beat Federer in 2008 and won it again in 2010 illustrates the result of the slow-down of the lawns at the All England Club.

You still have to be a superior player to win at Wimbledon, but the opening has widened considerably since power players were negated on grass.

The entire shift brought the game to the middle, encouraging baseline play and long rallies—the death of server and volley tennis and the big power players who now needed more than a big serve.

Today's all-court game demands highly-skilled athletes who are in top shape and mentally sharp.

Power serve and volley tennis was pretty much the standard for the United States whose players tended to emulate Sampras. It was the school Roddick came from. McEnroe’s era of wooden rackets required more touch than power in playing serve and volley tennis.

While Connors played an all-court game and Courier and Agassi were base-liners, not enough players from the United States came along with talent enough or training enough to follow them into tennis’ upper echelons.

 

Tennis Technology

Once wooden rackets became passe in the 1980s, after almost 100 years of ruling the game, tennis players began to trend toward the big aluminum framed rackets—which later became carbon fiber-framed.

Tony Duffy/Getty Images
McEnroe's wooden racket

The face of the racket doubled, allowing players more room for error because the center spot was bigger. This made the new rackets more forgiving than their predecessors. Wooden rackets required you hit the ball in the dead center for maximum power and pace. The bigger rackets made that task easier.

Ivan Lendl capitalized on this new racket to become the father of the modern baseline power game. Topspin would bring the power stroke down at just the right spot in the back of the court keeping the opponent pinned behind his baseline to return the ball.

Then too came an evolution in strings. Strings on tennis rackets used to be made from natural gut. It was that way for decades because gut allowed for spring and control inside the narrow frame of the racket.

But with the larger head came synthetic strings like Luxilon which has been called a “dead string” by professionals. It allows the player to swing hard employing more power and whip. The ball dips and bounces high. The pace is very deceptive because a ball that looks like it is going out suddenly dies and dips inside the lines.

Synthetic strings have added a whole new dimension to the game. Their use requires more consistent power to attack, swinging full out on every stroke. Rackets with synthetic strings also require complete mastery of the stroke to employ spin and depth.

The complexity has shifted from touch to spin, from court movement to court placement from the baseline.

The toll on bodies of players using synthetic string seems to be high when you regard Nadal’s style of play and his persistent knee problems. That, however, is yet to be proven.

Hamish Blair/Getty Images
No one employs more "spin" than Rafael Nadal.

The final indictment on synthetic strings has yet to be written because it is still a new and evolving technology.

 

Level of Competition

Tennis has become a game for all nations. In the early days it belonged primarily to the United States and Australia with France, Great Britain, Italy and later Sweden often making their presence felt.

Today the game belongs to the Europeans with Switzerland and Spain leading the way.  But tennis has also expanded to Asia as players from China and Japan have made their way into the top rankings. 

The level and depth of today's competition has kept the United States on the outside, looking in.

Primarily for Andy Roddick who ranking rose to No. 1 in 2003—it has been Swiss Roger Federer who has kept him outside winning circles.

Roddick made the finals at Wimbledon in 2004, 2005 and 2009. Each time he was turned back by Federer in the last match.

Federer also defeated Roddick in the semifinals of the 2007 Australian Open and again in the 2009 Australian Open semifinals.

Since the time Federer overtook Roddick as the new No. 1 player on February 2, 2004, the Swiss has held the No. 1 spot over five and a half years.

Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Roddick loses to Federer in 2005.

But Roddick and others from the United States did not have just Federer to contend with—there was also Nadal and then Novak Djokovic—both of whom assumed the No. 1 spot. 

Nadal held it for 102 weeks, almost two full years, while Djokovic held the top spot for 53 weeks—just over one year.

Roddick, however, remained in the top ten for most of his career. Andre Agassi, who last held the No. 1 ranking in November of 2003 until Roddick took over, also remained in or near the top ten until he retired from tennis in 2006 after the U.S. Open.

Other players from the USA eventually joined Roddick in the top ten like James Blake, Mardy Fish and John Isner.

The truth is that the best male athletes from the USA are not playing tennis. The training and recruitment methods of the USTA are not nearly as good as the European or even some Asian counterparts.

It is still the case that playing tennis takes money—lots of it and the USTA does not support tennis athletes as well as they do in Europe.

The century-long domination on tennis venues around the world for the United States is over—at least for the time being.

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