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What's Causing American Tennis' Historically Poor Performance at Wimbledon 2014?

Serena Williams of U.S. gestures after losing a point to Alize Cornet of France during their women's singles match at the All England Lawn Tennis Championships in Wimbledon, London, Saturday, June 28, 2014. (AP Photo/Sang Tan)
Sang Tan/Associated Press
Art SpanderFeatured ColumnistJune 30, 2014

LONDON — Madison Keys took her leave Monday without hitting a single shot. Her left leg was too sore, so she withdrew. She was the last American woman at Wimbledon. Bye-bye, Miss American forehand.

A short while later, John Isner departed, losing a four-setter to one of this summer’s better players, Feliciano Lopez. Isner was the last American. Period. Sing a few bars of the “Star Spangled Banner,” and it will serve as a requiem.

Wimbledon, the oldest one, the biggest one, the last of the four Grand Slam tournaments still played on grass, will be moving into the fourth round without an American, male or female, for the first time in 103 years—1911 according to the International Tennis Federation.

The United States is a surprise in soccer because it is playing so well in the World Cup. The United States, give or take an aging Serena Williams, is not a surprise in tennis because it was not playing that well at Wimbledon.

The great question, is why? Why can’t a nation of more than 300 million produce someone with the talent and desire to make it deep into one of the four major tournaments?

LONDON, ENGLAND - JUNE 28:  Madison Keys of the United States recieves treatment during her Ladies' Singles third round match against Yaroslava Shvedova of Kazakhstan on day six of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and
Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Why are all the U.S., players on the sideline, or more accurately on a plane across the Atlantic, when Lopez, Nick Kyrgios of Australia, Simona Halep of Romania and Milos Raonic of Canada are on a roll?

Is it a matter of American kids failing to put forth the effort, as Lindsay Davenport and Tracy Austin, a couple of former champions told Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times?

Or is it simply an issue of time and place, that because America had Michael Chang and Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, there’s no legitimate reason they should have Roger Federer or Rafael Nadal. That’s the argument of Brad Gilbert, who once was No. 4 in the men’s rankings, then coached Agassi and Andy Murray and now is an analyst for ESPN.

"The game is global," said Gilbert, who lives in Northern California and is a fan of all sports so has perspective. "There’s no birthright that we have to have the great players we just always had. We always expect them."

It’s the American way, isn’t it? To be the best. To chant "USA, USA." To feel we should be No. 1 in everything from serving aces to serving pizza; from winning slaloms to winning Super Bowls.

And now in tennis we’re no longer No. 1, although through the complex points system in use Serena Williams is No. 1 in the WTA—even though she didn’t come close to winning in any of the Grand Slams this year.

There is a multiplicity of sports in the United States. In Spain, Nadal’s land, it’s soccer or tennis. In Serbia, Novak Djokovic’s country, same thing. In Switzerland, Federer’s nation, the same two, although ice hockey is an alternative.

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 07: Brad Gilbert makes a sign as he covers the men's singles match between Juan Martin Del Potro of Argentina and Novak Djokovic of Serbia during day four of the Barclays ATP World Tour Finals at O2 Arena on November 7, 2013 in
Julian Finney/Getty Images

An American boy may choose baseball—although the top players these days are emerging from the Caribbean nations—football, basketball, tennis, golf or, if he has the opportunity, ice hockey.

Tennis is a grind, requiring hours of practice. Tennis is expensive. “The schools, in effect, pay for our other sports,” said Gilbert. “We grow up playing those games. You find playgrounds everywhere, and there aren’t many tennis courts in the urban areas.”

Richard Williams, Serena and Venus Williams’ father, found one in Compton, California, a mean streets city near Los Angeles, and the two daughters found a sport they embraced. They were tough mentally and physically. They fought their way to the top.

“The women are better off than the men,” said Gilbert looking at the U.S. prospects. “There’s a large group coming up, Keys, Sloane Stephens, Taylor Townsend. For a female there’s no bigger sport in the world than tennis.”

Two females who proved that were Davenport, a Wimbledon and U.S. Open winner, and Austin, who took the U.S. Open twice, in 1979 and ’81. As the Williams sisters, they also grew up in southern California, but in more affluent surroundings. Still, they point out, the common thread was the desire to be a champion.

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 01:  (L-R) Former tennis players Lindsay Davenport and Martina Navratilova watch a match on Day Seven of the 2013 US Open at USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 1, 2013 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Que
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

“It’s the old fire-in-the-belly thing,” said Austin, who as Gilbert does work for ESPN. Davenport agreed. “You can’t teach a kid to want it,” she said in affirmation.

It’s a common theme heard through the decades, that desperation is a vehicle for sporting achievement. Djokovic and Ana Ivanovic practiced while bombs fell near Belgrade. It would have been easy to quit, but where would that have left them?

Gilbert says it’s cyclical. Andy Roddick was their heir to the American champions of the 1990s, becoming the last American male to win a Grand Slam, the 2003 U.S. Open. He made it to the Wimbledon finals a couple times but ran headlong into Federer.

“We just have to be patient,” said Gilbert, acknowledging Americans can be very impatient. There are kids out coming but it will take time. Francis Tiafoe is tremendous teenager. We just have to wait and appreciate the Nadals and Federers.”

And to remember wistfully the Agassis and Samprases, hoping someone of their ilk appears again.

 

Art Spander, an award-winning columnist, has covered more than 50 Grand Slams in his career. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

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