American Tennis' Glory Days Are Gone, but There's Still Plenty of Hope

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American Tennis' Glory Days Are Gone, but There's Still Plenty of Hope
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This time every year, the obituary page in the newspaper gets more crowded. That's because with the U.S. Open underway, it's time to once again brush off the eulogies for American tennis.

If you haven't heard, it's dead.

You might have read about it this week in The Atlantic or The New York Times Magazine. You might have heard that Americans can't do anything but serve, that there's nobody but Serena Williams and that there is no hope for the future.

You might think that we're doomed, perhaps forever.

I'm here to tell you we're not. Not only is the future of American tennis very bright, but the present is pretty good too. Right now, the biggest enemy is perception.

But first of all, let's start with the truth: American tennis isn't what it once was, and it never will be again.

ADAM BUTLER/Associated Press

We're never going back to 1984, when 12 men in the top 20 were from the United States, or to 1994, when American Slam winners Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang were all battling for supremacy. Gone are the days when Lindsay Davenport, the Williams sisters, Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles were all contending for Slams and the question wasn't if an American would win a major that year, it was which one and how many.

Those days were fantastic and should be looked back on fondly. But they shouldn't be a reason to dismiss what's happening right now.

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First, it's important to look at how we got here. While the criticism of American tennis often lands directly in the laps of the players, it's important to note that they don't exist in a vacuum—domestically, the United States Tennis Association and the American tournaments are a big part of the story.

The USTA in particular has been under intense scrutiny lately. The New York Times reported on its incredibly shady financials before this U.S. Open tournament, suggesting that the revenue from the U.S. Open that should be focused more on player development is instead going to board members and their pet projects.

Erik Konisberg's New York Times Magazine article about the decline of American tennis brings up many of the problems with USTA Player Development. Issues range from age regulations and fundamentals instructions that are too restrictive to a system that breeds a sense of entitlement to success instead of an environment where players learn how to earn it.

"We've made mistakes, and we're learning," Patrick McEnroe, the former head of USTA Player Development, said. "We want to help all American juniors."

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The truth is, American tennis greatness was so prevalent for so long that for about 10 years there were generations of American men and women who had early success in the juniors and turned pro only to immediately lose their footing and drive in an increasingly physical and international sport. (Douglas Robson of USA Today profiled a lot of these men a couple of years ago, dubbing them the "lost generation.")

The USTA simply couldn't adapt its programs in time to counteract the decline.

"[In the past] elite tennis players seemed to be produced in America on their own," McEnroe told Konisberg. "I think we got complacent many, many years ago and we're scrambling to try and catch up," Brad Gilbert said on ESPN at the beginning of the tournament.

It's a vicious circle. For a long time, American tennis had such an advantage because there were so many tournaments stateside. This provided more opportunities for up-and-coming talent to get wild cards into ATP tournaments and exposed more Americans to the sport. But with the economic downturn and the lack of domestic stars, many of the smaller stateside tournaments that used to be the backbone of American tennis have shut down or moved elsewhere.

Tournament director Jeff Newman has been able to keep the Citi Open in Washington, D.C., afloat despite the decline. While American tennis players are certainly popular at his event, he keeps his eye on the bigger picture.

"I don't think it's necessarily an American issue, but it's more just marketability of players," he said. "Certainly there were the Agassis and the [Andy] Roddicks, but there were also the rivalries. So, I think it comes down to getting marketable players who have that same 'it' factor. There are several of those players, but there needs to be more."

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Andy Roddick and James Blake after Roddick won the Citi Open (then the Legg Mason Tennis Classic) in 2007.

Newmanwho says that attendance at the tournament has remained consistent over the yearshas truly embraced just how international tennis is these days. When he gets the players' entry list for the tournament each year, he reaches out to all of the embassies in town that have a player coming. After all, it's not at all a coincidence that America's decline in tennis coincided with a sharp rise in global competition.

While a stronger international presence means that there's less room for the red, white and blue on top, it's important for tennis fans to remember that a global presence is a fantastic thing for the sport.

"In 1973, the goal when Billie Jean King and the other 63 women formed the WTA was to be global," Stacey Allaster, the chairman and CEO of the WTA, said. "So we went from 14 events primarily in the United States to 54 events in 33 countries with the athletes competing for almost $120 million between four Grand Slams and the WTA events. As Billie said, these athletes are living the dream. They wanted women's tennis to be commercially successful, and the driver in that has been our global growth with national heroes from major markets."

***

However, just because tennis is rising elsewhere doesn't mean there's no more hope for national heroes in American tennis as well. In fact, if you look at the American women, you might see quite a few already.

Even though Serena Williams was the only one to make it to the fourth round of the U.S. Open, there are 12 American women in the Top 100, the most of any country, and eight of them are in the Top 50. Five of the American women in the Top 50 are 22 or younger—Madison Keys, Lauren Davis, Sloane Stephens, Christina McHale and CoCo Vandeweghe.

Even Serena thinks you should be impressed with that.

"I think women's tennis is doing really well on the American side," she told reporters in Montreal, adding, "I'm really excited about it."

If Serena's excited, then we should certainly listen. After all, she is a 17-time major champion and still the No. 1 player in the world, so as long as Serena's around, nobody should even as much as check the pulse of American tennis. Oh, and don't forget about her older sister Venus, who as a 34-year-old with Sjogren's syndrome is back into the Top 20 and might just be the best story in sports.

But the Williams sisters aren't alone anymore. These days, they're surrounded by homegrown talent, such as 2013 Australian Open semifinalist Stephens, currently ranked No. 24, and 18-year-old Taylor Townsend, who lost to Serena in the first round of the U.S. Open but was dubbed "the future of American tennis" by the five-time U.S. Open champion along the way.

Darron Cummings/Associated Press

CoCo Vandeweghe, 22, has had a remarkable year too, climbing from No. 113 in the rankings to No. 38. Shelby Rogers, 21, made it to her first WTA final this year, as did 22-year-old Christina McHale.

These players are only the tip of the iceberg—there's certainly more where they came from.

"I hope that tennis fans and spectators appreciate that we have a really great group of girls, on and off the court," said Vania King, a 25-year-old American with two Grand Slam doubles titles.

"I don't think that we'll ever see the dominance from any country that we had before, just because tennis has become so global," King said. "It's not possible that you’re going to get five out of the top 10 players from one country. But I think the future of American tennis is so promising and that we've got a lot of good players."

Madison Keys is certainly one of them. Keys won her first WTA title in Eastbourne earlier this year and is currently up to No. 27 in the rankings. Last year, Keys signed with Max Eisenbud, the agent of superstars Maria Sharapova and Li Na.

Jan Kruger/Getty Images
Madison Keys with her first WTA trophy.

"I look at her as just a bright young star of the WTA," said Allaster. "She has the talent on the court, and she's a smart, young businesswoman at the early age of 19."

After her first-round victory at the U.S. Open, Keys talked about the pressure on her generation, to be not only their individual best, but America's best.

"When people say that American tennis is dead and things like that, you know, you kind of take it a little personal," she said, via USOpen.org. "Someone went as far as to say that Serena Williams is the only American player, male or female, worth talking about. ... I think everyone is kind of expecting a lot, but then they're also not giving us full credit."

Keys lost in a disappointing second-round match at Flushing, but there were still plenty of thrilling breakouts by American women at this U.S. Open, such as wild cards 15-year-old CiCi Bellis and 21-year-old Nicole Gibbs upsetting ranked players. Everywhere you look, there are many reasons to wave the flag.

***

Of course, it's easy once you dissect things to see the reasons to cheer on the American women. It's a bit harder on the men's side of the fence.

After all, no American man has won a Slam since Andy Roddick in 2003, and the only active American man to ever even make it to the semis of a major is 31-year-old Robby Ginepri, who made the U.S. Open semis in 2005 but is currently ranked No. 200. Right now there are only six American men in the Top 100, and only John Isner, No. 13, is seeded at the U.S. Open.

Things have looked bleak this fortnight, too. There were 12 men in the first round of the tournament, but only three made it to the second round—Isner, Sam Querrey and Tim Smyczek. Only Isner and Querrey made the third round, and both lost there.

Since Roddick retired at the 2012 U.S. Open, the leader of the American men has been Isner, who has won two titles this season, nine in his career, and has registered wins over Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.

Despite his accomplishments, Isner is usually discussed with an air of disappointment—he's the American No. 1, so he should be doing better. While he is certainly looking to improve, the tall 29-year-old keeps things in perspective.

"I was never pegged to be the next No. 1 American," he told reporters earlier this year at Indian Wells. "You know, American tennis isn't at its greatest point right now. But for me, it's fun. I never imagined I could be in this position at all. Never—I didn't dream of actually being a professional tennis player. It's all just come to me."

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Beyond Isner, there is a growing group of American men who haven't had success on the big stages yet but are moving in the right direction. Guys like Donald Young, Steve Johnson and Jack Sock have all improved their rankings tremendously this year. Now all ranked in the Top 60, they are pushing each other to new heightssomething that hasn't happened successfully since Roddick's generation.

"You see one guy do well and you want to do well," Young said. "You don't want to be left behind."

Johnson, a former USC standout, agrees with Young. He also wishes the comparisons to previous generations would stop.

USA TODAY Sports
Steve Johnson in action.

"I think it's, from my perspective, a little unfair to compare us [with previous generations] and to negatively put us out there in the press that we're not holding the torch for American tennis," he said. "You look 10, 15 years ago—take nothing away from Sampras, Agassi, Courier, they're the best in the world—but it's a much more worldwide sport now.

"I don't think it's that America’s fallen back. I just think that there's a couple of guys who are so much better than everyone else. We're getting close, I feel like. Our time will come.

"I feel pretty blessed to be doing what I'm doing," he added. "I hope to just keep getting better and keep pushing the guys ahead of me. We have a good group, and I really think we can do some damage in the near future."

***

While this generation of American men might just have to be taken at face value, the next generation looks to have the potential to kick things up a notch.

This year, the Wimbledon juniors final was contested between two Americans for the first time since 1977, when 18-year-old Noah Rubin defeated 16-year-old Stefan Kozlov. Other up-and-comers such as 16-year-olds Francis Tiafoe and Michael Mmoh and 17-year-old Jared Donaldson are giving USTA Player Development officials and American tennis fans a reason to get excited for the future.

Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Crucially, these teenagers already have good camaraderie and are fostering some healthy jealousy at an early age.

"We all push each other a lot," Tiafoe said at the Citi Open this year after his pro debut. "I hope we can keep doing that through the pros."

There's reason to believe that in the not-so-distant future, the Top 50 could be littered with American men the way it currently is with American women, and that the cream of the crop will rise to the top and become Slam contenders. But hype doesn't create champions, so we'll just have to wait and see.

Meanwhile, we should appreciate what we have right now.

In America we're conditioned to want to be the best in everything, but sometimes it's worth taking a step back and realizing that there's a lot more to everything—including the sport of tennis—than that. With stars such as Federer, Rafael Nadal, Djokovic, Sharapova and Li making tennis one of the most popular sports in the world, perhaps it's OK for American tennis to share for a bit.

We should all enjoy the successes elsewhere, cheer on our current crop of players, keep holding the USTA accountable and continue to be cautiously optimistic about the future. Most of all, we shouldn't buy into the doom and gloom.

American tennis isn't dead. It just looks a little bit different than it used to.

 

Lindsay Gibbs covers tennis for Bleacher Report and is the co-founder of the popular blog The Changeover. Follow her on Twitter for more of her work. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand.

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