Men's Pro Tennis in America: Now You See Me and Now You Don't!

Harold BellContributor IIIAugust 9, 2010

LOS ANGELES, CA - JULY 30:  James Blake returns a backhand to Feliciano Lopez of Spain during the Farmers Classic at the Los Angeles Tennis Center - UCLA on July 30, 2010 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

I recently wrote in this space a column titled “McEnroe vs McEnroe: Brother You Can’t Be Serious!”  The two tennis-playing brothers disagreed on the direction of youth tennis.

John and Patrick are now tennis television analyst and broadcasters.  They have taken different views on how to fix American tennis.  It looks like John is right again.

During the French Open, John announced the opening of his John McEnroe Tennis Academy at a new $18 million dollar, 20 court facility on New York’s Randall Island.

He blasted the “Fat Cow” United States Tennis Association and his brother Patrick (in charge of youth development) for sitting on a portfolio worth $150 million dollars (15 million earmarked for youth tennis) and doing nothing with it.

Patrick says, “We are looking at this as three, five or ten year plan.” 

That was the wrong response; I don’t think American tennis fans can wait that long for the next Ashe or Sampras!

The sad state of American tennis raised its head and showed its ugly face again at the 2010 Leg Mason Tennis Classic.  I can’t be sure, but you would think Houdini was following America tennis players around on the ATP tour.  They are disappearing at an alarming without a trace.

Patrick McEnroe was an eyewitness to the disappearing act.  He was the play-by-play broadcaster for ESPN television at the Legg Mason Tennis Championship Final.

The question, “Where have Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi Michael Chang and Jim Courier all gone?”

If the public address announcer had not announced their on court appearance, you would never have known that American tennis players had been there and gone.

One of Houdini’s favorite targets has been James Blake.

Muhammad Ali used to say he was so quick he could turn the light out and be under the cover before the room got dark.  I think Ali has met his match in James Blake.

Blake’s disappearing acts this year at Wimbledon and Legg Mason have been tough acts to follow, but Andy Roddick and other Americans have been trying to keep pace.

For example; by the time the dust settled after the quarter-finals at Legg Mason, not a single top-10 player was still around and all eight Americans had taken an early out and disappeared. 

The eventual winner needed a wild card to gain entry into the tournament.  David Nalbanian hails from Argentina and beat Marcos Baghdatis 6-2 and 7-6. 

Nalbanian was ranked 117 in the world of pro tennis.  He had missed 12 of the past 15 months trying to recover from injuries.

James Blake was once ranked as high as No. 4 in the World.  His early exit at Legg Mason will drop him way below the 109 ranking that he came into the tournament with.

He was a fan favorite and his early exit from the tournament hurt the overall attendance. 

There was some bad news and good news from Blake after his stunning defeat, he was heard to say, “my tennis career is finite.”  He sees the handwriting on the wall.

Blake has become so paranoid he is hearing voices.  Silence is usually golden at pro tennis matches.  The slightest bit of noise can draw a warning from the chair umpire. 

Pam Shriver is a former pro tennis great and an ESPN analyst.  She is well aware of the code of silence during match play.  She won 21 Grand Slam Double titles with Martina Navratilova, from 1981-1991.

Evidently, Blake could hear her as she was trying to whisper into a microphone as many commentators try to do.  It has been reported she was speaking quite loudly and criticizing his play.

During the match at Wimbledon, Blake was in the process of doing his now familiar “Swan Dive” losing his first round match in straight sets to Robin Haase.

He got pissed off and called Shriver out and said “Amazing you used to play tennis, I can still hear you.”

Shriver still didn’t lower her voice and said, “James just yelled at me, I am way above the court, but evidently he can still hear me.  He’s got rabbit ears.” 

After the next point, Blake yelled, “You have to be an ass about it, too?  And act like I’m at fault.”

The exchange between Blake and Shriver reminded me of the legendary comics Albert and Costello’s routine “Who’s on First.”  The exchange got so bad ESPN had to cut away to another match.

I met James Blake at the Legg Mason Tennis Classic (1999).  He left Harvard University in his sophomore year to pursue a pro tennis career. 

What difference a day (decade) makes!

When he made his debut at Legg Mason, his entourage consisted of his dad Thomas, mother Betty and brother Thomas Jr., who had also turned pro.

I found his dad to be a down to earth guy and he seemed to have James’ career headed in the right direction.  It didn’t take him long to win the Legg Mason Tennis Classic. 

James was crowned the champion in 2002.  The title made him the first African-American to win the tournament since Arthur Ashe won it in the 70s.  I was an eyewitness to both.

James had all the tools to be a great pro: he was quick as a cat, a great return of serve, a first serve to keep you honest and a forehand that was lethal. 

Watching him move on the court, it was hard to believe that as a teenager he had a bad case of scoliosis (a lateral curvature of the spine).  He had once worn a full length back brace for 18 hours a day.

During his early appearances on the pro tennis circuit he and his brother wore their hair in dreadlocks (African-American hair style).  Two years after his victory at the Legg Mason Classic, his father died.  The untimely death of his father brought sudden changes to his looks and attitude.  He became a “Mommy’s baby and daddy’s maybe.”

He lost his identity and a heart he never had.  He could have easily played the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz (no heart).

There was one part of James Blake’s game that suffered and never developed.  He never had a “Killer Instinct.” This is the one characteristic that separates average athletes from the great athletes.

The great ones like Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, all had “The Killer Instinct.” 

Ashe was known as “The Quiet Assassin.”

The best way to describe James Blake’s game is that it has gone from “Sugar to Do-Do” for a lack of a better term.

The scouting report on James says his weaknesses are; decision-making, nerves, and he has trouble closing out matches.  Those are carefully chosen words but they describe an athlete with little or no heart.

John McEnroe’s plan for the future of America tennis is to prowl the playgrounds of America’s inner-cities looking for the next Arthur Ashe, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Althea Gibson, and someone close to the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus.  He knows they are out there. 

His brother Patrick and the USTA will continue their search at the country clubs and prep schools looking for the next Patrick McEnroe and American tennis will be the loser.

A quick fix for American tennis: allow Venus and Serena to play Men’s Tennis as well as Women’s Tennis.  They can’t be any worse.