This year's Australian Open should leave the United States Tennis Association (USTA) more than a little alarmed about the future of American tennis in general and at grand slam tournaments in particular. After the fourth round of play at the year's first major tournament, there remained precisely zero Americans in the field of players vying for either the men's or women's singles titles.
Needless to say, for a country that prides itself on its decadent tennis history, which includes players like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jimmy Connors, such a dismal performance at a tournament that isn't Roland Garros should raise some red flags for American tennis executives, coaches and fans.
Indeed, when the top American man barely makes the top 10 of the ATP rankings, and the top American women struggle to enter tournaments, this type of result is not unexpected. Take the men's game as an example. Andy Roddick was never, and will never be the same caliber of player as Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer. What's more is that he is approaching the latter stage of his career, and unless he somehow channels Andre Agassi very soon, he is unlikely to win another grand slam.
The American women's game suffers from a slightly different problem--the absence of its top players from tournaments. Indeed, both Venus and Serena Williams are among the best women to play the game currently and arguably in history. The problem for them however, is that they seem to get injured relatively frequently. To be sure, Serena Williams was absent from this years Australian Open, a tournament she has won a few times and Venus Williams had to withdraw during the tournament.
For the Williams sisters, this is not really a question of ability or age. Rather, its due to their interests in other aspects of their lives. As several commentators have noted, both sisters have diversified their careers with modeling contracts, merchandise agreements and other things that are not directly related to tennis (for Venus this includes the hobby of designing obnoxious tennis outfits to garner attention from the media). Imagine if part of the time spent working on these extraneous activities was devoted to fitness, both sisters may be able to enter enough tournaments to remain atop the women's game.
All of this is not to ignore the younger American tennis players who have yet to realize their promise. While Sam Querrey has made a relatively successful jump from the juniors to the professional tour, others such as Donald Young have provided nothing less than a dismal showing. For Donald Young in particular, it is a question of motivation and quality coaching—both of which he currently lacks. For the others, it may just be an issue of inexperience that will be overcome with time; this remains to be seen however.
The above discussion begs the question, what can be done to improve the state of American tennis in the future? As Jim Courier noted, Americans are getting involved in tennis too late, and thus do not have sufficient time to develop relative to their international counterparts. Therefore, the USTA needs to increase its efforts at recruiting promising youth and providing them with the resources they need to succeed (e.g., Jack Sock). It is only through this effort that American tennis can hope to emulate its past prominence.
Additionally, the USTA needs to foster a tennis culture in the U.S., which would encourage more parents to teach their children tennis at a younger age, thereby expanding the pool of talent from which the USTA can choose. Finally, there needs to be more support for U.S. players. Specifically, the USTA needs to take as much of the monetary burden out of the hands of players as possible, so that they can focus on developing their game.
With these steps in place, it is possible that American tennis can hope to produce players like Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi in the future.