What's wrong with U.S. tennis?
Don't ask Andy Roddick. "[We're in] no bigger crisis than Italian tennis," he responded dryly when the question was raised during the Rome Masters Series.
The quip showed just how far American tennis has fallen. Granted it was a joke, but there is a basis of truth in Roddick's dark humor. Currently America has nine players in the ATP Tour's top 100 rankings compared with Italy which only has four.
That doesn't seem so bad until you remember that America is 32 times bigger, has 248 million more people and is supposed to have the best funded and developed junior training program in the world. Plus according to Roddick, apparently Italy is in the midst of a tennis crisis too.
Earlier in the year it was even worse. Before Mardy Fish cracked the top 10 a few weeks ago, no American was ranked in the top 10 for the first time in 35 years of computerized rankings. After just two rounds, Fish is also the only still representing the stars and stripes at Roland Garros.
So yeah its fair to say America is experiencing quite the major tennis slump, as in Americans haven't lifted a Grand Slam trophy since Roddick did it way back during the 2003 U.S. Open some 29 majors ago. If, and its almost a guarantee, Fish doesn't pull some sort of shocking miracle run and the Grand Slam drought continues, the interval between Open champions will tie the longest Grand Slam shutout without an American victor. The last streak was from 1955 to '63.
America is suffering historic lows
Less than 10 years ago, the future of American tennis was bright. Andy Roddick was ushering in a new era of American stars. There was Roddick and the equally captivating James Blake. There were the scrappy baseliners Robby Ginepri and Fish, along with the big serving Taylor Dent.
At the time Agassi and Sampras were still going strong, dutifully keeping the seat warm until the youngsters were ready. Roddick stepped up to the plate soon after winning the 2003 US Open sending the American public, specifically teenage girls, into a frenzy.
He was the fresh face that many had been waiting for. Soon fans were clamoring for an all American rivalry. Blake made a weak stab at it, but no one else stood up. Today, the names of American tennis players read like a list of has-beens.
Roddick is still hanging around, although he has been completely dominated by the games truly elite players. James Blake's career is in hiding. Ginepri's career is so washed up he can't even see the water and Taylor Dent is...sorry, who is Taylor Dent again?
The problem in American tennis is three fold. For one, Americans continue to be petrified of clay as if the red dirt will stain their clothes and they ran out of detergent. The USTA has started to move more junior championships to clay, but they need to accelerate the process because American's cannot afford to suffer through an entire spring season on clay and fall behind in the rankings in the process.
In fairness to America's two bright stars John Isner and Sam Querrey—and to some extent Roddick as well—their games, due to their big frames and powerful builds, don't really lend themselves to the slower surface.
Secondly, the USTA has to get over themselves. Instead of being domineering and so one-track minded the USTA needs to work more with players to develop their games without the nasty politics of late.
The recent ugly spat with Donald Young, once considered America's great hope, and the fact the USTA has not done enough to excite enough young children (especially low income youth) about the game are two reasons that American tennis is facing a deficit of potential future superstars.
Lastly, America has to own up to the problem that right now we are slumping. Too many times the excuse has been made by Patrick McEnroe and others that "the players are being compared to and held to the standard of Agassi, Sampras, Courier and Chang." How can you compare this group to the greats of the of such an incredible generation?
Is it best to tone down expectations?
Would GM, Ford or Chrysler ever do that? Of course they wouldn't! Oh wait...Wait, no they did and they went bankrupt and the American taxpayers had to bail them out. Woops.
That attitude of living off a glorious past is largely why the American car industry nearly collapsed and is partly why American tennis is struggling. Of course not every generation will be as good. The Agassis and Samprases don't come around every 20 years, 50 even. But that doesn't mean this generation shouldn't be held at a lower standard and it certainly means that the USTA will have to do even more to make sure America gets back to the top.
As a tennis fan, the state of the game can hardly get any better. Nadal and Federer, two of the all-time greats, are battling at the top and are now joined by the lights-out Djokovic who is streaking towards history. Andy Murray is still hanging around and if Juan Martin Del Potro fully recovers from injury we might be witness to the greatest top five in tennis history.
It's just unfortunate that there are no Americans ready to join them.