Gone West: How America ran out of champions

Poor pickings for the world's richest nation in tennis, golf and boxing can be explained, says Rupert Cornwell, by the rise of college sport

"Where have you gone, Joe DiMaggio? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you..." The lines popped into my mind as I was sitting in the bleachers behind the 17th green at Congressional Country Club last weekend at the US Open, watching a string of good but not great American golfers go through, before the coronation of young prince Rory.

The working tool of Joltin' Joe was of course a baseball bat, not a sand wedge, but that's beside the point. These days, Paul Simon's haunting song applies to US sport virtually across the board. The great champions have disappeared; at the top international level, American sport is in a strange but pervasive decline.

Exhibit No 1 is golf. For decades after the Second World War the country dominated the sport, but in 2011 only two Americans finished in the top 10 of the national championship, and the emptiness is palpable. Tiger Woods, temporarily at least, is out of the picture, while the best days of Phil Mickelson, the other recent darling of the galleries, are almost certainly behind him.

Younger players like Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Bubba Watson have yet to fire the national imagination, and for the first time since 1994, no American holds a major golf championship. The PGA Tour used to be golf's uncontested major league; now the European Tour has caught up, and in some respects overtaken it.

If anything, US tennis is in yet direr straits. For a spell recently, and for the first time in 40 years, no American was ranked in either the men's or women's top 10. At Wimbledon, only two of the 32 men's seeds were Americans and only three of the 32 women. No American man has won a Grand Slam since big-hitting Andy Roddick's US Open victory in 2003. Take out the Williams sisters, and on the women's side the cupboard is even barer. In tennis these days Europe rules; the US tennis authorities are now pushing training on clay courts to instil the strategy of the game in upcoming players.

It never used to be like this; America and supreme success at the individual sports were once synonymous. Name the world's finest golfers, tennis players, boxers and athletes: chances were, they were Americans. But not any more. What's happened?

The short answer of course is, the rest of the world is getting better. "After the war, the US had all the resources, the money, the training, the best health and the best diet," says Frank Deford, doyen of American sports writers, "now everyone else has caught up." Congressional was living proof of that: American golfers were merely part of an intercontinental procession of Europeans, Japanese, Koreans, Australians and South Africans who had survived the halfway cut.

But there are other reasons too for the decline. One is the ever growing role of college sport, a phenomenon unique to the US. Colleges and universities are ever more important feeders into the major leagues, but college sports are mostly team games like baseball, football and basketball. Golf and tennis programmes are fewer and less developed; the greatest recent US stars – Woods, Venus and Serena Williams – were taught not at college but by their parents. A couple of talented college amateurs, Patrick Cantlay of UCLA and Russell Henley of the University of Georgia, did finish in the top 30 at Congressional, but they are still works very much in progress.

Nor are the mean streets as mean as they used to be. Once, if you came from a poor background, you learnt a sport like boxing in the rough old school of life. These days a promising young athlete gets a college sports scholarship, making him more likely to opt for a team sport.

Back in the 1950s, boxing, especially heavyweight boxing, was rivalled only by baseball in popularity among US professional sports. These days, you hardly hear of it. Who, for instance, was the last American to hold a version of the heavyweight title, heir to Dempsey, Louis, Marciano, Ali and Tyson? Answer: a certain Shannon Briggs who was the WBO champion between November 2006 and June 2007.

Today, the big men can opt for college football. Take the Ken Nortons, father and son. In the 1970s, Ken Senior held a piece of the heavyweight championship (and was the fighter who gave Muhammad Ali more trouble than any other opponent). But Ken Junior went to UCLA to play football, and later became the only man to win three consecutive Super Bowl rings, with the Dallas Cowboys and San Francisco 49ers.

The heavyweight division is now dominated by the Klitschko brothers and sundry other eastern Europeans. But even the long rich vein of US middleweights appears exhausted. Last month Bernard Hopkins – born in the Philadelphia projects and who spent five years in jail and later defended the middleweight crown 20 times – became the oldest man ever to win a world title, when he defeated the Canadian Jean Pascal, 18 years his junior, on Pascal's home turf of Montreal.

Hopkins won not with a haymaker, but by grinding out a unanimous 12-round decision, and his victory may be one of the most remarkable sporting feats of recent times, comparable to Jack Nicklaus's US Masters win in 1986, at the same age of 46. But Hopkins, for all his talents, is not exactly one for the future.

America's best fighter these days, pound for pound, is probably welterweight Floyd Mayweather, winner of all his 41 fights. But Mayweather's only been in action twice since 2007, and seems to spend most of his time avoiding boxing's biggest global star, the Filipino Manny Pacquiao.

Not all of course is gloom for US sport. Michael Phelps is to swimming what Tiger was to golf, and at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, American athletes won the most medals in the blue-riband track and field – but even there the likes of Jamaica, Kenya and Ethiopia are catching up.

It is hard to believe this sporting eclipse is permanent. America has a huge population, a warm climate, rich rewards and a fiercely competitive culture. But the current shortage of success could be self-perpetuating; fewer great champions means fewer heroes to inspire talented kids to make a career in individual sports such as tennis or golf.

And maybe the sheer diversity of team sport in the States has something to do with it. The US is one of the few countries where football is not all. In Europe for instance, Deford argues, "If a promising athlete decides soccer is not for him, he's more likely to branch off into one of the individual sports. Here, a gifted college athlete will often find himself choosing between baseball, basketball and [American] football."

But even with these last three, where America does not measure itself against the world, the country is no longer all-dominant. In gridiron football, Americans still rule. But, adjusted for population, the greatest source of baseball talent on earth is now the tiny Dominican Republic. And even in basketball, the ghetto game par excellence, the Dallas Mavericks were led to this year's NBA championship by Dirk Nowitzki...a German. Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio? A nation waits.

Yanks for the memories: How the Americans have fallen from grace

Golf: Men's World Rankings

10 years ago (24 June 2001)

1 Tiger Woods (US)

2 Phil Mickelson (US)

3 Ernie Els (SA)

4 Vijay Singh (Fiji)

5 Sergio Garcia (Sp)

6 Davis Love III (US)

7 Lee Westwood (Eng)

8 David Duval (US)

9 Colin Montgomerie (Scot)

10 Mike Weir (Can)

5 years ago (25 June 2006)

1 Tiger Woods (US)

2 Phil Mickelson (US)

3 Vijay Singh (Fiji)

4 Retief Goosen (SA)

5 Jim Furyk (US)

6 Adam Scott (Aus)

7 Ernie Els (SA)

8 Geoff Ogilvy (Aus)

9 Sergio Garcia (Sp)

10 David Howell (Eng)

Today

1 Luke Donald (Eng)

2 Lee Westwood (Eng)

3 Martin Kaymer (Ger)

4 Rory McIlroy (NI)

5 Steve Stricker (US)

6 Phil Mickelson (US)

7 Matt Kuchar (US)

8 Graeme McDowell (NI)

9 Jason Day (Aus)

10 Charl Schwartzel (SA)

Tennis: Men's Singles Rankings

10 years ago (25 June 2001)

1 Gustavo Kuerten (Br)

2 Andre Agassi (US)

3 Marat Safin (Rus)

4 Juan Carlos Ferrero (Sp)

5 Lleyton Hewitt (Aus)

6 Pete Sampras (US)

7 Yevgeny Kafelnikov (Rus)

8 Sebastien Grosjean (Fr)

9 Alex Corretja (Sp)

10 Patrick Rafter (Aus)

5 years ago (26 June 2006)

1 Roger Federer (Swit)

2 Rafael Nadal (Sp)

3 David Nalbandian (Arg)

4 Ivan Ljubicic (Cro)

5 Andy Roddick (US)

6 Nikolai Davydenko (Rus)

7 James Blake (US)

8 Tommy Robredo (Sp)

9 Lleyton Hewitt (Aus)

10 Mario Ancic (Cro)

Today

1 Rafael Nadal (Sp)

2 Novak Djokovic (Serb)

3 Roger Federer (Swit)

4 Andy Murray(GB)

5 Robin Soderling (Swe)

6 David Ferrer (Sp)

7 Tomas Berdych (Cz Rep)

8 Gael Monfils (Fr)

9 Mardy Fish (US)

10 Andy Roddick (US)

Boxing: Heavyweight Champions

10 years ago (June 2001)

WBC Hasim Rahman (US)

WBA John Ruiz (US)

IBF Hasim Rahman (US)

WBO Wladimir Klitschko (Ukr)

5 years ago (June 2006)

WBC Hasim Rahman (US)

WBA Nikolai Valuev (Rus)

IBF Wladimir Klitschko (Ukr)

WBO Serguei Lyakhovich (Blr)

Today

WBC Vitali Klitschko (Ukr)

WBA David Haye (GB)

IBF Wladimir Klitschko (Ukr)

WBO Wladimir Klitschko (Ukr)

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