There are 61 American competitors in action at Wimbledon, far more than any other nation, but depth no longer indicates strength. Strip away the doubles players and the former stars like Tracy Austin, who fit invitation events between their TV commitments, and only 22 are playing singles. Strip away the outsiders, the no-hopers and the already beaten, and Uncle Sam is left with just Serena Williams to fly the Stars and Stripes.
Andy Roddick does not agree with that assessment but increasingly it seems his Wimbledon chance went in that epic 2009 final when Roger Federer beat him 16-14 in the fifth set. On Wednesday the Texan needed three hours to edge past battling Briton Jamie Baker, the world No.186. Baker put up a fight having been behind overnight 6-7, 2-4. When play resumed at the second attempt following light rain it looked as if he would subside meekly but he saved two break points to hold serve, then matched Roddick's sweeping ground strokes and drop shots, but failed to achieve the break he needed to level the set. It was the same story in the third, Baker missing a brace of break points before a failed drop shot cost him a service game at 5-5. Roddick served out with a flourish but admitted: “For a long time I wasn't comfortable. He played really well. Very aggressively.”
Assuming Roddick defeats Bjorn Phau in the second round he will fancy his chances against No.7 seed David Ferrer on grass in the third but Juan Martin Del Poltro should lie in wait in the fourth. Mardy Fish, the only other surviving American mens seed is scheduled to exit to Wilfred Tsonga at that stage. Barring an unexpected progression from the likes of Sam Querrey or Brian Baker that may be it for the American male at Wimbledon. Again.
There was a time when the bald eagle's brethren picked off the opposition in SW19, and elsewhere. From the start of the Open era in 1968 to Pete Sampras' last triumph in 2000 Americans won 15 of 33 Wimbledon titles with . From Stan Smith through Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe, to John McEnroe, then Andre Agassi and Sampras, there was always an American or two in the mix. As well as those winners Roscoe Tanner, Jim Courier, MaliVai Washington and the naturalised South African Kevin Curran made the final. Since the Millennium year there has just been Roddick, three times a losing finalist. He has been carrying the hopes of American tennis, largely by himself, for a while now and it is not a burden he appears to enjoy. “I've been dealing for the majority of my career with being on the heels of probably the best generation any country has ever had, but I just focus on my next match” he said.
The story is the same at the other majors. Agassi is the last man to win in Paris (1999) and Melbourne (2003). The American record in France was never that good, but they had won 14 titles in 35 years in Australia. Most humiliating of all of the record on the home Rebound Ace. Roddick was the 19 domestic US Open champion in 36 years when he won in 2003, but not only has no American has won the final since, none have contested it since Roddick six years ago. It is the worst period for American tennis in the the Open era.
As with the decline of the American heavyweight boxer, there are a variety of factors involved. One of them, noted legendary coach and Independent columnist Nick Bollettieri, was cost. He said: “We go in cycles, but tennis is a very expensive sport and many of our athletes are going to other sports because they can't afford it. If we had guys like [basketball players] LeBron James and Kobe Bryant it would be a different ball game but you have to pay for them. I believe we have to get the big, strong athletes – because tennis is about physique now, when they are about 11, 12, boys and girls, and sponsor them.”
In addition, added Bollettieri, it is now a global sport. He said: “You also have to remember back in the eighties there was only about six countries playing tennis, now it is the whole world. Our scholarship students come from all over.” Twenty years ago this week there were only 21 nationalities in the top 100 – and 15 Americans in the world's top 30. Now there are two Americans in the top 30, and 37 countries represented in the top 100. The Davis Cup has 130 entrants – it bills itself as the 'largest annual international team competition in world sport'. There are few corners of the earth in which a child, or their parent, is not considering a career in tennis.
Roddick noted drily: “We're not the only country which has not had success since 2003.” Indeed. Britain's lengthy quest for a champion is well documented on these shores but there is at least Andy Murray, and promising juniors like Oliver Golding. Australian tennis, for all the country's investment in sport, has fared worse with Leyton Hewitt's straight sets first round exit emblematic of the lucky country's decline. When tennis went open Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Tony Roche contested the majority of finals, no Aussie has reached a grand slam final since Hewitt lost in New York in 2004, Hewitt was the last winner, here a decade ago. There is a heavy responsibility on the teenage shoulders of Bernard Tomic, the only Aussie male in the top 50. And what of Sweden, the country that produced Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg? There is now only one Swede in the top 300 men, 154-ranked Robin Soderling.
In America, as in Britain, they are seeking to expand the sport's reach in the hope of finding fresh talent. There is huge scope. American participation in tennis is, like athletics, surprisingly limited with just five million players in a 300m-plus population. Conscious that they are losing the pre-teen generation to soccer and little league baseball the USTA have developed an initiative called “10 and Under Tennis” with smaller courts and rackets, and slower, lower-bouncing balls. Like the Football Association, they have finally realised asking children to play with adult equipment and pitches is daft.
However, such programmes take years to come to fruition. In the meantime Americans are hoping for a last hurrah from Fish or Roddick – who insisted “I'm not here to go through the motions, the whole reason you play is to try to win”, and for the likes of Donald Young and Ryan Harrison to deliver on their teenage promise.