No wonder Andy Roddick was in a prickly mood. The 28-year-old Nebraskan has been his country's best male player since he won the US Open in 2003, yet here he was being called to account for the fact that this week's updated world rankings list featured no Americans – male or female – in the top 10 for the first time in history. Asked by an Italian journalist here at the Rome Masters to talk about the "crisis" in American tennis, Roddick responded succinctly. "There's no bigger crisis in American tennis than there is in Italian tennis," he said.
The reply may have sounded flippant, but Roddick was making a serious point. If American tennis is in crisis then so are many other traditional powerhouses of the sport. Australia has one man, the fast-fading Lleyton Hewitt, in the world's top 100. France, for all its strength in depth, has not produced a male Grand Slam singles champion for 28 years. Britain, the only country to have contested every Davis Cup, play in the competition's third division against the likes of Tunisia and Luxembourg and have only one man in the world's top 200.
What is indisputable, however, is the fact that the country that has produced more winners of Grand Slam tournaments than any other is struggling to find its next generation of great champions. While there are statistics and arguments to support the contention that the game in the United States is actually in reasonable health – there are nine American men and eight women in the world's top 100 – where are the future greats who will follow in the footsteps of Bill Tilden and Bill Johnston, John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, Helen Wills Moody and Maureen Connolly, Billie Jean King and Chris Evert, Serena and Venus Williams?
It is already eight years – by some margin the longest drought in US history – since an American man won a Grand Slam title. Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey and John Isner have all been in the top 20 recently, but only the most optimistic of Americans would predict that they have a Grand Slam title in them.
Roddick soldiers on, but since his defeat to Roger Federer in the 2009 Wimbledon final he has rarely looked capable of rescaling such heights. Of the younger Americans, Ryan Sweeting has made big strides in the last year but is already 23, Donald Young has rarely lived up to his early promise and 19-year-old Ryan Harrison has some way to go before he fulfils his undoubted potential.
The last Americans in the world's top 10 were the Williams sisters, who have hardly been seen in the last year. Serena has not played since Wimbledon following two foot operations and treatment for a blood clot in her lung, while Venus, who has suffered with knee and hip injuries, has made only two appearances in the same period, at the US and Australian Opens.
There is only one other American in the world's top 80, 26-year-old Bethanie Mattek-Sands at No 38. Melanie Oudin enjoyed a fairytale run at the 2009 US Open but has done little since. America's best hopes may lie with two other teenagers, Christina McHale, at 18 the youngest player in the world's top 100, and Coco Vandeweghe. However, they have won just one match at Grand Slam level between them. McHale says that the Williams sisters were an inspiration to her, but what if the next generation of Americans do not have any home-grown role models?
There is a widespread belief that upcoming players in the traditional western tennis strongholds have had life too easy and that those from poorer countries, particularly in eastern Europe, have a harder edge and greater ambition.
"In other countries there is just a little bit more of that grit to get out of where they're coming from," Mattek-Sands admitted. "Take some of the Russians. They're trying to get out of there, make some money, go somewhere better. In the US we have it pretty good. It'll take some people getting out of their comfort zone, pushing themselves and having it inside themselves."
Nevertheless McHale, who sees the lack of top 10 players as "an opportunity for the young Americans coming through", insists that endeavour and commitment are not the preserve of other countries. "Playing tennis is definitely hard work," she said. "I have to practise four and a half hours every day and do an hour and half of fitness. I make sure I get to bed on time, so there's a lot of dedication."
It is not just impoverished nations that are producing talent: 10 of the world's current top 50 male players are from Spain. Eight different nationalities are represented in the men's top 10, which includes three Spaniards, and nine in the women's top 10 (Russia is the only country with two players).
"Sports are a microcosm of society," Billie Jean King said. "When I was playing, we didn't have to compete against everybody in the world. Now it's a truly global sport, so the competition's much greater, just like it is for our children in every other area, whether it be in science or technology or whatever you talk about. So we have to work that much harder. We have to get kids who are eager. We have to get good athletes in our sport if we're going to win globally."
Max Eisenbud, Maria Sharapova's agent, believes that persuading America's best athletes to play the sport is crucial to its future success. "Our best athletes aren't playing tennis," he said. "There are so many different opportunities. When you are an American kid, you can play sports, you can become a singer, you can become an actor, or dancer, or go to school and become a doctor. If you are a great athlete, you can be in the WNBA, women's soccer."
The health of American tennis is crucial to the sport overall. Of the 61 tournaments on the Association of Tennis Professionals tour, 12 are staged in the United States, where many of the sport's sponsors are also based. "I think it's important for the game that we do have those great American players," Federer said here yesterday. "I hope they're able to come along with big players because I think especially for the States it's hugely important, even though they've maybe got a little bit used to Americans not dominating. It's also a bit disappointing for me not to have any Americans in the top 10 because I like playing against them."
Roddick, nevertheless, is not so convinced that there is any underlying problem in a country where a recent annual survey showed that the number of Americans playing tennis has exceeded 30 million for the first time for 25 years. Only Spanish players won more titles than Americans on the men's tour last year, four Americans finished in the year-end top 20 for the first time since 1999 and the Bryan brothers, who have already won four titles this year, are the most successful doubles pairing in history.
"I think we're kind of a victim of our own success over the years," Roddick said. "If you stack us up against most countries we're still coming up ahead."
There was a weary tone in Roddick's voice as he added: "The only part that confuses me is how I'm answering questions and it's my responsibility. I feel like I've handled my part for more than a decade."
States of disarray? America's top-ranked players
American men in top 100:
11 Mardy Fish (aged 29)
12 Andy Roddick (28)
25 Sam Querrey (23)
35 John Isner (26)
69 Ryan Sweeting (23)
84 Alex Bogomolov jnr (28)
86 Robert Kendrick (31)
88 Michael Russell (33)
94 Donald Young (21)
History of American men in top 10 of year-end world rankings:
1973 (first year of rankings): J Connors (ranked No 3), S Smith (5), A Ashe (10)
1980 J McEnroe (2), J Connors (3), G Mayer (4), H Solomon (7), V Gerulaitis (9), E Teltscher (10)
1990 A Agassi (4), P Sampras (5), B Gilbert (10)
2000 P Sampras (3), A Agassi (6)
2010 A Roddick (8)
American women in top 100:
17 Serena Williams (aged 29)
19 Venus Williams (30)
38 Bethanie Mattek-Sands (26)
86 Varvara Lepchenko (24)
89 Melanie Oudin (19)
90 Coco Vandeweghe (19)
92 Christina McHale (18)
94 Vania King (22)
History of American women in top 10 of year-end world rankings:
1975 (first year of rankings): C Evert (ranked No 1), B J King (4), N Richey (8), K Melville (10)
1980 C Evert (1), T Austin (2), B J King (6), A Jaeger (7), P Shriver (9)
1990 M Navratilova (3), M J Fernandez (4), J Capriati (8), Z Garrison (10)
2000 L Davenport (2), V Williams (3), M Seles (4), S Williams (6)
2010 S Williams (4), V Williams (5)