Where are all the American champions?
The US is facing its longest wait for a new Agassi or Sampras – the time has come to cast net wider
The United States has produced more winners of Grand Slam titles than any other country, but when the US Open starts in eight days' time the hosts' best chance of a male champion will lie with a 29-year-old who, in 34 attempts, has never gone beyond the quarter-finals.
Mardy Fish reached a personal best No 7 in the world rankings last week, before losing to Andy Murray in the semi-finals of the Cincinnati Masters last night. He is enjoying an Indian summer, but has never won a Masters Series title, let alone one of the four big prizes.
It is eight years since an American man, Andy Roddick, last won a Grand Slam singles title – the longest drought in the country's history – and there is little sign of the wait coming to an end. Fish, a fading Roddick and an under-achieving John Isner are the only Americans ranked in the top 30 (there were 10 Americans in the top 30 only 20 years ago), while Ryan Harrison, who has yet to prove he can hit with his racket as well as he can throw it, is the only American youngster in the top 100 who is reckoned to have a serious chance of joining the elite.
Serena Williams will be favourite to win a fourth US title, but the 29-year-old cannot disguise the lack of emerging female talent. Bethanie Mattek-Sands, a 26-year-old who has never won a singles title, is the only American other than the Williams sisters in the top 70.
It is a sorry state of affairs for a country that has dominated from the days of Bill Tilden and Bill Johnston and through the era of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors to the time of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. The Williams sisters follow a long line of female champions including Helen Wills Moody, Maureen Connolly, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
"I look back over 35 or 40 years and see where the Americans are now, it's kind of a little distressing," Connors said. "Back in my era, eight of the top 10 were Americans. It went for two and a half generations of having nothing but the best players in the world. Sampras, Agassi and [Jim] Courier took the place of Connors and McEnroe and that group. Now there's Roddick and Fish and their group, but who is taking the place of this group?"
Two reasons that have been offered for the lack of success are familiar: the globalisation of a sport that was dominated by the more traditional nations (the men's world No 1, Novak Djokovic, is from Serbia, while his female counterpart, Caroline Wozniacki, is from Denmark) and the greater hunger of players from less privileged countries.
Kurt Kamperman, who as chief executive of Community Tennis at the United States Tennis Association has responsibility for bringing more Americans into the game, cites the recent domination of two players, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
"We've had the combination of once-in-a-lifetime players gobbling up most of the Grand Slams with the fact that the game has become much more international," he said. "Now even very small countries look on tennis as a top-tier sport."
Tennis has been identified as the fastest-growing traditional sport in the US, but in a country of more than 310 million fewer than five million play regularly. "When we look at the number of young kids that are playing organised soccer and organised baseball, we pale in comparison to them," Kamperman said. "We end up picking up kids as teenagers."
The USTA have responded with "10 and Under Tennis", with smaller courts, shorter and lighter rackets and slower and lower-bouncing balls.
"Until now kids have had to play on the same court that the pros play on with the same equipment," Kamperman said. "What other sport forces an eight or nine-year-old to play on the same-sized field with the same-sized equipment as adults? It also means we can make tennis accessible to more people. For kids aged eight and under, for example, you can put four 36-foot courts on a standard tennis court. So instead of teaching four or six kids on a full-size court, you can have 24 kids in the same space."
As for the aspiring professionals, Patrick McEnroe, the general manager of the USTA's player development programme, is encouraging more clay-court tennis, in recognition of the fact that the modern game is played mostly on the baseline.
"It's a lot easier to go from a background on clay and adjusting your game to a faster surface than it is to go vice versa," McEnroe said. "You learn how to use the court a lot better, you learn to move, you learn to hit more balls and construct points."
McEnroe believes Fish and Roddick can still challenge, but he refusesto speculate as to when an American man will next win a Grand Slam.
"Clearly we have a lot of work to do," he said. "We're trying to control what we can control – improving our players, doing the job with the players that we have and particularly the players we're working with on a full-time basis or part-time basis."
America's top 10 players
Men M Fish (world No 7)
Ten years ago
Men A Agassi (3), P Sampras (10)
Women V Williams (1), J Capriati (2), S Williams (3), L Davenport (4), L Raymond (9)
Twenty years ago
Men J Courier (2), P Sampras (6), A Agassi (10)
Women M Navratilova (4), M J Fernandez (7), J Capriati (9) G Fernandez (10)
Thirty years ago
Men J McEnroe (1), J Connors (3), G Mayer (7), E Teltscher (8), V Gerulaitis (9)
Women M Navratilova (1), C Evert (2), T Austin (3), A Jaeger (4), P Shriver (5), A Smith (8)
Current top 100 Americans
Men No 7 M Fish; 15 A Roddick; 27 J Isner; 50 A Bogomolov Jnr; 69 R Sweeting; 78 R Harrison; 79 S Querrey; 84 J Blake; 89 D Young; 93 M Russell
Women 31 S Williams; 33 B Mattek-Sands; 36 V Williams; 76 C McHale; 79 I Falconi; 89 V King.
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