Where did all the American contenders go?
The US Open will begin with little hope of a home champion – and few young talents on the horizon. Paul Newman finds out why
Thursday 26 August 2010
Andy Murray, Britain's perennial lone hope at Wimbledon, would sympathise. As Andy Roddick heads for the US Open, which begins on Monday, the 27-year-old American will once again carry the hopes of the home nation.
Roddick does not have to bear the burden of trying to end decades of failure by the hosts, but history weighs on his shoulders in a different way. When the Nebraskan won the US Open in 2003 it was the 19th occasion in 36 years of Open tennis that a home player had lifted the men's title at Flushing Meadows. Since he claimed the only Grand Slam title of his career, however, there have been no more male American winners of any major singles title anywhere – the longest drought in the history of men's tennis in the United States.
That sequence looks unlikely to end next month. A fully fit Roddick could never be discounted, but he has been recovering from glandular fever. You could make some sort of a case for John Isner, Mardy Fish or Sam Querrey, but the next three Americans behind Roddick in the world rankings have just two quarter-finals to show for their 56 Grand Slam appearances. The Williams sisters have brought more realistic prospects of success in recent years, but Serena is missing through injury this time around and 30-year-old Venus, the only seeded American, has not played for two months due to a knee problem.
Historically, the US has produced more champions than anyone. From Bill Tilden and Bill Johnston, who dominated after the First World War, through the era of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors to the time of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, American rivalries have dominated the men's game, while the Williams sisters have followed in the footsteps of champions like Helen Wills Moody, Maureen Connolly, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova.
When Roddick dropped out of the world's top 10 earlier this month – he has since returned to No 9 – it was the first time in the 37-year history of the men's rankings that there had been no American in the top group. In the 1990s, with Sampras, Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang in their pomp, at least four American men regularly featured in the top 10.
In the women's rankings there are no Americans in the top 40 other than Serena and Venus Williams, Nos 1 and No 4 respectively. Only nine years ago the sisters were joined in the top 10 by Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati and Monica Seles.
"Sports are a microcosm of society," said Billie Jean King, who won 17 titles in 1971 alone. "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 greater, just like it is in every other area, whether it be in science or technology or whatever. We have to work that much harder."
The irony is that more Americans are playing tennis. While other sports have seen a fall in participants, a recent survey showed that the number of Americans playing tennis has exceeded 30 million for the first time for 25 years. The biggest increases are among African Americans, Hispanics and the 12-17 age group.
Kurt Kamperman, chief executive of Community Tennis at the US Tennis Association, said: "On the professional side we're obviously having some ebbs and flows. What we're trying to do to ensure future American champions and future Americans in the top 10 is to focus on getting more kids under 10 into the game."
Kamperman does not go along with the argument that young players in the US have too easy a life. "I look at our Olympic performances," Kamperman said. "We usually win more medals than any other country in all these other sports. I think the hunger is still there."
Rodney Harmon, the US Olympic tennis coach in Beijing, believes that some young Americans slip through the net for financial reasons. "We struggle a little bit to attract the top-quality athletes because they go where the big guaranteed dollars are, in [American] football and basketball," Harmon said.
Harmon is concerned at what might happen when the Williams sisters stop competing. "One interesting thing we have now is the Williams phenomenon, where we have so many Afro-American females playing junior tennis," he said. "But Serena is 28 and Venus 30. When they've gone, will we have the same sort of numbers coming through?"
Kamperman is confident players will emerge and that the right framework is in place. "The idea that you can determine who will be the next Sampras or Agassi at 10 years old is baloney," said. "But you do know that if you get more good athletes in at a younger age you have a better chance of finding the next champion."
As for the current generation, history will continue to cast a shadow. "Even going back to McEnroe and Connors, the American tennis players set the bar pretty high for us," Querrey said. "But if you look at all sports, you have waves that go up and down. We're down, but we can come back up. Hopefully, people can be patient and know that we're trying hard."
American decline: US players in world top 10
1973 (first year of rankings, at the end of the year) 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 (current) A Roddick (9).
1975 (first year of rankings) C Evert (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 (current) S Williams (1), V Williams (4)
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