Wimbledon `97: American eagle comes under threat

Guy Hodgson on the worrying lack of top-flight player material coming through from the United States
Click to follow
The Independent Online
No sooner have we jettisoned the "What's gone wrong with British tennis" stories than another nation is going through a bout of worried introspection. This may not have you weeping into your cereal this morning but the Americans are suffering.

Take a look at the Wimbledon singles and you can see why. There is just one American left, a certain Pete Sampras. And while it would not exactly be a surprise if he was lifting the Renshaw Cup for the fourth time in five years on Sunday, it would merely camouflage an ailing nation.

The statistics tell the story of the flagging Stars and Stripes. In 1985, there were 32 American men in Wimbledon's second round, this year just six made it, three fewer than the previous low in the open era. The women's cupboard is bare. Take away Martina Navratilova, a Czech who became a naturalised American, and the last one to win Wimbledon was Chris Evert in 1981. Old glory, indeed.

"Tennis doesn't seem to be exciting too many fans in the United States," Lindsay Davenport, the American fifth seed who flopped in the second round, said. "People aren't playing the sport and they're not watching it right now too much, either. What do you do to change that? I don't know.

"Most of the players that have come up through the States in the past have been from at least middle-class families. Something has to be done to help the people who don't have the money."

Which, according to people who follow the game, is precisely the problem. "Ask me what's wrong with American tennis," Hubert Misell, of Florida's St Petersburg Times, said, "and I'll give you a two-word answer: Michael Jordan. Kids want to play basketball, baseball or American football. Tennis comes a long way down."

Art Spander, of the Oakland Tribune, added: "Most of our top sportsmen these days are black and they see no brothers, as they'd put it, playing the game at top level. If anything it's golf they are being attracted to, thanks to Tiger Woods.

"The system does not help. In basketball, Jordan is talking to the media 82 times a year, which projects the sport. I'm told Pete Sampras is a great guy but you can't get near him to find out."

Admittedly, the American impact on Wimbledon 1997 has been diluted by injuries to Andre Agassi, Todd Martin and MaliVai Washington but even if they were here, they could not bridge the generation gap that is worrying US tennis. None of their men in the top 100 is under 24 and apart from the 20-year-old, 6ft 5in, Justin Gimelstob, who is 117 in the world, the future looks barren.

Among the juniors, they have just three boys in the top 50, 19th-ranked Rudolf Rake the highest. In the junior boys' doubles, there is not one American in the top 50. Britain has five.

So where have the people who flocked to see John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors gone? The impact of the charismatic but brattish duo had a twin-edged impact. "They brought people in to watch tennis," Spander said, "but a lot of them weren't real fans. As soon as McEnroe and Connors had gone they were lost to the sport.

"They turned a lot of people off, too. The stomping around and the anger had a lot of people looking elsewhere for their sport." You can only speculate how many of the deterred came from the American middle-classes, the natural constituency for budding tennis players.

Richey Reneberg could have embodied the American problems yesterday. A distinguished doubles player, the 31-year-old defeated only his fourth seed in Grand Slam singles when he ousted Carlos Moya in the second round. He arrived on No 1 Court wearing a tatty bandage on his left knee, feeling unwell. Given the way Greg Rusedski was banging the ball past him, he could have been suffering from shell shock.

Not once did he have a break point against Rusedski, not once did he look likely to progess to the quarter-finals. The shock would have been the American beating the Brit; the world has gone upside down.

"I don't know that embarrassment is the right word," Reneberg said, "but there's definitely a concern among American players and among a lot of people at the USTA [United States Tennis Association]. There are not a lot of good people coming up.

"There's a bit of a drought coming once Sampras and Agassi and these guys finish. It's not the next year or two people are worried about, it's five or six years down the line." Five years back there were three American men's semi-finalists, this time there will be a maximum of one."

US, as in useless, hardly sits well with a country that used to dominate the sport and a special committee chaired by the former USTA president Bob Cookson is investigating all aspects of American player development and is due to report before the US Open.

One fact ought to give the USTA nightmares. Britain, tennis weaklings for decades, got four men to the third round at Wimbledon. The United States managed three.