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McEnroe, Agassi, Sampras…Isner?! What has gone wrong in American tennis?


By Dan Graham

With the retirement of Andy Roddick, the last American man to win a Grand Slam way back in 2003, the question must be asked, how could a nation as historically dominant in tennis as the USA find themselves with so little talent on the courts?

Looking at the ATP standings you can’t help but wonder what has gone so wrong; there have been times this summer when there hasn’t been a single American in the top ten. This would have been unthinkable just ten years ago. America’s big three, John Isner, Mardy Fish and the now retired A-Rod, have been hovering inside the top 25, but this frankly isn’t good enough, particularly when compared to the achievements of Sampras, Agassi and Courier’s era.

Roddick has retorted, “As far as harping on American tennis, I think we’re kind of a victim of our own success over the years in the sport. If you still stack us up against most countries, we’re coming out ahead.” But is that true?

It can be said that the scale of previous achievements have been the route of the current problem, with Roddick himself admitting that the pressure and weight of expectation has meant that, “From the beginning of my career, [I’ve] been up against it.” Previous domination has provided the next generation not only with the pressure to live up to their predecessors, but a more damaging philosophy of arrogance, a presumption that because they were American, they were automatically on a conveyor belt to global superstardom.

A so-called ‘lost generation’ of players like Brendan Evans and Scoville Jenkins were undoubtedly victims of the hype that was enforced upon them. Lured in by lucrative sponsorship deals from Nike and co., a raft of players turned professional too early, often as young as 16. The increased commerciality of the sport has undoubtedly affected younger players mentalities. Evans has said, “We had to be really good, really fast. We got caught up in results instead of getting better. We were not mature enough to handle it.”

Patrick McEnroe, the former Davis Cup captain and general manager of USTA player development has said of this generation, “they all went out on the tour and got the crap beat out of them for three, four years and never progressed.” Over the past couple of years, there have been times when there hasn’t been a single teenager in the world’s top 100 players, and so these American youths thrown in as professionals at 16, 17 or 18 have been fighting against the flow of modern tennis.

Roger Federer, along with many other of the top players has discussed the cause of these changes, with a great many fearing for the future standard of the sport. Federer himself contends that, “maybe the game has become more physical and more mental and that’s why players today need a bit more time to break through.”

Certainly, the change in style of men’s tennis is critical to the demise of American players. If we look at Isner, Fish and Roddick, these are all big hitting players most comfortable on the faster courts. In decades past, in the serve and volley era, players like Sampras utilised these skills to great success, but now since the game has changed, the way the US trains its players must change too and that simply didn’t happen until too late.

That is why many of the leading coaches in the US are converting to training on clay courts like their European counterparts. This is intended to teach players to construct points rather than looking for the quick easy winner, as with the increased physicality of the game, it is much harder to win the point in the modern game with only one good shot. The surface also encourages players to use spin and to employ a greater shot variety. These skills are all prevalent in the leading players on the tour.

The fact is that the United States has more children of tennis playing age than all of its modern European rivals including Spain, France, Switzerland, Serbia and the UK combined. It is true however, that tennis is very much a minority sport compared to the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB. “In other countries, better athletes play tennis. It’s as simple as that,” says John McEnroe. But the scale of the USA’s underachievement is remarkable considering how it once dominated the sport. There are still millions of junior US tennis players. But where are they in the ATP? Come to that, where are the fans?

Ten years ago, the 2002 US Open men’s final drew in television viewing figures of over 10 million. Last year, this dropped to only 2 million. These figures show an incredible decline in popularity, the difference being that ten years ago the final was between Sampras and Agassi, and last year it was Djokovic and Nadal. Tennis has become much more of a global sport than in the days of McEnroe and Connors. Other countries have actually turned up and it has come as a shock; the USA cannot monopolise tennis in the same way it does the World Series of Baseball for example, by simply not inviting the rest of the world to play.

Ultimately, the United States Tennis Association has been caught off-guard by the changes in the game. For far too long, they have been reliant on private coaching to provide their next prodigy, and have only been interested in offering only what they themselves called “supplementary” assistance. Historically, American players took the initiative to independently train each other, passing the torch from one generation to the next; in the same way that Agassi reached out to Roddick, Roddick now mentors Ryan Harrison. This is surely and evidently not the most successful way to produce champions and the net must be widened. Because until the last decade, this system had somehow borne fruit, the USTA didn’t see the need to create a centralised coaching system, but now it does and they have missed out on an entire generation of talent.

There is no doubt that tennis as a whole is currently in superb health, and the fact that three of the greatest players of all time in Federer, Djokovic and Nadal have dominated the last decade is at least a decent excuse for such a drought in the Slams for US players. There is still however no valid reason for a nation with the pedigree and talent pool of the USA not to have a player consistently reaching at least the quarter-finals of Grand Slams, and so we will have to wait and see if the USTA can finally create a champion of their own. Looking at the incompetence of the organisation’s past, I personally wouldn’t bet on another US men’s number one in the next ten years.

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