American Tennis Blues

Three or so years ago, during the U.S. Open, I wrote a column about American men’s tennis that kind of ticked off some people I worked with. They were big American tennis fans. And if you are something of a tennis fan, you might remember that was the U.S. Open the first week was basically spent CELEBRATING American men’s tennis, at least here in America.

Yes, that was the tournament where a young American wildcard named Donald Young took out the No. 14 seeded Stan Wawrinka in five grueling sets. He then crushed another good seeded player, Spain’s Juan Ignacio Chela. Young was summarily evicted from the tournament in straight sets by Andy Murray, but that was OK, it was a promising run for a 22-year-old. At the same tournament, John Isner big-served his way into the quarterfinals before also losing to Murray in four semi-competitive sets. And Mardy Fish made it into the Round of 16 before losing a five-set heartbreaker to Jo-Wilfried Tsonga. It seemed like a lot of good news.

Then I wrote the column about how the news really wasn’t all that good -- that was the 32nd consecutive grand slam not won by an American man and ninth straight without an American man even in the semifinal. Like I say, a few people emailed and called and said that U.S. men’s tennis was on the rise and I was missing the point.

Well, they were right. I was missing the point. The signs were actually much, much worse than I thought. Here we are at Wimbledon 2014 -- and there’s not a single U.S. player in the round of 16 on either the men’s or women’s side. Not one. It’s the first time that has happened since, well, ever. OK, technically before 1922 Wimbledon had this “challenge round” system where the previous year’s champion was automatically put in the final so it was a very different tournament. If you want to get technical, there were no Americans in anywhwere near the final back in 1911. It’s also true that in 1911, only two Americans -- someone named Craig Biddle and another called W.S. Cushing -- even entered. And they were probably there on vacation.

So, yeah, I think you can call this unprecedented. It’s also somewhat predictable. While Americans celebrate America’s place of respectability on the world soccer stage, the U.S. standing in tennis (a sport the United States used to dominate) has never been lower. I pointed this out before -- at the end of 1989, Here were the Americans in the Top 10:

1. Ivan Lendl 4. John McEnroe 5. Michael Chang 6. Brad Gilbert 7. Andre Agassi 8. Aaron Krickstein 10. Jay Berger

And this was just after Jimmy Connors’ decline and just before Pete Sampras’ rise. Jim Courier would rise to No. 1 within two years. MaliVai Washington and Todd Martin and others had interesting and occasionally stirring careers. Andy Roddick would go to No. 1 and James Blake had his moments. Tennis was an American sport.

Here are the men in the Top 10 rankings right now.

And here are the women in the Top 10 rankings right now: 1. Serena Williams

The last American man to win a Grand Slam event: Andy Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open.

The last American man to appear in the final of a Grand Slam event: Andy Roddick at Wimbledon five years ago.

The last American man to appear in a SEMIFINAL of a Grand Slam event: Andy Roddick at Wimbledon five years ago.

And here, if you are an American tennis fan, will be the most depressing chart you will see for a while. Here are the countries represented in the men’s quarterfinals in the last 10 Grand Slam events. Remember these are just the quarterfinals:

Spain: 21 Serbia: 10 Switzerland: 9 Great Britain: 9 France: 8 Czech Republic: 6 Argentina: 4 Germany: 3 Poland: 3 Bulgaria: 1 Canada: 1 Croatia: 1 Japan: 1 Latvia: 1 United States: 0

Of course, one player makes all the difference -- Serbia’s 10 appearances are all Novak Djokovic. We’ll get back to that point in a minute with the U.S. women. It is still stunning that no American man has been good enough the last 10 grand slams to get to the quarters a grand slam. As recently as 1995, FIVE of the eight U.S. Open quarterfinalists were American.

For a long time, it seemed like it was a happier story for American’s tennis on the women’s side, but it might just be that Serena Williams’ greatness masked the same issue. Williams won her first grand slam way back in 1999 -- her endurance and ability to still be the No. 1 ranked player as she approaches 33 years old is inspiring. But it’s also revealing -- the last American woman to make a grand slam final NOT named Serena Williams was ... Venus Williams, who played her sister at in the 2009 Wimbledon championships.

The last American non-Williams sister to reach a final? Lindsey Davenport back at Wimbledon in 2005. She lost to Serena Williams.

Right now, other than Serena, there is not a single American ranked in the Top 15. Sloane Stephens, who showed a lot of promise in reaching the semifinal at the Australian Open last year, has been in a big slump; she’s ranked 18th. The next American is Madison Keys, who is 30th. Then comes, yep, Venus Williams, who is a year older than Serena.

This is not meant to be so America-centric -- America dominated tennis for a long time and there was no reason to expect that to last forever. Tennis is a worldwide sport and you would hope for great players to come from all over the world. For a long time America dominated tennis to an almost suffocating degree; from 1972-1987 American women won all but two Wimbledons, all but two U.S. Opens and the lions share of French Opens too. Meanwhile, six different American men have won since the Open Era began and seven have been ranked No. 1 in the world. The fact that great players are coming from all over the world now is great for the sport.

But this American fall is still pretty striking. Inside the tennis community there seem to be dozens of theories about why no American players can break through -- theories about youth tennis, theories about the college tennis system, theories about the lack access American kids have to clay courts, theories about the sort of instruction necessary to develop world class players, theories about how the superior young athletes who were growing up playing tennis are now playing soccer and basketball and so on. There are some who say that the U.S. Tennis Association is not keeping up with the times. There are some who say that the grueling dedication it takes from a young age to become a world class player doesn’t really match up with our idea of the American childhood.

I don’t know. I have a friend who is pretty involved in youth tennis, and he says that there is a wave of young Americans coming up who have a chance to be pretty special. He tends to believe it’s all cyclical and this is just a down period. “It will come back up,” he says. Maybe so. But I also think about what Jimmy Arias said when talking about American tennis. Arias had a good career -- reaching the semifinal of the U.S. Open in 1983 and the quarters at the French Open the next year -- that was overlooked because there were so many good American tennis players then.

“Can you name the third-highest ranked American?” he challenged the crowd. No one could. Then it was someone named Bradley Klahn. Now? Well, I went to the list and kept going ... and going .. .and going. John Isner is ranked 11th in the world. The next American? Samy Querrey. He’s 67th. The third is the mercurial Donald Young at 69.

“It’s a problem,” Arias said.