Tim O’Sullivan: Net losses for American men’s tennis
John Isner eyes a backhand against Rafael Nadal, from Spain, during the finals match at the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013, in Mason, Ohio. Nadal won 7-6 (8), 7-6 (3). (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
Sam Querrey of the US reacts after losing a point to compatriot Brian Baker during their second round match at the Australian Open tennis championship in Melbourne, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013. (AP Photo/Andrew Brownbill)
John Isner volleys against Rafael Nadal, from Spain, during the finals match at the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament on Sunday, Aug. 18, 2013, in Mason, Ohio. Nadal won 7-6 (8), 7-6 (3). (AP Photo/Al Behrman)
The great hope for American men’s tennis during the last decade hasn’t been some young phenom with a gifted game. It’s been an idea, the belief that these things go in cycles.
No American man has been ranked No. 1 since Andy Roddick held the spot for 13 weeks in 2003. There was a distant hope that a new generation would join Roddick and fill the void left by the stars of the 1990s – Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. But there hasn’t been a cycle, only a downward spiral.
When Roddick fell out of the top 10 in the summer of 2010, it was the first time in the history of the ATP rankings, which started in 1973, that the United States didn’t have a man in the top 10. Things have only gotten worse since then. No American man reached the second week of Wimbeldon for the first time in 101 years earlier this summer, and when the U.S. Open begins tomorrow, only two Americans will be among the 32 seeds – No. 12 John Isner and No. 26 Sam Querrey – and that’s only after a shocking run from Isner last week in Cincinnati.
When Isner lost in the first round of the Rogers Cup in Montreal back on Aug. 6, it dropped him to No. 22, which marked another low point in this downward spiral. It was the first time ever that no American man had been in the top 20. Isner rebounded with his run at the Western & Southern Open in Cincinnati, beating the No. 11 (Richard Gasquet), No. 10 (Milos Raonic), No. 1 (Novak Djokovic) and No. 7 (Juan Martin Del Potro) players in the world before eventually falling to No. 3 (Rafael Nadal) in the finals.
While Isner’s run was impressive, its uniqueness and who it came against actually underscore some of the major reasons why American tennis has experienced such a drastic decline.
First, and perhaps foremost, four of those five players that Isner beat were all brought up on clay courts. Only Raonic, who was raised in Canada, developed his game on hard courts, which is by far the predominant surface in the U.S. This is a problem because the modern game has become more of a clay-type affair, dominated by grinding rallies, defense and spin, and the Americans simply don’t have as much experience with that kind of play.
“It seemed like we dominated for 30 years, but then the rally game took and all these players from Europe and South America were growing up on the clay and the game is taught differently over there,” said Greg Coache, who coaches both the men’s and women’s tennis teams at Southern New Hampshire University, the Concord High girls’ tennis team, and recently interviewed for the Boston Lobsters coaching job. “They get consistency and footwork first, and then build power, and Americans don’t have that. So all these kids from the clay started taking over, and we just don’t have many of those courts here.”
More powerful and forgiving rackets, strings that deliver highly increased spin and softer balls have played a major role in the game’s transformation. But it’s not just the style that’s become more “clay-ish,” the other surfaces have also been changed to play slower, like clay. The hard courts have become more granulated and the type of grass used on the courts at Wimbledon has been modified to decrease the pace.
“We did that at Southern New Hampshire when we resurfaced our courts there,” Coache said. “We used granulation to make sure it was slightly slower, and I think that is tennis today.”
Slowing the game down means players need to be more patient, a fact that is ingrained in young players from Europe and South America at a young age. But most U.S. players, Isner among them, have been raised to put power and aggression first, like Coache said. That strategy can work over a short period of time, as Isner showed in Cincinnati, but it’s difficult to maintain, especially if you don’t have an off-the-charts serve like the 6-foot-10 Isner.
The modern game also requires more elite athletic ability than tennis has ever seen. European countries, especially Spain, recognized this shift back in the 1990s and began developing players who not only showed tennis skill, but also world-class quickness, speed, endurance and mental toughness. And now it takes that blend of precise strokes, explosive physical abilities and a steel will to ascend to the game’s highest level, which is why just four players – Djokovic, Nadal, Roger Federer and Andy Murray – have won 33 of the last 34 Grand Slam titles. The only other winner is Del Potro, who is a freakish 6-6 athlete himself.
The increased popularity of tennis in Europe and South America almost guaranteed that Americans wouldn’t spend as much time atop the men’s rankings like they did during its first 30 years of existence, when Jimmy Connors (268 weeks at No. 1) and John McEnroe (170 weeks) passed the torch to Sampras (286 weeks), Agassi (101 weeks) and Courier (58 weeks).
And that problem has built upon itself over the last decade.
Young athletes in Europe, both east and west, and South America have inspiring tennis role models. Not only are young athletes in the U.S. lacking American tennis stars to look up to, they also have a much wider range of sports to chose from. An elite athlete in this country knows he is much more likely to find fame and fortune, or at least a college scholarship, if he pursues a career in football, basketball or baseball, as opposed to tennis.
The United States Tennis Association is trying to stop this downward spiral. It has broadened its youth program to bring more young and diverse athletes into the game. It has added clay courts at some of the national training centers for the elite juniors, and added more junior clay court tournaments in general. It has also changed its overall coaching philosophy to adapt to the modern game, although some critics believe a homogenous and nationally mandated approach to coaching will actually hinder the rise of the next superstar in an individual sport like tennis.
In general, however, the USTA appears to be headed in the right direction. The problem is the changes probably won’t be felt for at least another decade, maybe two.
“The USTA seems to be on it right now,” Coache said, “but when the results come from these conversions, I don’t know, it might take 15 years.”
So for now, American fans can hope for the best from Isner and Querrey, who are both likeable personalities and entertaining players, but not good bets to become the first American men to win a Grand Slam since Roddick won the U.S. Open back in 2003.
“Isner has come a long way, but he’s too inconsistent,” Coache said. “It’s hard to put your hopes on him.”
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)