Where Did All the Americans Go?

This week, the tennis headline on most major sports news outlets is that for the first time ever there are not American players in the top 10 of both the ATP Tour and the WTA Tour. It's truly a shame, as Americans have been dominant in the game, on both sides, since World War II.

Yes, this clearly points to a lack of homegrown talent. While many still say we need more academies, I say less. Americans are individuals, and that is the way we, as a sports nation, tend to excel. You see it in just about every sport right now with the exception of American football and basketball, as there still are no huge academies and very few "schools" of thought on how to play.

Baseball? Everyone now has that derived swing that started with Charley Lau and the game has emphasized offense over defense to such a large degree that it is nearly impossible to find one player with a unique, individual style that sets him apart from the rest. It is for this reason that Major League Baseball is now dominated by non-American players.

Once you come up with a system and you make it the rule and not the exception, Americans cannot compete. Here in the U.S. we stress education and life balance. So the typical American kid has to go to school, work a job, then practice his sport. If he is lucky, he doesn't have to work, but still has to go to school and do his chores. Meanwhile, the kids in the Dominican Republic barely get an education and then just play baseball all day, everyday, and do it in the same "academy" style that Americans have. It doesn't take a genius to see that if all you do is play a sport all day, from a young age, you will soon be the dominant player.

Tennis is now the same. If you look at the areas of the world where the top players in both tours are from, it is clear. Eastern Europe. The Baltics. Former communist countries. Like the Dominican Republic in baseball, they too have a population that still lags in education and also now a network of academies and foundations to push girls and boys into tennis. They play everyday, nearly all day.

Now people will tell me that most of the top players have gone to the academies in Spain, and to a degree they are right. So now these children (I've seen some as young as 5) not only have the weather to play all day, but also don't have the requirement to go to school and get a "thorough and efficient education." So what do you get? Seventy-five of the top 100 men and women in the game of tennis today.

But I digress, I did not start this article out to once again express my utter disdain for what Nick Bollettieri brought to the game of tennis. It is a great segue into my real point, that the individualism is now gone from the game, and that is what has put professional tennis on notice.

"Rugged individualism" used to be an American catch phrase. To a certain degree, it was the motto of the Australians, too. Tennis was always a game of the educated class, meant to be played as a hobby, then after college you played on the tour for a few years until you moved off into something much better. The top players of the game came from Down Under, America, France, and sprinkled with a few interesting rogues like Japan. Since each developed a game based on their location and free time — their "individualism" — you had an interesting cast of characters.

With the advent of Open tennis, the game became loaded with these characters. What made the game so great was not only the variety in games and players, but the amazingly high level of play from them all. They weren't cyborgs or clones, but individuals. It was this that put not only Americans in the top 10 for what seems to be forever, but also what made the game watchable. In the first year of Open tennis, you had players named Newcombe, Roche, Laver, Rosewall, Sexias, Gonzalez, Ashe, Smith, Lutz, Panatta, Olmedo, Ulrich, Emerson, Nastase, Tiriac, McKinley — the list goes on. In the very first year of Open tennis, there were so many stars, so many future hall of fame players, that you never knew who would win, but you knew each match was going to be to the death.

Just five years later, Jimmy Connors and Bjorn Borg would arrive, and the game was loaded. The top 25 was really a cream the game has not seen before or since. The women's game was similar, with Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Evonne Goolagong, Maria Bueno, and others. The playing field was thick, and all, with the exception of Evert, appeared after the completion of college or at least high school. For the men, going to college and winning the NCAA tournament used to be the signal you were ready for the men's tour.

The top 25 on both sides today are dominated by players whose names even the most ardent tennis fans will not know, or they will not know them as well as we knew Newk [John Newcombe] and the boys or Billie Jean and the Slims. That, more than any other single issue, is more critical to the game of tennis then the lack of Americans in the top 10. I love the WTA tour and prefer to watch women's tennis over men's, but the prospect of a Petra Kvitova/Victoria Azarenka quarter, semi, or final doesn't even get me excited, not even a little.

Same for the men. Watching another Novak Djokovic/Rafael Nadal match isn't exactly making me giddy, but then again, neither would a John Isner/Mardy Fish match. The closest thing to a real "star" and sort of American player on the women's side is Maria Sharapova, and she is back in the top 10, but no one really knows that. Maria is also getting "old" for women's tennis, based on today's standard of on the tour by 16 and out by 24.

So with the clay season at hand, and the game heading toward the French Open in just a couple of weeks, now should be an exciting time. There are a lot of players vying to get a shot at the title on the red clay of Roland Garros. For the first time ever, there isn't even an American mentioned in the mix. Interesting is the fact that Americans have rarely triumphed on the court at Stade Roland Garros, yet there is a sudden interest in the absence of an American contender.

The American tennis community has known this for the past decade. The ranks of superstars and up-and-comers are depleted and the ones anointed, like Donald Young, have never materialized. But why is the lack of American's in the top 100 now interesting? I think the reason the lack of top-10 American players is so compelling is that the rest of the game just isn't.

Comments and Conversation

May 18, 2011

Ash Messenger:

You’re right and you’re wrong. Right about the conformity. Wrong about Kvitova. She is the female Sampras-in-waiting. Has everything required and is about to bloom. She’ll be number one within fifteen to eighteen months, at the outside.
Conformity: every USTA kid in America is taught to hit the two-handed backhand, the western forehand and that’s about it. No allowance is made for kids whose limbs are articulated diffently that what is ideal for those strokes. No allowance is made for artistry. It’s McDonald’s tennis and it sucks. Kvitova is different. She hits and eastern forehand, steps INto the ball and moves forward at every opportunity. She thinks out there too. The USTA version denies individuality. Too bad. I’m happy to see Sharapova and Kvitova. I do not care whether they are Americans or Martians. It’s exciting tennis. All of this American conformity began with Borg’s strokes for the boys and Chrissie Evert’s for the girls. Today’s equipment is better and they hit harder, but they are not going to be champions. Pray for an odd ball dad like Agassi’s or a coach like Lansdorp, because the USTA cannot deliver the goods.

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