Friday, March 2, 2012

Trying Times For American Tennis

By Kevin Beane

Since the beginning of the year, I have been watching a ton of tennis. I can't really explain why; I've always said I'm happy to follow any sport that gets enough media coverage to follow besides auto racing and cricket. The football season was more or less over, and since I suffered a gap in employment, I had swaths of time during the day to watch sports. Tennis filled these swaths.

Don't get me wrong, I've been following tennis since I was a kid, but mostly as a passive observer. Then I came to realize that tennis is a good sport for someone who likes sports gluttony.

To wit: instead of just 1-2 tournaments a week as in golf, there are typically several (except during the majors) going on at once. In addition to the main men's tour, there's also the quasi-minor league "Challenge Tour." But it's not really a minor league; players who are staples on the main tour will frequently dip down to the Challenger circuit for a variety of reasons (they get an invitation, it's a tournament in their home country, they prefer the surface to the ones on the main tour that week, etc.), which makes the Challenger events eminently watchable.

This week is a great example of the surfeit of tournaments. There are eight tourneys taking place (three on the main tour, five on the Challenger tour) in eight different locales (United States, Dubai, Mexico, France, Morocco, Singapore, Colombia, and Brazil) for the men, which has been my focus (sorry, ladies). How fun it must be for a touring pro who enjoys travel; what country do I want to visit this week?

I tried to give tennis a real "shot" before, a place in my mind-shelves cluttered by other sports, in my teens. It didn't really take at the time.

This time around, there has been one hindrance to overcome: It's a crappy, crappy time to be a fan of U.S. players. Andy Roddick is in the twilight of his career and is getting knocked off frequently by lower-seeded players. Another thing about Roddick: did you know he has won just one major? As that passive observer, with the publicity he gets, I would have figured he's won at least three or four.

Indeed, he's not even the highest-ranked American player anymore. That would be Mardy Fish, at this writing ranked 8th in the world.

He will not be 8th for long. At the Australian Open, he was the only top-10 seed not to make it to the third round. Last week in Rotterdam, he lost to a player ranked in the 300s. This week in Dubai, he was the only seeded (top-eight) player not to reach the quarterfinals. He's also in his 30s.

It's also been a disappointing year, results-wise, for most of the other American mainstays of the tour: Ryan Sweeting, Donald Young, Sam Querrey, Michael Russell. Ryan Harrison has fared only marginally better.

The lone bright spot, at least in terms of the immediate future, is John Isner. Isner registered in the global consciousness two years ago when he played in that Wimbledon match that lasted days and shattered every record for long tennis matches, but he might be close to being famous for titles instead.

He's huge (6'6") with a monster serve, and he was the anchor to the one oasis of accomplishment in a bitterly disappointing start of the year for the Americans.

In the first round of the Davis Cup, the United States played Switzerland, in Switzerland, on a surface (clay) that Americans are known to struggle on. More distressingly, the Swiss have Roger Federer on their side, which pretty much meant that, in this best-of-five matchup, the U.S. would need to win all three of their non-Federer matches, 'cause they had no chance in those two.

Mardy Fish, in The Only Good Thing He's Done This Year, ousted Stanislas Wawrinka, no slouch, in a five-set marathon to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. The second match was Isner vs. Federer.

Isner handed a Federer a four-set defeat, in what Isner called the greatest win of his career, and the U.S. went on to win all five matches to advance to the second round.

You know I love upsets, and those are very hard to come by in tennis these days. The four semifinalists in the Australian Open? The top four seeds. The finals? The top two seeds, won by the No. 1 seed. So Isner's victory was great for two reasons: it pretty much gave the United States the victory, and has been the only loss suffered so far this year by the top four when not playing each other (those four are Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, Federer, and Andy Murray).

There's one other American who has had some success this year, but it comes with a very large asterisk. Wayne Odesnik won a Challenger event in Colombia, one of only two Americans to win a Challenger-or-above tournament this year (the other was Jesse Levine in Dallas against a mostly American field). Odesnik was arrested in 2010 in Australia after customs officials found 8 vials of human growth hormone on him. He was banned from tennis for 14 months as a result, and upon his return is persona non grata among tennis fans, who cherish a sport where doping offenses are relatively rare.

But I will cheer for him, as I do all Americans, because I like rooting for guys no one else will root for, and I believe in second chances. After all, I gave tennis one.

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