Where Did Our Love Go? The Demise (or Rise) of American Tennis
If you have watched any of the major tennis tournaments on TV the few past years, you may be wondering, “Where are all the Americans?” Sadly, the majority of them have either packed their bags and gone home, or moved on to the next tour stop before even reaching the second round. There has been much talk this year about the sorry state of American tennis, particularly men’s tennis. For example, no American male has won Wimbledon since 2000 (Sampras) or the US Open since 2003 (Roddick), and only one American male reached as high as the quarterfinals of a major tournament this year (Roddick in the Australian Open).
At one time, there was no shortage of American men reaching the quarterfinals of any one of the major tournaments. For the last few decades, Connors, McEnroe, Courier, Agassi, and Sampras dominated the rankings; in fact, it was highly unusual (and unlikely) if one of them did not reach the finals. As the greats retired one by one, the torch was passed to Andy Roddick and James Blake, who have both had their ups and downs and have more than likely already peaked. Next in line are the likes of Sam Querrey, Jon Isner, and Mardy Fish (although at 28 he’s probably too old to win a major title) all ranked in the top 20.
American women have fared a bit better, but there is concern. The Williams sisters have been on top so long that we seem to take them for granted and assume that they’ll always be there. Yet, Venus’ career appears to be slowing down, and Serena’s injuries have prevented her from playing some key tournaments. We’ve hardly heard from Melanie Oudin, the next ranked American woman, at all this year. She was the darling at last year’s US Open where she reached the quarterfinals, only to run into Serena. Vania King is coming along; however, she hasn’t survived many first round matches in any of this year’s majors.
Perhaps, we should look at the next generation behind Querrey, Isner, and Oudin to define the future of American tennis. Upcoming players such as Ryan Harrison, Denis Kudla, and Jack Sock are all American juniors who sampled success at this year’s US Open. And don’t forget America’s Junior Fed Cup team, which recently placed 4th in the world team championships and included Kyle McPhillips and Krista Hardebeck.
So, what’s going on? Of course, there is no single reason why we’re experiencing a drought of success. One argument is that the sport appeals to a more global audience, making it unlikely that one country will rule the game as it did in the past. Another is that America’s top athletes aren’t taking up the game. There is a lot of competition among other sports such as soccer, basketball, football, even lacrosse; all vying for the country’s top athletes. According to Kurt Kamperman, Chief Executive of the United States Tennis Association’s Community Tennis program, the biggest challenge is to get kids to compete in the 10-and-under age group. The Quick Start Program, launched in 2008, puts younger kids on smaller courts using smaller balls. (Baseball and soccer both have programs for younger children that use smaller fields and smaller balls). Starting in 2012, 10-and-under competitions will use this format. The United States Tennis Association believes that this move will not only attract more players but also create a larger pool from which to draw.
Maybe, then, our hope lies in the NEXT, next generation behind Querrey, Isner, and Oudin.
Ms. Smith is a former playing and tennis teaching professional. She is currently the Associate Dean of Continuing Education at the United States Sports Academy.