James Blake at 28 years old is a late bloomer, only last year equaling his career-high ranking of No. 4 and remaining a perennial Top 10 player. And it has been almost five years since Andy Roddick hit his peak, but he is another Top 10 mainstay. This year Roddick has wins over the world’s Top 3 players in Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
On the American women’s side, this year Venus Williams won Wimbledon, and younger sister Serena captured the US Open title and re-took the No. 1 ranking.
And they’re saying U.S. tennis has a problem?
On the surface, U.S. tennis is humming along just as it has over the last few years — Roddick and Blake the flag carriers on the men’s side, and the Williams sisters and (the retired? retiring?) Lindsay Davenport on the women’s side.
But that’s also the problem: who’s next?
The upper echelon of men’s and women’s tennis has changed dramatically this year, but only the 27-year-old (old in tennis terms) Serena has played a part in it.
After spending half his career at the No. 2 rank, Rafael Nadal has finally taken the No. 1 rank from Roger Federer. Justine Henin’s abrupt retirement before the French Open left a void that has since been filled by Serbs Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic (Jankovic will regain the No. 1 rank this coming Monday).
The Williams sisters, with 15 Grand Slam singles titles between them, certainly have the skill sets to each challenge again for No. 1 — but more than 13 years of power-tennis pounding has taken its toll. Both Venus and Serena are more frequently injured than healthy, even if they can once in a while put together two weeks of injury-free play, as Venus did earlier this year in her impressive run at Wimbledon, and Serena at Flushing Meadows. The Williams sisters this year missed the entire US Open Series with injury, save for Serena who tried to play Stanford, retiring with a knee problem. At the Beijing Olympics, Venus made her first appearance since Wimbledon, with both sisters exiting in the quarterfinals. Venus is 28, and Serena is 27. This in an age where players rarely compete past the age of 30.
Fans can feel fortunate they’ve had the William sisters this long. Early in their careers when they both reigned at No. 1, their eccentric father Richard predicted they would retire in their mid-20s to pursue their various off-court career interests.
HERE COME THE NEW NO. 1 WOMEN
Maria Sharapova briefly attained No. 1 again after Henin’s retirement, followed by first-timers Ivanovic and Jankovic. Even Svetlana Kuznetsova was within reach twice this year, and Russian Dinara Safina will soon have a shot at the rate she has been collecting titles and Olympic medals in 2008.
The question remains, where are the next generation of U.S. women players?
If the Williams sisters were to retire with Davenport as of this writing, the U.S. would have no women in the Top 40, and three players in the Top 100 (including the 30+ Jill Craybas, and Ashley Harkleroad who is pregnant). In other words, by the time the Williams retire, U.S. women’s tennis will virtually retire with them.
It is a stark contrast to the glorious 1980s, when American women comprised half or more of the year-end Top 10 players from 1980 to ’85, and again in 1988. The rise of Davenport and the Williams sisters in the late ’90s brought about an American resurgence, and in 2001 the U.S. again ended the year with five in the Top 10.
But that’s when things began to dry up.
Former No. 1 Amelie Mauresmo twisted the knife in 2006, when no U.S. players finished the year in the Top 10, discussing the rise of global tennis and the numerous sports options for U.S. children besides tennis.
“That’s tough for you guys,” Mauresmo said. “I don’t know what is going on in the way of the USTA finding the next kid. You have basketball, baseball, you have a lot of other sports and tennis is suffering right now. We suffered in Europe a couple of years ago, it is much better now. It is difficult to produce champions decade after decade. You guys were lucky for 30 or 40 years.”
The U.S. men haven’t seen a Grand Slam singles champion for five years, since Roddick won his lone Slam title at the US Open, then briefly held the No. 1 ranking before Federer rose to prominence. The generation of Roddick, Blake, and contemporaries Mardy Fish, Robby Ginepri, etc., have faced extra scrutiny trying to follow up America’s “Greatest Generation” of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang, etc.
Agassi for one says you can’t ignore the fact that Federer, who many have already anointed the greatest player ever, has kept Roddick down.
“There are a lot of Slams that Roddick would’ve won had Federer not been there,” Agassi said. “Sometimes, it’s just unfortunate. He is a talent, he deserves to be out there at the top of the game.”
THE AMERICAN PRESSURE COOKER
Roddick claimed the No. 1 ranking on the strength of an explosive serve and punishing forehand. Since then he has struggled to meet the high standard set by Federer and Nadal, and lately by newcomer Novak Djokovic. A coaching stint with Jimmy Connors improved his backhand weakness, but failed to convert the top American into a consistent all-court player.
Roddick’s 2008 season has been maddeningly inconsistent. In February he won San Jose, and in March defeated Nadal and Djokovic en route to the Dubai title. At Indian Wells he lost first round to nemesis Tommy Haas, then in Miami beat Federer en route to the semifinals. At Wimbledon, where he reached the finals in 2004-05, Roddick made an uncharacteristic second-round exit, admitting to tightening-up when a fifth set was within his grasp.
“Any chance I got I pretty much just choked it,” Roddick said following a loss to Janko Tipsarevic. “That’s tough to deal with…It’s not an easy thing to say, but it’s pretty much what happened. I could sit here and try to dance around it all night, but you guys watched it. It was what it was. It’s like you want something so bad you almost squeeze too tight.”
“Choking,” or a lack of confidence, has touched all the top Americans this year, who like Roddick have experienced jubilant highs and frustrating lows. Blake beat Federer at the Olympics, but dropped two tournament finals to unheralded opponents, at Delray Beach (Kei Nishokori) and Houston (Marcel Granollers).
Fish beat Federer in Indian Wells — before losing 10 times in the first or second round through the Beijing Olympics. At Cincinnati this summer, Ginepri won the first set off Federer and served for the match in the second — before losing in a tiebreak, then losing the third set 6-0.
“Usually I would get pretty nervous or tight at that point,” Ginepri said. “From the first set on at 4-all, 5-4, my anxiety was at a pretty high level. So the looking across the net and seeing Roger and playing in a high stakes match, it’s tough.”
As opposed to the Williams sisters who are self-belief personified, the American men seem susceptible as any players to that fickle mistress — confidence.
“I think anytime you can develop as much confidence as possible going into a huge tournament, the better,” Fish said. “The main thing is you have to have confidence.”
Nadal and Federer, through their training regimens, have raised confidence to a new level. Rising Floridian Jesse Levine, on the verge of cracking the Top 100 prior to the US Open, saw Federer’s regimen up close last summer when he was invited to train with the Swiss in Dubai. He witnessed Federer grinding in the brutal Dubai heat, going through multiple practice partners in one day.
“He pushes himself so hard. I learned a lot,” Levine said. “I saw firsthand how he did his routine. He’s the best player in the world and to be able to witness that, I’m used to all kinds of situations now.”
One employee of professional tennis described the work ethic of some of the younger American players another way.
“I see the [lower ranked] American guys out at the bars during the week,” said the observer who travels in pro tennis, requesting anonymity. “You don’t see Rafa out at the bars, no way would uncle Toni [Nadal] let that happen. Same with Federer. Those guys are professional, they’re there to do a job.”
Perhaps that’s why part of the USTA’s new Elite Player Development Program includes the participants attending a mini-Marines training at Camp Pendleton in Southern California, where they’re put through a boot camp of military discipline. Welcome to the new tennis regiment.
THE USTA ANSWER
The mission of the USTA is in part “to promote and develop the growth of tennis, from the grassroots to the professional levels.” Over the last two years the organization has dedicated tens of millions of dollars in establishing USTA National Training Centers in Boca Raton, Fla., and Carson, Calif., to nurture future pros. They have also bought stakes in U.S. pro events, most recently Cincinnati.
The ATP and WTA tours have been shipping pro events out of the U.S., most recently San Diego on the women’s side and Las Vegas on the men’s side, to tennis-hungry countries in Asia and Europe. Fewer tennis events in the U.S. mean fewer wildcard opportunities for U.S. players, fewer tournaments on TV — less tennis all around. This is only one of the new approaches the USTA has taken to protect American tennis.
In terms of talent development, the old USTA approach was a staff of coaches working with traveling pros and juniors, leaving the boarding-school approach to the Bollettieri-type camps. Now the USTA is in the boarding-school business, as even Bollettieri isn’t cranking out the Agassis and Couriers as in years past. But the camps and academies in Europe are, leaving the U.S. with some catching-up to do with its new Elite Player Development Program, started in 2007.
“It’s a global sport now, it’s very competitive. It’s not easy out there,” Agassi said. “We rightfully should have [an American] atop the game and I think we still have some opportunities for that with the generation that we’re in, plus the younger ones coming up.”
The country that produced No. 1s Chris Evert, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Jennifer Capriati, etc., etc., expects a lot from each generation. There have been more than double the number of Americans to rank No. 1 than any other country. America is No. 1 in tennis — when you look at past statistics. Today Russia and Serbia are No. 1 in women’s tennis, while Federer (Switzerland), Nadal (Spain) and Djokovic (Serbia) will likely clog-up the top of the men’s game for years to come.
The U.S. became complacent in the ’90s and into the 21st century as the world tennis landscape changed, but the American system remained the same — waiting for one of the tennis factories to churn out another Agassi or Capriati, or hoping a Connors or Williams would materialize from the suburbs or inner-cities. But it never happened.
Experts acknowledge that the popularity of tennis in the U.S. depends a large part on putting Americans in big televised tournament finals. To illustrate the difficulty of the task ahead: this year, of the 10 tournaments comprising the US Open Series, all televised, only one final featured an American.
Patrick McEnroe, the new manager of the USTA Elite Player Development Program, says he has the answer.
“There’s really no secret in how to create tennis champions,” McEnroe told the New York Times this summer. “It’s actually very simple. You have to take talent and surround it with talent.”
Don’t forget that Florida institutions like Bollettieri, Evert, Saviano, etc., have been surrounding talent with talent for decades. Pledging to spend as much as $100 million over the next 10 years to produce the next generation of champions, the USTA is playing catch-up and American tennis fans are hoping that, as McEnroe says, it is truly that simple.
This story was updated from an article that originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. issue of Play Tennis Florida magazine.
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