The sad state of American tennis

John Isner is 15th in the ATP rankings, but he did not get past the third round of the U.S. Open.    AL BELLO / Getty Images
John Isner is 15th in the ATP rankings, but he did not get past the third round of the U.S. Open.    AL BELLO / Getty Images
Posted: September 02, 2014

It's only halftime at the U.S. Open tennis tournament and the court once again has gone prematurely dark for the American men. Such is the state of a game once dominated by this country.

American golf may be in slight decline because of Tiger Woods' great fall and Rory McIlroy's meteoric rise, but it is in considerably better shape than its country-club cousin, tennis. It's not difficult to imagine Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth elevating their games to the point where they can challenge McIlroy as the world's best player, and just this year Bubba Watson won a major by claiming his second Masters title.

If you were born the same year an American man last won a major in tennis, you are now 10 or 11 years old. Based on the current landscape, there's an excellent chance you will graduate from high school and maybe even college without seeing an American man win one of the four major titles.

The top-ranked American man entering the U.S. Open was John Isner at No. 15, and he was eliminated in the third round Saturday. It marked the second consecutive year that no American male reached the Round of 16, which had happened exactly zero times from 1881 through 2012. Isner is 29 and has never advanced past the quarterfinals of any major, so he's not exactly the next great American hope for the sport.

The next-highest-ranked American man entering the Open was Donald Young, and you'd have to scroll down to No. 47 on the ATP rankings to find him. Spain, a country with about 264 million fewer people, has nine players ranked ahead of Young, who offers more hope to the 2014 Phillies than to the future of tennis in this country.

Here's how: At the age of 14, in the U.S. clay-court junior nationals, Young had a 5-0 lead in the third and final set and a 40-15 lead in the sixth game. As he served for the championship, the table with the winning trophy was being set up. The Chicago native proceeded to lose 23 consecutive points and the match. So all the Phillies need to do is get hot and wait for Washington to lose 23 in a row.

Steve Johnson, at No. 51, was the third-highest-ranked American behind Young going into the Open. The 24-year-old Californian had to retire in the first round because of severe cramps. He was able to walk off the court on his own, but the fact that a wheelchair was brought out for his assistance served as fitting symbolism for the state of American tennis.

Continue down the ATP rankings and you'll find Americans Jack Sock at 55, Sam Querrey at 57, and Tim Smyczek at No. 90 - all household names if you happen to live in their households.

Only the amazing Serena Williams has kept women's tennis from falling into the same abyss as that of the American men. The No. 1-ranked Williams, who will turn 33 this month, is in pursuit of her 18th Grand Slam title, which would push her into a fourth-place tie with legends Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert. For the fourth year in a row, however, Serena was the only American woman to reach the Round of 16 in the U.S. Open.

Her sister's decline at the age of 34 has removed some of the appeal from the overall Williams story, but at No. 20 Venus is still the second-highest-ranked American woman in the world.

There is no shortage of stories about the decline of American tennis. Google "the state of American tennis" and you'll get 199,000,000 options. There are interviews with Pete Sampras and Andre Aggasi, the last great American men. There are interviews with all sorts of people. There is plenty of blame to go around, with most of it focusing on the United States Tennis Association.

And there is a shortage of solutions to the problem. The consensus seems to be that not enough young Americans are playing tennis. An unscientific study of the number of times you see kids - or adults, for that matter - playing the game on your local courts probably would confirm that notion. There was a time it was difficult to find a court in the early evening hours.

A huge problem is that many of the best tournaments have been outsourced to other countries. When the U.S. Indoor Championships were held at Philadelphia's CoreStates Center (now the Wells Fargo Center) in 1998, a total of 18 ATP events were being staged in the United States. That number is down to 11 and, remarkably, there is only one event - the BNP Paribas Open in Indian Wells, Calif. - on the West Coast.

Exposure to more tournaments with great players certainly would help the state of the game in this country, but that requires corporate sponsorship, and international companies seem more interested than their American counterparts in the game of tennis.

So it may be quite some time before we see the next Sampras, Agassi, Connors, or McEnroe, and that's too bad.


bbrookover@phillynews.com

@brookob

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