Saturday, September 8, 2007

U.S. Open highlights plight of American tennis

By Scott Cavanagh
This year marked the 30th anniversary of the United States Open tennis championships being played at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York.

(View Bark Back News' exclusive photos from the 2007 Open)

The Center, now called the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, was built during a period of time known as the "tennis boom" -- a time when tennis dominated the international sports landscape and American stars named Connors, Evert, McEnroe, Ashe, Austin and Gerulaitis dominated the world rankings.

Those days seemed more like a hundred years ago this week, as both the men's and women's finals were played without an American participant. It has now been four years since an American man has raised the trophy of our national tournament and five years since an American woman has even reached the final.

While those results don't seem to have affected the popularity of the Open itself (the tournament drew a record 700,000 fans) they do reflect the state of American tennis at the professional level since the retirements of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and the recent injury problems of both Serena and Venus Williams.

Entering this year's Open, only two American men -- 2003 champion Andy Roddick and James Blake -- were ranked in the top 40 players in the world, while only the Williams sisters held places in the women's top 50.

"We can look at things from a positive view if we wish to," U.S. Junior Tennis Coach Steve Harris said. "The Williams sisters are the current title holders at both Wimbledon and the Australian Open, we should not forget that. But they are veterans now and fully admit they don't see themselves playing for that long, and it's hard to consider Blake, and to a certain extent Roddick as real contenders for major championships. What we need to worry about is what's coming up throughout the system. Can we still build American-born champions?"

There are many roadblocks to that goal. Fiscal concerns have led to the elimination of tennis programs in hundreds of public high schools, taking the game even further away from average Americans and re-enforcing the image of tennis as an elitist, country club game -- an image the game does not have in other parts of the world -- particularly Europe and South America.

In addition, the massive growth of youth soccer programs over the past 20 years has siphoned off a large number of athletes of both sexes that were not inclined to play football and basketball.

"There was a time when tennis was a real option for kids that were athletic, but not football or basketball players," Harris said. "Now kids start with soccer first, so when the time comes to choose a sport, those that don't gravitate to our big sports choose soccer."

There are bright spots however. Donald Young, the top-ranked american junior for the past three years, who has struggled playing professional tournaments over the past two years, won two rounds at this year's Open, gaining his first wins in a Grand Slam event. At the same time, John Isner, a 6' 9" mountain of a man, slammed his way into the fourth round only months after completing an outstanding college career at Georgia.

"There are so many options out there for kids to both play and watch now," said Harris. "Everything from NASCAR to ultimate fighting get much more air time and unfortunately higher ratings than tennis, so it's a little bit like the chicken and the egg. We need to develop strong players with compelling personalities to increase interest and exposure for the sport, but if no one sees them, it doesn't matter. What we need is a champion like Federer that just wins so much you can't help but pay attention, of course that's easier said than done."


Carter McCoy said...

I think many tennis fans overpaly how weak our efforts have been. It's only been a few short yaesr since Agassi and Sampras were dominating the world. Heck, Roddick was number one just three years ago.

Michael Hart said...

Mr. Harris makes some good points about why American tennis has fallen behind in producing tennis champs but many of those arguments/problems have been around for years - including during years of American dominance in Grand Slam tourneys - so there has to be more to the recent slide.
I do not buy into the youth soccer argument; American soccer (particularly on the men's side) has as many problems as American tennis and our men's national team has not had much worldwide success. Youth soccer programs have been going strong in this country for years yet American soccer is not in great shape; especially on the pro level.
Also, I question Mr. Harris' statement that soccer is a top preference for kids, outside of the major American sports.While soccer can provide an avenue for some college scholarships, it is not a path to financial success - pro soccer in this country is only marginally popular - and I do not believe that top young American athletes are choosing soccer.
No, I believe much of the blame for America's recent tennis dropoff has to fall with the USTA; many times the USTA seems to preoccupied with nurturing established talented than with cultivating new talent.
Also, let us remember that American tennis dominance is cyclical; right now Men's tennis has an all-time great in Roger Federer dominating the tour and the Slams. If he was not in the picture Andy Roddick could very well have three or four Slam titles right now and we would not be talking about what's wrong with American tennis.
One last point: Mr. Harris says we need a champion like Mr. Federer; we just had one in Pete Sampras and yet his great achievements were largely overlooked by top American sportswriters and publications. If Mr Sampras' achievements and sportsmanship/class had been played up - as they should have been - perhaps tennis in this country would be more popular right now and more top young athletes would have played the sport and more American tennis champs would have been produced.