The top-seeded American man lost in the French Open, which shouldn’t be a surprise, since American men lose in tennis all the time and the women don’t do much better, at least women not named Williams.
It’s a sad fact that American tennis is in a sad state of affairs. With the occasional exception of Venus and/or Serena Williams, the United States has become a non-player when it comes to playing professional tennis. In the latest ATP rankings, only one American man cracks the Top 10 (Mardy Fish, at No. 10) and, even worse, only two other Americans even make the Top 50 (John Isner at No. 11 and Andy Roddick at No. 30).
Isner was seeded 10th at the French Open, the highest of any U.S. man, before getting beaten by unseeded Paul-Henri Mathieu of France on Thursday.
It’s even worse on the women’s side. In the most recent WTA rankings, only two Americans made it into the Top 40 – Serena Williams (No. 5) and Christina McHale (No. 36). Then both Williams sisters got bounced early in this week’s French Open, although they weren’t the only ones – 20 Americans started the French Open and only three remained going into Friday’s action.
This decline of American tennis has been going on for a while now and the last time an American man won a Grand Slam event was 10 years ago. Here are the four Grand Slam tournaments and the last time an American man won it — U.S. Open: Pete Sampras, 2002; Wimbledon: Pete Sampras, 2001; French Open: Andre Agassi, 1999; A$ustralian Open: Andre Agassi, 2002.
So we’re talking a decade of decay in a sport that Americans used to dominate. If you’re of a certain age you remember when this country ruled tennis, or at least had a claim to the throne. And not only did Americans win major championships, they did it with energy and emotion. Was there anything more fun to watch back in the 1970s and ‘80s than a Jimmy Connors-John McEnroe match? Or was anything more intriguing to watch than a match between either of those two and Bjorn Borg, the smooth Swede whose ice was a sharp contrast to the fire of Connors and McEnroe.
There are still terrific players out there, of course, and it could be argued that the best male players of all time have been the ones dominating the sport in the last five years. But it’s a fact that most Americans don’t care unless there are Americans involved. And that’s why interest in tennis seems to be at an all-time low right now.
And when we talk about most Americans, we’re talking about the ones who aren’t tennis fanatics, maybe even some who never picked up a racket in their lives. There are rabid tennis fans in the U.S., but almost all of them have played the game and a sport can’t enjoy widespread popularity unless it goes beyond that. Look at an NFL game. Of the 60,000 fans at a football game, how many ever laced up a pair of shoulder pads?
Despite all its efforts, tennis has never managed to get past the country club set in terms of popularity. They’ve certainly tried and they’ve had some success. Tennis programs are constantly reaching past that elite group of fans, including programs that have been established in inner cities. And those programs have had an impact, but it’s been on more of a one-on-one basis, as opposed to the mass appeal the sport needs.
That’s why the Delaware Smash struggled to find widespread support during its World Team Tennis tenure here. General manager Jeff Harrison and his team did everything possible to make it a success, but it never really captured local fans’ imaginations. Even though Team Tennis is geared toward the common fan, it was still mostly hardcore tennis fans who showed up to watch. And even then, the real draw was usually some blast from the past like McEnroe.
That, more than anything else, is what American tennis needs — a dynamic champion. Tennis needs a Tiger Woods, somebody everybody wants to watch even if they don’t know a wedge from a putter. The Williams sisters have done that for the women, but we don’t know anybody who’s going to tune in just to watch John Isner lose to somebody who has a hyphen in his first name.
Contact Kevin Noonan at firstname.lastname@example.org.