Of the final 16 players vying for the men’s title at the US Open tennis tournament now in its second week, only one – Jack Sock – was an American (he lost).
The paucity of Americans in the latter stages of the men’s draw is by no means unusual for the Open or any of the four major tennis championships, and this year there was actually a good slug of domestic players in both the men and women’s brackets.[i]
That’s certainly a positive signal for US tennis fanatics and the dwindling cadre of sports writers who still care – and periodically wring hands, Groundhog Day-style – about the “future of US tennis.”
Of course, America has technically dominated the women’s game for a generation, thanks to the sisters Williams – Venus and Serena, the latter arguably the greatest player the game – man, woman or child – has ever seen.
But two sisters does not a national tennis movement make. These women are 34 and 36 years old (Serena won her first major as a teen, 17 years ago) and their success has not translated into new waves of super elite American tennis pros lining up to take their place at the top of the sport.
Producing top ten talent has been a decade-plus priority for the United States Tennis Association (USTA). Despite extensive planning with the sport’s greatest minds and being home to the best teaching academies in the world, America struggles to produce top ten players. No American other than a Williams has won a major championship since Andy Roddick in 2003.
It is unclear that a nation like ours can or should “produce” champions in tennis or any other sport. The glory days of American tennis – the late 60s through the mid-80s – had nothing to do with central planning.
I recently came across a photograph of a group of pros who had come together for the late 70s opening of the La Quinta tennis center in southern California, a murderer’s row of American tennis’ bygone glory days: Roscoe Tanner, Bob Lutz, Marty Riessen, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Harold Solomon, Eddie Dibbs … and that didn’t even include Brian Gottfried or Vitas Gerulaitis, not to mention McEnroe or Connors.
None of these players were cultivated by any national system; most of these guys grew up playing pickup games on public courts. Tennis happened to be the family business for 1970’s female champions like Chris Evert and Tracy Austin.
But the international competition in those salad years was, well, pretty weak. Sure, there were some veteran Aussies and Latin American clay specialists but the US was rich and the rest of the world rebuilding from the war, with little resources or inclination to build tennis facilities nor suit up in the old whites for a few sets at the club.
The America of the 60s and 70s was a place where tennis carried a certain cachet, an element of upward mobility that fueled its popularity. Social tennis was a thing in corporate America, with big companies sponsoring tournaments and hosting pro ams with celebs like Johnny Carson and OJ Simpson to schmooze customers in sunny Florida and California resorts.
In today’s parlance, tennis had major crossover appeal.
Park courts across the country were filled with hustlers and hackers and self-appointed coaches running clinics for local kids. I remember waiting lists for a turn on the courts at suburban high schools like Brandywine and Mt. Pleasant (winner stays!).
The legendary Battle of the Sexes pitting Billy Jean King against Bobby Riggs in the Houston Astrodome signaled the sport’s cultural moment in America, a period that spawned the 80’s tennis academy era. That 24-7 Bollettieri-industrial complex presaged today’s specialized, year-round-sports (formerly known as “travel teams,” a term you hardly hear anymore because the concept has become the norm). Soon, 14-year-olds were turning pro and academy products like Sampras, Agassi and Courier were winning majors.
But few of these guys seemed to be having much fun. (Agassi admitted he sometimes hated the sport.) Jennifer Capriotti, who had turned pro at 13, became the poster child for burnout when she encountered a string of unfortunate problems after several disappointing years on tour.
For some youngsters, the pressure from parents and coaches and the solitary grind of junior tournament life can make tennis a lonely, isolating game. Unlike other individual sports like gymnastics and swimming, tennis is a mano a mano enterprise, a dynamic that anyone who has played competitively will attest can really mess with your head. These factors may have something to do with the sport’s reduced attraction for young American athletes at a time when team sports like soccer and lacrosse gained momentum.[ii]
Meanwhile, the rest of the world caught up to the US – and then some. Today, college rosters across the country are filled with kids from places like Croatia, Serbia and even Great Britain.
In Delaware, many schools are failing to field squads and some have dropped the program altogether, leaving the same few (largely private) schools to compete for the state crown.
The data on tennis’s popularity in the US is a bit mixed – the USTA says league play is on the rise but the tennis industry gives a less clear picture of junior engagement, reporting that overall participation is down but the numbers of serious (ie, competitive) players is on the rise. Some regional professional tournaments struggle to gain sponsors and ticket-buyers; this summer we were able to get great center court seats at a good price just a week out from the quarterfinals of the Citi Open in Washington, DC.
There are undoubtedly bright spots for US tennis. The US Open continues to draw massive crowds and is one of the most thrilling and electric events on the annual American sports calendar. In addition to the strong number of entrants this year, up-and-comers like Madison Keyes are expected to compete for major titles (alas, she lost this weekend). Last year, American males did splendidly in the junior Grand Slams, winning or making the finals of the French Open and Wimbledon. Of course, Delaware’s own Madison Brengle has put together a pretty nifty top-50 tennis career for herself – one of the most amazing accomplishments in the annals of Delaware sports.
Like golf, tennis has become a globalized sport and some cultures and countries have taken to it with great vigor and success. The problem with US tennis isn’t so much a lack of individual grit or desire or national strategy but more likely a lack of exposure, access and interest. Team sports like football, baseball, volleyball and basketball are incredibly well organized at the community level and they offer easy camaraderie and social endorsement. They are generally also more affordable and require less personalized instruction and training than tennis (although that seems to be changing in these sports too).[iii] Other sports like rowing and squash have increasing appeal to affluent households with (for now) better prospects for college scholarships for the truly talented.
The point is, there are a lot of really compelling options competing for the hearts, minds and bodies of young American athletes. One or two major US stars alone (ie, Serena Williams) won’t change the sport’s positioning in that lineup (although a corollary worth noting as the Williams and “Big 4” era ebbs is that an absence of dynamic, recognizable players certainly won’t help the sport’s popularity).
Delaware has a thriving tennis community with both adults and juniors who enjoy each other’s company and share a commitment to growing the sport and bringing it to kids who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity to play. The state has phenomenal facilities, both public and private. And the strength of USTA leagues here and elsewhere show that tennis is indeed a life sport – how many 40 and 50 and 60-year-olds really still play serious hoops or soccer?
These natural assets will continue to sustain and boost the timeless sport.
We are a giant country with an enormous population of great athletes. It is that kind of firepower makes me believe – despite recent challenges – that we are emerging into a new day in American tennis where more than a few kids on courts across the country today, fueled by an ambition to be their country’s next great player, will ultimately take their place at the top of the game.
[i] Hockey is a good example of a team sport whose US popularity has soared in recent decades – serious costs and time spent traveling and getting up early notwithstanding