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Friday, February 13, 2009
Reason to celebrate in San Jose

For a moment, it seems just like old times for American tennis again. Five U.S. men are now lodged in the quarterfinals of the SAP Open in San Jose: Andy Roddick, James Blake, Mardy Fish, Sam Querrey and Todd Widom. Wait, there's more good news! Widom's unexpected win came at the expense of yet another American player, Taylor Dent.

Of course, you can put these results down to about as fine an example of "home-court" advantage as you could find -- the SAP Open is played indoors, on a fairly fast surface, in the state that has produced more great U.S. pros than any other among them in the Open era: Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras, Stan Smith, Bob Lutz, Jimmy Connors, Eliot Teltscher, the Bryan brothers and the grand old dame herself, Billie Jean King. The vibe -- and don't ever underestimate the power of the vibe -- for Americans at San Jose has always been excellent.

The best of Thursday's wins was posted by Roddick, who's gunning for a record fifth single's title at San Jose. He took out the up-and-coming, inconsistent-but-always-dangerous Ernests Gulbis in two crisp sets. This is a good place for Roddick to build up a little momentum in his latest and newest effort to scramble back into a conversation currently dominated by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. You know, the conversation called "Grand Slam contenders."

You have to hand it to Roddick, and not in the way that Roger Federer usually does: The guy has been a model of diligence, determination, hope and spirit. You would think that in a sport in which results are so highly quantified, in black-and-white terms -- in tennis, you can't ever pin the blame on a loss, a slump or a poor record on the failings of your teammates, a coach, or anyone else -- there would be little room for sympathy or empathy among the competitors. But if you want to hear the best defense of Roddick's character as a player, you need only go to his nemesis, the self-same Federer.

Shortly before improving his record over Roddick to 16-2 at the Australia Open, Federer said this of Andy: "He's one of my generation who was able to stay at this [high] level for, what is it five, six years now? … That's rock solid."

Maybe what once was called "the American game" -- a style based on serve-and-volley tennis, emphasizing power over finesse and all-court expertise -- is dead. It's certainly interesting that even among the best of the dwindling number of American Grand Slam contenders, nobody practices that game any more (which is less a personal choice than a tribute to the slowing of the courts and the rise in the prestige of clay-court events). Some fans and pundits celebrate the passing of that game, because they find today's game more varied and exciting. But the timing couldn't have been much worse.

Like most catastrophic events, the collapse of the American game doesn't have a single root cause. Rather, it's a combination of factors: the explosion of the game globally; the slowing of surfaces; even a certain "excellence fatigue" on the heels of the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi era. So you have not only a lost generation, but a lost tradition, too.

That makes me sympathize that much more with Roddick and company. I'm ready to celebrate just about any triumph for American tennis, and five guys in the quarters of a big tournament is good enough reason for me.