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Monday, June 20, 2011
American tennis in a nosedive

By Pete Alfano

As Wimbledon unfolds and the top players in the world prepare to trample the well-manicured lawns of the All England Club, tennis fans may be wondering whether Americans should have bothered to enter this year.

Sure, defending champion Serena Williams is the No. 7 seed, and Andy Roddick and Mardy Fish are among the top 10 seeds on the men's side, but seedings can be deceiving.


Just take a look at the WTA rankings as of June 20. They're a virtual United Nations of women's tennis, with the top 10 players representing 10 countries. Conspicuous by their absence are any representatives from the United States. You have to scroll down to No. 25 to find Serena, and No. 30 to locate her sister Venus.

Americans fare better on the men's ATP tour, with Fish ranked No. 9 and Roddick No. 10. But the arrow has been pointing down on Roddick's career path, and the workmanlike Fish probably doesn't give Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer or Novak Djokovic any sleepless nights.

Perhaps Serena and/or Venus will overcome their latest bout of injuries, illness and inactivity to remind us how dominant they still can be. Keep in mind, however, that Serena will be 30 later this year, and Venus just turned 31 -- AARP age for tennis players.

As for Roddick, he is 28 and was thrashed by another Andy (Murray) in a Queen's Club grass court tuneup.

So exactly what is going on here? When did American tennis become MIA?

The easy answer is that the absence of dominant American men and women is cyclical. But there is also speculation that it's part of a trend in which tennis, already a niche sport, may become even less relevant in the years ahead.

"This is a growing challenge, but not a new issue," said Mark Miles, chief executive officer of the ATP for 15 years and now president of the Indianapolis Super Bowl XLVI Committee. "Even in 1990, we estimated 85 percent of tennis revenues were derived from outside the U.S."

Miles, who was director of a prominent tournament in Indianapolis before taking over the ATP, said player entry lists were dominated by Americans in the 1980s and '90s, but that is no longer true at tournaments worldwide.

"On the men's side, it is at an all-time low," he said, "and the question is whether this is just a point in time or a continuing trend. To some extent, I think it is a continuing trend."

The United States Tennis Association and its player development component appear to agree. Indications are that the USTA views the decline of American tennis at the professional level as something more than the sport's normal circle of life.

"I'm concerned, and the USTA saw the writing on the wall four or five years ago," said Patrick McEnroe, former Davis Cup captain and now general manager of player development for the USTA.

"We fell behind in coaching and mentoring in this country. We didn't recognize how the game was changing to a more athletic baseline power game. That's why the USTA made a decision to do more in player development, to get involved in day-to-day coaching instead of supplemental coaching. That was the impetus for me to get involved."

In the past, tennis entities would just let things take care of themselves.

And why not?

The U.S. has a player pool bigger than that of any country except Russia and China. The USTA also was encouraged by a spike in recreational tennis. The Physical Activity Council reports that tennis participation increased by 46 percent from 2000-10, making it the fastest-growing traditional participation sport.

But none of this is translating at the pro level. One reason is that team sports on the professional and collegiate levels have gotten bigger, and always have attracted the top male athletes. And while professional opportunities are not nearly as lucrative for women as they are for men, Title IX has provided opportunities for young women to earn scholarships and participate in soccer, gymnastics, basketball, field hockey and emerging sports like lacrosse.

Amaechi The days when Australia and the U.S. ruled the sport are long gone. And that's got to be OK, because the sport is legitimately bigger in places like France, Spain, Serbia, Argentina ... players around the world using their running skills, their defense, and their superior quickness and fitness.

-- Mary Carillo, tennis commentator and former player

"It's easier to pick up a basketball or football or baseball and get good at it quicker," McEnroe said. "Tennis is the most difficult game to master, and starting tennis at 12 or 13 is too late to become a pro."

Sports is also a major component of the education system in the U.S. "One has to recognize that in the rest of the world, sports is not part of schooling," Miles said. "There is nothing comparable to Friday night high school football in Texas, or the NCAA basketball tournament."

In contrast, tennis ranks much higher on the sports ladder in Europe, where soccer is king, but interest in other sports varies by country.

In Asia, where racket sports such as table tennis and badminton are traditionally strong, tennis popularity likely will soar on the heels of China's Li Na winning the French Open, making her the first Asian player to win a Grand Slam event.

Mary Carillo, the popular and outspoken tennis commentator and former player, said the decline of dominant American players should not come as a surprise. She added that having top stars doesn't necessarily jump-start the next generation of players.

"The days when Australia and the U.S. ruled the sport are long gone," Carillo said. "And that's got to be OK, because the sport is legitimately bigger in places like France, Spain, Serbia, Argentina … players around the world using their running skills, their defense, and their superior quickness and fitness."

Carillo's point is illustrated by participation in the Davis Cup. When the U.S. defeated Mexico to win the Cup in 1956, 32 countries competed. Now, more than 130 countries are involved.

While the USTA acts as the governing body of tennis in the U.S., it has a history of focusing on recreational tennis, as well as running the lucrative U.S. Open. Tennis icons including Billie Jean King, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi all developed their skills on their own, whether on public courts, in private clubs or at tennis academies.

Because they were not part of a system, these players had diverse styles and strong personalities that helped the sport become fashionable in the 1970s. In contrast, many other countries groom their athletes in state-funded programs that produce more players, better players and an occasional jewel.

The USTA, McEnroe said, wants to find a middle ground, building a strong foundation of young players who learn to play "the right way," in a system, but also embracing the "tennis prodigy" who might wash out in a structured environment. "It's not our way or the highway," he said, perhaps thinking of his brother, John.

Gordon Smith, chief executive officer of the USTA, said the strategy is two-pronged: Establish a tennis philosophy shared by all USTA coaches and coaching affiliates, and get 8-to-10-year-olds interested in the game.

"We want to attract more athletes and broaden the base of talent. A significant program is attracting kids in the 10-and-under category, who might otherwise be playing soccer or T-ball," he said.

"If the organization doesn't provide it for Patrick, he won't be able to do it. We want world-class coaches working in our regional centers around the country, our minor leagues. We want coaches trained in our philosophy, who will be our talent scouts. It's a systematic way with a long-term view," Smith said.

The clay court solution

Just as Americans love the home run in baseball, the dunk in basketball, the slap shot in hockey and the long pass in football, they are similarly seduced by power tennis -- those overpowering serves and big ground strokes.

Thus, many young players in the U.S., who grow up on hard courts, are all about power and little about strategy. Contemporary tennis demands both, McEnroe said.

To that end, the USTA is giving young players more training on slower clay courts. Jose Higueras, a former player who has worked with Federer, Michael Chang and Sampras, was hired as the USTA's director of coaching in 2008.

McEnroe talked about an opinion Higueras shared when he took the job. "Jose says that over the last 10 or 15 years, we had players who could hit the ball well but didn't know how to play tennis. So we're having them practice more on clay, learning how to move and play 50-shot rallies.

"Players can hit huge, but it is also about movement and decision-making," McEnroe said. " It means when you have a chance to put a ball away, do it. But learn when to play defensively and when to hit a neutral shot."

Carillo said "It's been harder and harder over the years, as courts and balls have gotten slower, for fast court players like Roddick and Venus to hit through their opponents."

Culture shock

But are more hands-on involvement by the USTA and the implementation of a "tennis strategy" enough to fix the sport in the U.S.?

Miles said American culture might be the root cause of the country's demise as a tennis power. Because playing tennis is expensive, the game attracts a demographic in which parents and kids are increasingly unwilling to make the sacrifices tennis has demanded over the years.

There are numerous stories of parents going deeply into debt to fund their child's career, and kids sacrificing their youth for a game that some come to abhor. The media has long chastised the "tennis father" or "tennis mother," living vicariously through their children, always pushing, pushing, for the payoff.

Journalists have written about kids turning pro too soon, and playing too much, resulting in burnout. That sounds hypocritical when the same tennis pundits criticize the Williams sisters for not being more dedicated to the sport.

Miles, who played collegiately at Wabash, and whose son is a college player, asks: "Would I have been willing to have a child drop out of life at age 12 and be committed to tennis? No.

"You don't have kids dropping out of life just to play Little League baseball. The best competition is organized within the school system. It is not true in tennis," Miles said.

Gordon Smith said the USTA is aware of that and is trying to make the sport more "local."

"We have to create competition at the 8-to-12-year-old level that is inexpensive and local with no travel," he said. "We have got to make it a game you can play while staying home and [being] in high school."

Smith acknowledged that eventually, a dearth of Americans at the top of the game will have a financial impact at tournaments in the U.S. and the Open. "We need and want great American champions," he said.

McEnroe said that is doable. He talked about good young female players in the pipeline. Putting a system in place, he said, will raise the bar and create a greater depth of talent, and fundamentally better players in the U.S.

"On a daily basis, we could sit back and maybe another John McEnroe or Venus will come along," he said. "I'm not sure we can create a champion from a system, but we can raise the bar for kids [whom] we do have, and make our average player better.

"Then we'll have a better chance of finding the next Agassi or Serena."