Commentary

Mardy Fish's loss magnifies U.S. foes

Updated: March 30, 2012, 1:41 AM ET
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

KEY BISCAYNE, Fla. -- For several years now, American tennis has been graying at the temples.

Now it appears we are on the verge of a blinding whiteout.

The Sony Ericsson Open, in many minds the greatest non-Grand Slam tournament, has usually had a significant American presence in its later stages. Since 1990, there have been 21 U.S. champions here. In that time, there were only five years when an American didn't win either the men's or women's titles.

[+] EnlargeMardy Fish
Michael Regan/Getty ImagesAfter a terrific 2011 season, Mardy Fish is having a hard time finding his footing this year.

It happened last year, and after Mardy Fish fell to Juan Monaco 6-1, 6-3 in Thursday's quarterfinals, it will happen again in 2012. Hey, the U.S. didn't even land anyone in the semifinals on either side. And, the way things are lining up, it could be a long drought.

"Awful, abysmal, terrible, horrendous," said Patrick McEnroe, the United States Tennis Association's general manager of player development. "It was shocking to me that Fish played so poorly. There was no reasonable explanation. All credit to Juan Monaco -- he played well, solid. But when Mardy strung together a couple of wins, you thought, 'OK, he's back to where he was last year.'

"This is going to be a tough one to swallow."

Monaco, celebrating his 28th birthday, was a marvel, fist-pumping and scissor-kicking his way to the second ATP World Tour Masters 1000 semifinal. Fish, meanwhile, looked a step slower and a lot more than two years older.

At No. 8, Fish is the highest-ranked American singles player, and it made a certain sense that he was the last to exit the tournament.

Fish transformed his body completely a year ago, losing nearly 30 pounds, and played the best tennis of his life. So far this year, at the age of 30, it has been a bit of a letdown; he's 7-5 heading into the clay season.

Andy Roddick, who turns 30 in August, staged a wonderful revival here, beating Roger Federer in a third-round match. But, it's not realistic to expect he can add to his lone major, the 2003 U.S. Open.

The Williams sisters have won 20 Grand Slam singles titles between them, but based on their performances here, a 21st is hardly guaranteed. Venus, whose last big win was Wimbledon in 2008, played some terrific matches after a six-month absence from WTA matches. The 32-year-old reached the quarterfinals before losing to Agnieszka Radwanska, but it is clear her autoimmune condition seriously threatens her ability to play the six consecutive matches necessary to reach a major final.

Serena, the best hope of the old guard at 30, has shown signs of age. She, too, reached the quarters, but fell to Caroline Wozniacki. Her last major wins -- America's last -- came in 2010, at the Australian Open and Wimbledon. In her most recent comeback from adversity, Serena just hasn't been her dominant self and it's fair to wonder -- Roger Federer has heard the same doubts about himself for the past two years -- if she will return to the Grand Slam winner's circle.

Beyond the former champions, are there any current U.S. players with the potential to win a Slam? John Isner, the 6-foot-9 slingshot, and rising 19-year-old Ryan Harrison are the only two that come to mind. The reports from the field on the 10- and 12-year-olds have been encouraging, but they're still a decade away.

"Overall, we've got a lot of work to do, and it's a long-term project," McEnroe said. "On the women's side, we've got a lot of up-and-comers. But for the men, the truth is what it is. That's the nature of the sport. It's extremely global now; the players are coming from everywhere.

"We've got to keep pushing the envelope and doing a better job.

The good news? The two No. 1-ranked doubles teams are both American.

Still, Liezel Huber and Lisa Raymond lost in the first round here, but Bob and Mike Bryan reached the semifinals.

Naturally, they lost Thursday in straight sets to Leander Paes and Radek Stepanek.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.