Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Is U.S. tennis really that bad?

Serena Williams defeated CoCo Vandeweghe in an
All-American final at the Bank of the West Classic
at Stanford in July. Photo by Paul Bauman
   Seemingly for an eternity, the tennis media have moaned about the woeful state of U.S. tennis.
   The refrain goes something like this: No U.S. man has won a Grand Slam singles since Andy Roddick in 2003, and No. 4 Serena Williams is the only American-born woman ranked among the top 25 in the world.
   Judging by the media's hysteria, you'd think that the nation were on the verge of collapse. Well, it is, but that's unrelated to tennis.
   In reality, the state of U.S. tennis is not nearly as dire as it's portrayed. How bad can it be when arguably the greatest women's singles player, the greatest men's doubles team and the greatest women's doubles team in history are active and a future men's International Tennis Hall of Famer just retired?
   The United States is still cranking out Grand Slam champions, following in the tradition of players such as Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Lindsay Davenport, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang.
   Serena Williams won her 15th Grand Slam singles title, sixth all time, on Sunday. Sports Illustrated's L. Jon Wertheim -- the best tennis writer, if not best sportswriter, period, in the country -- proclaimed her the greatest female player in history in 2010.
   Venus Williams has captured a mere seven Grand Slam singles titles, tied for 12th all time, and the Williams sisters rank fourth in history with 13 major women's doubles crowns.
   As for men's singles, the United States has endured droughts before. After McEnroe won the last Grand Slam singles title of his career in the 1984 U.S. Open, no American man prevailed in a major from 1985 through 1988. That was the era of Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg of Sweden, Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia, Boris Becker of Germany and Pat Cash of Australia.
   Everyone wondered what was wrong with U.S. tennis. Then Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang combined for 27 Grand Slam singles crowns from 1989 to 2003.
   Roddick retired at 30 after losing to Juan Martin del Potro on Thursday in the fourth round of the U.S. Open. Although he won only one Grand Slam title, he reached four more major finals, losing to Roger Federer every time. On Tennis Channel in March, Federer was ranked the greatest player ever by an international panel of experts.
   Arguably, if not for one shot, the conversation about U.S. tennis would be much different. Roddick had four set points in the second-set tiebreaker of his 5-7, 7-6 (6), 7-6 (5), 3-6, 16-14 loss in the 2009 Wimbledon final. On the last set point, Roddick missed a relatively easy high backhand volley. Had Roddick made that shot, he probably would have won the match, which he almost did anyway.
   In men's doubles, Bob and Mike Bryan captured their 12th Grand Slam crown Friday. That broke the Open Era record they had shared with Australians Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde and tied Aussies John Newcombe and Tony Roche for the most ever.
   So why all the hand-wringing and teeth-gnashing? One wonders if racism is involved, as if the Williams sisters' achievements don't count. And doubles is so far off the radar that you need a telescope to find it. Doubles doesn't get nearly the respect that it deserves -- including the ridiculous abbreviated scoring format -- from the top players, the media and the fans.
   True, the United States does not have the singles depth it once enjoyed. As in every other field, the rest of the world has caught up. It's called globalization. The days when the United States and Australia dominated tennis are long gone, and that's not such a bad thing. The game is far more competitive now.
   Nevertheless, the United States has plenty of prospects.
   On the men's side, 6-foot-10 John Isner (27) is a Grand Slam threat. Ryan Harrison, ranked No. 55 at 20 years old, is the second-youngest player in the top 100 behind 19-year-old Bernard Tomic of Australia at No. 42. Harrison and his younger brother, 18-year-old Christian, reached the quarterfinals in men's doubles
at this year's U.S. Open. Ryan has said Christian is better than he is.
   Jack Sock, 19, has made a splash at the U.S. Open for the past three years, winning the boys singles title in 2010, taking the mixed doubles title with Melanie Oudin last year and teaming with Steve Johnson to knock off top-seeded Max Mirnyi and Daniel Nestor in the first round of men's doubles this year.
   Meanwhile, the United States has three women 20 or younger in the top 100: Christina McHale (20 years old) at No. 30, Sloane Stephens (19) at No. 38 and CoCo Vandeweghe (20) at No. 88.
   During the U.S. Open, Tennis Channel analyst and former No. 1 doubles player Rennae Stubbs called Stephens "definitely a star in the making."
   Mallory Burdette recently reached the third round of the U.S. Open, then decided to forgo her senior year at Stanford and turn pro. Madison Keys is ranked No. 167 at 17 years old, Samantha Crawford (17) just won the U.S. Open girls singles title, and Taylor Townsend (16) is the top-ranked junior in the world.
   Not to worry, American fans. The United States will produce more Grand Slam champions. It always does.

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