US tennis hit by lack of aces

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On the middle Saturday of Wimbledon, US tennis turned a page, only to reveal a blank sheet.

The day began with Andre Agassi, in his last appearance as a player at the All England Club, losing in straight sets to eventual finalist Rafael Nadal. It ended with Andy Roddick, once hailed as America’s next tennis god, falling to British teenager Andy Murray, a loss that bounced the long-slumping Roddick out of the top 10 for the first time since 2002.

The afternoon was no kinder to American women: defending champion Venus Williams was sent home early as well. By day’s end, there was only one American left in either of the main draws, unheralded 21-year-old Shenay Perry, and by Monday she too was gone.

For the first time since 1911, no American reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon. Not for the first time, the headlines back home spoke of a crisis in American tennis. Indeed, for a period of about 48 hours, the self-flagellation was almost, well, British in its intensity.

No question, the events of that middle Saturday – Agassi, the bald eminence of American tennis, handing on the baton, only to see it fall into the grass – seemed loaded with symbolism. And with only two Americans ranked among the top 10 on the men’s ATP and women’s WTA tours, there was no denying that US tennis was in less than robust health.

On the other hand, the media have administered last rites to American tennis before, only to see new superstars quickly emerge. Should all the funereal chatter be taken any more seriously this time around?

Actually, yes. And it is not just Americans who should be taking it seriously – the decline of American tennis is something that should concern fans everywhere. Simply put, if US players are not winning, American fans are generally not watching and that, in the game’s biggest market, is not good for tennis.

This year’s Wimbledon women’s final, between France’s Amélie Mauresmo and Belgium’s Justine Henin-Hardenne, drew 41 per cent fewer viewers in the US than last year’s title match between Venus Williams and fellow American Lindsay Davenport. This year’s French Open final between Nadal and Roger Federer, arguably the most anticipated men’s match in a quarter of a century, was also a bust with US viewers. If Americans continue to tune out of tennis, sponsorship is almost certain to decline along with television coverage, and the sport as a whole is going to suffer.

It does not appear that relief, in the form of some US champions, is on the way. James Blake, continuing his storybook comeback from serious injury, has climbed to ninth in the world. However, he has not made it past the third round in any of this year’s majors and, at the age of 26, it is hard to see him taking many further strides.

Roddick, meanwhile, is in a graveyard spiral. Runner-up in the two previous years at Wimbledon, he arrived in London fully expecting to revive his fortunes. With his shock defeat to Murray, he left with his career hanging in the balance.

Things are even bleaker on the women’s side. Davenport is still in the top 10 but she missed two of this year’s grand slam tournaments because of a back injury. Having just turned 30, retirement clearly beckons. As for Venus and Serena Williams, they appear less and less committed to the game with each passing season and their results are slipping accordingly.

Of greater concern to the American tennis establishment is the dearth of up-and-coming talent. At present, there is no American under the age of 21 ranked in the top 100 on either tour and at the junior level things look decidedly bleak.

Hoping to reverse this trend, the United States Tennis Association announced during Wimbledon that it planned to move its development centre to the Evert Tennis Academy in Boca Raton, Florida, which will become a year-round training facility for the nation’s brightest teenage prospects. This marks a fairly radical departure for the USTA, which has traditionally nurtured talent in a more ad hoc, decentralised fashion. Clearly, the organisation thinks these are desperate times.

While noting that the old, decentralised approach served the US rather well, producing names such as McEnroe, Connors, Sampras and Agassi, former world number one Stan Smith thinks the idea of gathering the most promising juniors under one roof is, on balance, a good one.

Smith cautions against writing off American tennis just yet but he is worried by some long-term trends. For one thing, the sport just does not seem to attract gifted athletes the way it once did. He points out that in Spain, tennis is second only to soccer in terms of popularity among youngsters. In the US, by contrast, tennis barely registers.

Another issue, says Smith, is the globalisation of the game. Talent is being incubated in more places than ever before, and the junior ranks are filled with east European and South American players determined to make tennis their meal ticket. Americans, growing up in far more agreeable circumstances, lack that sense of urgency and the drive it inspires.

“These other players have got a hunger that our kids, with their computers, iPods, and skateboards, just don’t have,” says Smith.

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