Here is something you probably did not know — I didn’t: This U.S. Open marks the ninth straight time that not a single American man has made even the semifinal of a Grand Slam tennis tournament.
It’s funny because the last week or so, based on watching broadcasts and reading about the Open, it seems like American men have been doing GREAT at this U.S. Open. This being America, the coverage has been overwhelmingly American, with commentators barely (or not at all) concealing their giddiness about the arrival of Donald Young (crushed in straight sets in the Round of 16), the admirable grit of Mardy Fish (five set loss to lower-ranked Jo-Wilfried Tsonga in Round of 16), the spectacular rise of John Isner (tough four-set loser to Andy Murray in quarters) and the reemergence of that old American knight Andy Roddick (managed 6 total games against Rafa Nadal in quarters). At one point, Dick Enberg — who is the greatest of all tennis announcers, I believe — said: “Good news coming out of Louis Armstrong Stadium,” and by “good news” he meant that Mardy Fish was in position to win a set. At times, I thought JIm Courier was going to go out on the court in the middle of the match and be Mardy Fish’s doubles partner.
This is not about the coverage, incidentally. Hey, this is American television. This is the U.S. Open. I’ve been lucky enough to watch and cover sporting events around the world and best I can tell the very notion that local coverage can be too provincial is more or less an American thought (I love that about America, by the way).
No, my problem is with a lack of reality. This was not a good tournament for American men. As mentioned: This is the ninth straight grand slam without an American man in the semifinals. It is the 32nd straight grand slam event that an American man will not win. THIRTY-TWO. You know what the longest stretch no-American-wins of the Open Era was before this one? Sixteen, from the U.S. Open in 1984 (John McEnroe) to the French Open in 1989 (Michael Chang). That was Ivan Lendl’s era — he won six of those 16 majors. Lendl became an American citizen during those years.
Point is: American men, who for years dominated tennis, are not dominating anymore. They are barely even competing on the highest level. At the end of 1989, seven of the top 10 players were Americans (including Lendl).
1. Ivan Lendl
4. John McEnroe
5. Michael Chang
6. Brad Gilbert
7. Andre Agassi
8. Aaron Krickstein
10. Jay Berger
From 1994 to 1996, the U.S. had the No. 1 and No. 2 ranked player at the end of every year — Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang were the three players involved.
At the end of this year, the United States will be lucky to have one player in the Top 10 — and that’s only if Mardy Fish holds on to his place. He is eighth at the moment. Since Andre Agassi faded five years ago, only five American men have even made the TOP TWENTY-FIVE in the world — hard-serving Andy Roddick, hard-serving John Isner, hard-serving Sam Querrey, James Blake and Mardy Fish.
I don’t want this to seem like one of those goofy “Americans should be great at everything,” stories. But there’s something about the American decline in men’s tennis that I struggle with as a fan. I must admit that I am the worst kind of tennis fan: Tennis is the only sport I watch where I still imagine myself out there. I used to do this in all sports, like most kids. I used to imagine myself making the diving play at shortstop, pulling up for the three-point jumper, making the catch in the back of the end zone. But when I was much younger, even my daydreams understood reality. I was scared of hard fastballs, unlikely to get my jumper off against even a mildly interested high school player and too slow to outrun sleek furniture on a football field. I came to watch those sports more with admiration than connection, which I think is a healthier way to be watch games.
But I was good enough at tennis that I’ve never quite been able to rid myself of an unrealistic tennis self-image. While watching matches on television, I still find myself unconsciously standing up in the living room, practicing my forehand motion, serving imaginary serves, groaning when a player clanks an easy volley or buries a certain passing shot into the bottom of the net. I don’t REALLY THINK I could hit the shots that Nadal hits or Federer or the 193rd ranked player in the world. But I also can’t quite avoid the thought, it ricochets around in my mind, as unavoidable for me as other stupid thoughts that sometimes pass through like, “I probably shouldn’t put a fork in that socket, should I?”
The point is, as that sort of fan, I have unrealistic expectations. And I miss the variety and joy American tennis. Federer is one of my favorite players ever, and I love watching Nadal and Djokovic and Murray, but there is a little something missing. Think about the best American players of the last 40 or so years:
— Pete Sampras (14)
— Andre Agassi (8)
— Jimmy Connors (8)
— John McEnroe (7)
— Jim Courier (4)
— Arthur Ashe (2 in Open Era, 3 total)
— Stan Smith (2)
— Michael Chang (1)
— Brian Teacher (1)
— Vitas Gerulitas (1)
— Roscoe Tanner (1)
— Andy Roddick (1)
Those are all the Americans who have won Grand Slams in the Open Era. And here’s the thing about them — they all had drastically different styles. From bottom to top — Roddick has a huge right-handed serve, maybe they fastest of all time. Tanner had a huge left-handed serve, maybe the fastest of all time. Gerulitas was brilliantly fast; he got to everything. Teacher was a big right-handed serve and volley guy, a classic and passé style. Chang was something apart, a smaller man who won with speed and a variety of shots and a con-man’s ability to feed your weakness (what tennis fan can ever forget his underhand serve to Lendl at the French Open?). Smith was a big man with a big serve and a solid all-around game; he was a great doubles player. Ashe was a thinker on the court, of course, just like off the court. Courier bashed shots from the baseline. McEnroe was an artist who played the game in a way quite apart from anyone else. Connors was a flat two-handed backhand that seemed to clear the net by an inch and a ferocious nature. Agassi was, I believe, the best returner of serve ever (though Djokovich is pretty remarkable now; Nadal not bad).
And Sampras probably hit the best serve in the history of the game.*
*Well, that’s not really true: Bill Tilden probably hit the best serve in tennis history, but there’s no way to know for sure because Tilden played so long ago. So I give Sampras the nod. The best serves ever in my opinion are:
1. Pete Sampras — not the hardest serve of all time, but the best because of the variety of serves he had and because he really did seem able to summon up the big serve when he needed it in the big matches.
2. Bill Tilden — serve was so dominant, he would purposely get himself down in the match just to keep things exciting for the fans. And then he would unleash the serve nobody could return.
3. Goran Ivanisevic — I remember when Goran beat Arnaud Clement at Wimbledon — he hit something like 500 aces — and Clement came into the press tent sounding like he had just returned from war. I don’t remember the exact quote, but it was something like “I am ready to play him. And then boom, boom, boom, and the match is over.”
4. Pancho Gonzalez — Big, strong and mean, I remember a player told me that Pancho Gonzalez’s serves seemed to be screaming as they went by.
5. Roscoe Tanner — It is unthinkable how hard Tanner would hit his serves with the new rackets. He was hitting absolute bombs with flimsy wooden rackets. With one of today’s rackets, the ball might actually disintegrate before it reaches an opponent.
6. Roger Federer — Here’s how you know Federer is an amazing server: Watch his second serve. Men try to tee off on opponent’s second serves. But not Federer’s, in general. It’s a ferocious thing, well placed, deep, and he hits it wherever he wants — wide, alley, into the body.
7. Boris Becker — He was 17 and unseeded when he showed up at Wimbledon in 1985 and just blasted his way through to the championship. He won Wimbledon three times, the Australian Open twice and the U.S. Open once, and when his serve was on, he was pretty close to unbeatable.
8. John McEnroe — It’s amazing looking back how SOFT McEnroe hit his serve. It looks like the square ball in pong. At the time it seemed fearsome. But the reason it was fearsome, and is one of the great serves ever, is not the speed and because he would hit them at ridiculous angles, especially into the ad court. He was a great volleyer, of course, but it’s astounding how often he had a whole open court to volley the ball into after one of his serves.
9. Andy Roddick — Every other day, it seems, the newest, latest “best tennis player in history” emerges from somewhere. First it was Federer. Then it was Nadal. Now it is Djokovich. And it seems that Andy Roddick, with one of the hardest serves in the history of tennis, was just born in the wrong era.
10. Greg Rusedski — I’m not sure Rusedski belongs on this list, but I’m putting him here because (1) He was an amazing server, who had the record of 149 mph until Roddick beat it and (2) I got to face his serve once in Cincinnati. I know Rusedski wasn’t really serving all out, but he was serving hard enough, and being on the opposite side of that thing gave me a true appreciation for what it is like trying to return a serve. What is it really like? Impossible.
Back to the point: All those great American tennis players and they were SO DIFFERENT. It was so amazing to me that one country could develop Sampras AND Agassi, Connors AND McEnroe, Tanner and Ashe. It seemed to me to speak to America’s diversity, the many twangs of our accents, the variety of ways we make chili and barbecue, the different rhythms of our music. The joy wasn’t just that a great new American player had materialized but that he had a new way to play the game that came from his background and childhood and ambitions.
Maybe imagination is the word. They use that word a lot in golf — another sport where American dominance has faded. In golf, a player who can hit the ball around trees or use the geometry of the green in unexpected ways is said to have a great imagination. In that sense, Americans used to have a great imagination on the tennis court. You couldn’t really teach anyone but McEnroe to play like McEnroe; same with Connors or Agassi.
And it doesn’t feel imaginative in American men’s tennis anymore. It isn’t that the Americans all play exactly alike. They don’t. But none of them seems to push into something new. It’s almost like there’s a right way and a wrong way to play American tennis, correct ways to hit the stroke and incorrect ways — mainly it seems to be about just hitting the serve harder. It’s all so stark and limiting. The greatest and most wonderful athletes so often break the rules of convention — Bob Gibson’s windup, Barry Sanders running style, Magic Johnson’s high dribble, Monica Seles’ two-hand forehand, Arnold Palmer’s finish. My friend, Melvin Stewart, would turn his head to breathe when swimming butterfly. People told him all the time that this was wrong, flatly wrong. He set the World Record in the 200 and won an Olympic gold medal.
This has long been true in tennis. No one style wins. Power. Finesse. Speed. Strength. Borg was so different from McEnroe, and McEnroe was so different from Lendl, and Lendl was so different from Becker, who was so different from Courier, who was so different from Sampras, who was so different from Federer. Tennis is not a game of right and wrong. It’s a game of creativity and resourcefulness and the power of the mind to devise a game that can defeat all styles. Djokovic is closing in on perhaps, the greatest year in recent tennis history. He does not have one of the greatest serves in the world. Nor does Nadal.
All of these words, I do realize, are probably much ado about nothing. This is just an American tennis drought. Who knows? Maybe Isner will be break through. Maybe Young will. Maybe a young American we don’t yet know will change the way the game is played. But it unquestionably is strange to watch grand slam men’s championships where Americans are little to no factor. Of course, there’s always Serena Williams.