by Pete Bodo
Watching the Atlanta Tennis Championships final yesterday, a borderline surreal stat caught me eye. It seemed a poignant and somehow fitting comment on the present state of the U.S. game. Mardy Fish and John Isner, the finalists and two of the three best American players at the moment, were a combined 1-9 in ATP tournament finals. . . against other American players.
If ever you were entitled to wonder. .. Hey, how did they do that?
Alright, there's probably a big Roddick/Blake factor in there, made especially poignant by the fact that those two men presently are both suffering. There's probably a vestigal Sampras/Agassi element as well, at least in the case of Fish, who turns 30 at the end of this year. It hardly matters, at this stage. And the silver lining is that the Atlanta final ensured that one of those guys (Fish was 1-4 in finals vs. his countrymen, Isner 0-4) was going to improve his record, as well as that bizarre combined stat. Yeee-ow!
But why complain or get all stressed out about this situation? The U.S. is sure to rebound (although our British friends may snicker and wag their heads knowingly upon hearing something so seemingly smug), although it's unlikely that four or six American will ever rank in the top 10 in the same year. There's just too much world out there now, and not all of it is red-white-and-blue.
The theory-de-jour regarding the demise of U.S. tennis is that American kids as a group are too "entitled," but I'm not a big fan of that reasoning. Certainly some kids, especially among those coming through the conventional pipeline, are spoiled. But that doesn't matter because, as was demonstrated by players as seemingly different as Maria Sharapova, Venus and Serena Williams, and Andre Agassi, outliers may have an enormous advantage over establishment prospects in tennis. They always have had it, too. This is an issue I wish Malcolm Gadwell would explore.
Anyway - I wish I'd been in Atlanta this week, because that tournament is a kind of a festival of American tennis, and who cares if there wasn't a well-groomed Swede or air-punching Spaniard in sight? I'm a big believer in making your own party and letting the rest take care of itself. Besides, the stakes and attention at the U.S. Open are just too high for the tournament to serve as our national festival, although it's certainly our national advertisement.
If you're conversant with tennis history, you'll remember that "closed" tournaments once flourished. That is, tournaments to which entry was restricted to amateurs, invited players, or some group with a commonality, like citizenship. Let's remember, before 1925, the French Open didn't even allow "foreigners" to enter the tournament, on the perfectly reasonable theory that the French national championships ought to be for. . . Frenchmen. What was the point of having a "national" championships if some South African dude was going to cart off the trophy? It would be sort of like Michael Phelps swimming in the Olympic games for Iceland.
At one time, the various challenges posed by going abroad to play pretty much guaranteed that the biggest tournament in any nation was contested overwhelmingly by citizens from the host country. But the cat got out of that bag pretty quickly, and what we now have is elite nations taking turns hosting international championships that have the clout - and offer rewards large enough - to attract all the great players. So it's not just a cute joke to call Atlanta the closest thing we have to a true national championships (unless the new Winston-Salem event ends up giving Atlanta a run for its money). It can make that claim because it happens at the right time of year (mid-summer), on an appropriately "American" surface, and it it attracts almost all the U.S. players, three of whom made the semifinals. Only Andy Roddick and Robert Kendrick were missing from among the American pros whose names pop into my mind.
Given all that, and the imminence of the U.S. Open, let's take a look at how all those American guys did at the "Atlanta Nationals," and what it forecast for their respective summers. We'll take them from the top of the draw down, in order, with their ATP ranking numbers:
Mardy Fish (No. 9) - Top-seeded, Fish pulled off an impressive double last week. He successfully defended his title (in a game where there's so much talk about "pressure," the kind on the shoulders of a title defender is under-publicized) and fulfilled his seeding. Fish didn't lose a set until the final, but in that ultimate match he had to overcome two match points in a second-set tiebreaker with John Isner, ensuring that his first title of 2011 was well earned.
You have to hand it to Fish; he's really embraced the discipline of that diet and fitness regimen he adopted early last year. Those things can come and go, as we all know. Although Fish had a fairly easy time getting to the final, his visible comfort and indifference to the heat that appeared to be killing Isner in the final were encouraging signs for the rest of the summer. Fish must know the the woes of U.S. tennis also present him with a great opportunity to enhance his profile, and make no mistake - almost every tennis player is also a ham and fame-seeker at heart.
Ryan Sweeting (No. 65) - Lost to no. 8 seed Somdev Devvarman in the first round, 6-4 in the third. Sweeting ran into a guy who plays a similar game and has been on the upswing even though he's ranked one spot below Sweeting. Early this year, Sweeting qualified at Australian Open and Indian Wells, going two rounds in the main-draw each event. He also won Houston (clay), and made the semis on clay again at Sarasota Challenger (l. to James Blake). Sweeting seems to play well in the U.S. and on hard courts; he missed a big opportunity to bank some ranking points in Atlanta but it's a long summer.
Ryan Harrison (No. 94) - The 19-year old continues to make excellent progress; he lost in the semis to Fish. The highlight of his tournament was the second-round three-set upset of No. 4 seeded Xavier Malisse, after which he survived another brutally long match, besting Rajeev Ram 7-6 (5) in the third. That may help explain why Harrison got only six games off Fish in the next round.
Harrison has been a break-out waiting to happen. It almost came to pass at the U.S. Open last year, and at Wimbledon this year, where he qualified and lost a very tight five-setter to No. 6 David Ferrer in the second round. Don't be surprised if, this summer, he finds the right words for that big statement he's been trying to make.
Phillip Simmons (No. 400) - Lost to Lleyton Hewitt in the first round. You know what? When you're ranked this low, qualifying for an ATP event is a huge achievement. Phil is 25, so it's unlikely that this has been a career-transforming moment for him, but he still deserves a shout-out for getting into the big ball and we hope he can do it a few more times this year. In the end, how many of us will be able to tell our grandkids that we played a former world No. 1 and Wimbledon and U.S. Open champ - and made money off it?
Rajeev Ram (No. 231) - This guy had an excellent tournament, the quality of which was obscured only by the fact that he lost in the quarters to his countryman Harrison (albeit in a third-set tiebreaker). Ram upset No. 5 seed Grigor Dimitrov, than took out Lleyton Hewitt before Harrison halted his run. Ram is 27, and he could have a career summer if he sustains the momentum he built here.
James Blake (No. 90) - Talk about hard luck - Blake drew mercurial Ernests Gulbis in the first round, the prize for the winner was a match with the tournament No. 3 seed, John Isner. Blake outlasted Gulbis, and forced Isner to 7-5 in the third before he yielded. The 31-year old veteran, once ranked as high as No. 4 and the winner of more than $7 million in prize money, may have one good summer left in that racket. He's got the experience and game to make a great run at a big tournament this summer, and veterans of his class often make a parting statement. If he gets on a bit of a roll and starts slapping around that forehand again, who knows?
John Isner (No. 33) - Isner came within a swing of the racket of the title twice in that second-set tiebreaker, but he let Fish off the hook and paid a heavy price as fatigue caught up with him in the third set. It was a good tournament for Isner, but at this point I have to believe (I should say, "I kind of hope") he's expecting a little bit more from himself. The key number here is 26 - Isner's age. Because he came on the tour so late and has such a baby face, we tend to think of him as a youngster. But he's at that age when he really needs to make a move to establish a career-high ranking - and try to sustain it for at least a year or two.
Alex Bogomolov Jr. (No. 64) - "Bogie" lost to Gilles Muller in straight sets in the first round, so this was a missed opportunity for him at a time when he's playing well and within one ranking spot of his career-high. But he's got that big serve and a solid hard-court game. At 28, he's another of those guys who's well-positioned to strike a career blow, and may have to come to grips with the fact that it's all passing him by if he doesn't do it this summer.
Robbie Ginepri (No. 370) - The win over Tommy Haas in Atlanta was encouraging, although Ginepri ran out of steam in his next match, against Muller. Coming back from a broken elbow, Ginepri needs to get a lot of high-quality match play if he's hoping to duplicate his run to the semifinals of the U.S. Open (back in 2005). Right now, it seems like an impossibly tall mountain for a 28-year old to climb, but Ginepri had acquitted himself pretty well in Grand Slam events, so you never know. . .
Donald Young (No. 127) - He had the bad luck to draw fellow American and grizzled veteran Michael Russell in the first round, who spanked him, 6-0, 6-3. I say "bad luck" because had he at least gotten blown out by a Malisse or Dimitrov, he might have claimed bad luck. I don't know what to say about this 22-year old anymore, except that maybe getting that ranking down into double-digits would represent long-term success. And why not? Being inside the top 100 is a great accomplishment.
Michael Russell (No. 110) - You've got to love a 33-year old who can give up just three games to a talented if flawed player like Donald Young; it's a pity that Russell was drawn to play no. 2 seed Kevin Anderson in the second round. This is a guy who, in 2001, became the first player in ATP history to qualify for four Grand Slam events in a row. At one of them, the French Open, he made it all the way to the fourth round before bowing to three-time Roland Garros champ Gustavo Kuerten. Let me repeat - that was a decade ago.
And that's just the trouble. There's a lot more past than future to celebrate in the careers of many American players these days; regrettably, it's also true of the American game in general.