Not So Angry Men and Women

Friday, March 14, 2014 /by
Top photo by Anita Aguilar; rest by AP
Top photo by Anita Aguilar; rest by AP

Things started to get real western last week in Indian Wells, which makes a certain amount of sense if you’re familiar with the rich and often dark history of the Sonoran-Colorado desert—a vast area of which the Coachella Valley and all those irrigated, golf-and-tennis oases are a part.

The outlaws this past week, though, were not native tribes, nor the road agents and rustlers of the past. Rather, they were the tennis rank-and-file, men and women like Alexandr Dolgopolov, Camila Giorgi, Roberto Bautista Agut, Casey Dellacqua, Alexandra Wozniak, Ernests Gulbis, and Kevin Anderson.

The BNP Paribas Open has been a fascinating and exciting combined event. That’s been great. But the doings have also underscored the dismal state of U.S. tennis.

Put plain and simply, we stink.

The “best” American players at the moment, with very few exceptions, are the ones who have the least amount of obvious, natural talent. The only American player in either draw whose hopes were still alive as of Friday morning was the No. 12 seed on the men’s side, John Isner. This wouldn’t be so hard to digest (at least by those who care) if the familiar old order once again dominated the remaining slots in the draw—if the final weekend featured the Azarenkas and Nadals and Sharapovas and Berdychs and Williamses of this world. But that’s not the case.

Players from everywhere on earth were cashing in last week, so where were the hopeful U.S. players? Nowhere, really. The only U.S. players to make even the fourth round were Isner, Sloane Stephens, and Lauren Davis. And among them, only Isner had a shot at playing on the final weekend.

Davis gets a pass. She had a terrific tournament before a stomach virus impelled her to give Australian qualifier Dellacqua a walkover into the quarterfinals. That’s a pity, because Davis had upset the hobbled world No. 4 Azarenka, and backed that up with a good win over fellow American Varvara Lepchenko (in truth, Lepchenko also had a good tournament, with a solid win over two-time Indian Wells champ Daniela Hantuchova). But besides Davis, that’s not a lot of production out of 13 players.

On the ATP side, the U.S. started 14 competitors, and they hardly fared better. Once again, Sam Querrey proved a bust, losing in the second round to Andreas Seppi. The much-touted Jack Sock played a bone-headed match and lost to fellow countryman Tim Smyczek. The latter is one of the few players whose success has been a pleasant surprise and a badge of honor, but his light game and slight stature will make it tough for him to join the elite, seeded set.

By the third round, the only male representative of the U.S. left was Isner. It’s enough to make you want to call the federal immigration authorities and ask them to fast track former Illinois star Kevin Andersons’ application for citizenship, or to beg Tommy Haas to forget about Germany and declare for the country to which he also holds a passport, the USA. Or maybe we should just put together a small army and conquer Toronto and its environs, which at least would net us Milos Raonic.

The situation might not look as bleak this morning were it not for the fate that befell Sloane Stephens. She was seeded No. 17, and on paper her tournament was a success: She made the quarterfinals. But there she blew an enormous opportunity; at how many Grand Slam or Premier Mandatory events can you be guaranteed not to have to play Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, or Azarenka in any of the final three rounds? Stephens lost to Flavia Pennetta, who’s ranked three rungs below her.

The thing that bothers me isn’t that Stephens lost, or that she lost to a 32-year old who’s been injury plagued and hasn’t won a title since 2009. It was the way Stephens lost, which was painful—and often frustrating—to watch.

Stephens is a different breed of cat, there’s no doubt about that. She’s one of those athletes who looks like she’s tired, slow, and both uninterested and disinterested. She always makes you wonder how she can be so athletic and quick when she looks so reluctant to move. That wouldn’t be so bad, in and of itself, but more and more it seems that Stephens has that trademark of a true diva, a contrary streak.

Stephens’ frenemy Serena may also be a diva, but she isn’t contrary or coy. Serena tackles the job in straightforward fashion. Part of what makes watching Stephens interesting and different is that you’re always wondering if she’s into it—if she really cares, if she’s really willing to do what it takes to win. You may ask yourself lots of questions when you watch Serena, but those aren’t among them. I can see where Stephens’ lackadaisical attitude might be a useful weapon in the mind games that underlie so many tennis matches, but what if it’s less a diversionary tactic than a reality? What if she’s just a spectacularly talented kid whose tapped out on big-picture motivation?

Nobody wants to be—or should be—too hard on Stephens, particularly here on the domestic front. The television commentators on Tennis Channel certainly gave her plenty of leeway during her loss to Pennetta in a match Stephens could and should have won. Pennetta went to pieces when she served for the match in the second set, and Stephens took the set away from her. The American then built a 3-0 lead in the third set, and had a pair for break points that would have made it 4-0. But Pennetta fought her way back into it, and went on to win.

Granted, Stephens is just 20, and she’s shown a great ability to perform at a high level on the biggest of occasions. But she hasn’t won a tournament yet, and Indian Wells is as big as it gets for any tournament not also known as a Grand Slam event. Now working with a terrific coach in Paul Annacone, it looks as if Stephens needs to develop some of that pride, determination, and perhaps even enthusiasm that were hallmarks of Annacone’s former protégés, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.

These days when I think of the plight of U.S. tennis I get a sickening feeling that it isn’t the lack of clay courts or publicly funded programs or high-quality developmental coaches. It may be something much larger, more insidious, and more deeply embedded in our culture. And that’s the extent to which Americans across the socio-economic spectrum have become obsessed with celebrity. Fame is relative, but I can see where even a little of it, coupled with money, could become the end-all and be-all for kids in the Facebook and Instagram generation.

But that’s a subject for another time,  For now, let’s just hope the youngsters like Sock, Stephens, et al will see their way through the unique challenges and obstacles to success in this time.

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