It has become an opening-week ritual at the Grand Slams. At some point, typically on Thursday or Friday, we’re informed that this was the “first time in 50 years that an American male hasn’t reached the third round of a major.” Or that “no U.S. women are in the quarters for the first time in a century.” Or that “no Americans at all will play in the second week for the time since the game was invented.” These footnotes of doom have become so commonplace, and thus so meaningless, that a backlash against them seemed ready to begin at the All England Club this year.
“It’s Wednesday, and John Isner is last American male in Wimbledon singles,” tweeted John Branch of the New York Times on the tournament’s third day. “Let’s not discuss again.”
But discuss again we almost certainly will over the next few days at the U.S. Open. While Serena Williams, the two-time defending champion and world’s No. 1 woman player, is a good bet to go deep in the draw, the U.S. men will bring no members of the Top 10 to New York—it’s the first time that’s happened since, well, since last year. I can understand why reporters feel the need to mention these milestones of futility. For the millions of newspaper readers who don’t follow the game closely, it’s a quick reminder that the game is allegedly “declining” in the States.
Yet for many of us who do follow tennis closely, these dispatches strike a false note—or at the very least, they’re beside the point. Yes, each country must do whatever it can to develop its own players. And yes, fans in the States like to see American players win rather than lose early. But the spirit of tennis is, and always has been, global rather than nationalistic. At this year’s U.S. Open, Roger Federer will have as many supporters as any American player does.
Those of us who have followed tennis for years don’t follow it because we need to see our countrymen win. We watch, and continue to watch, because we love the sport itself, and love to see the best players play it, whether they’re from Russia, Argentina, Japan, Switzerland—hey, even Canada. Tennis, not being a team game, frees its fans from having to choose our favorites based on where we live (only in Davis Cup and Fed Cup do players wear anything that identifies them with a location). We’re free to support whomever we happen to relate to and enjoy watching. In that sense, tennis fandom is both global and very personal. It’s also inter-connective; rooting for a player from another country inevitably teaches you a little bit about the world beyond your borders.
As Americans, it might be helpful—and certainly less depressing—if we expanded our definition of who qualifies as a tennis player from this country. It’s true that the U.S. has struggled to create new champions in this century; the last American not named Williams to win a Grand Slam is the now-retired Andy Roddick in 2003. But that hasn’t stopped talented kids from coming here to learn the sport. Maria Sharapova, Tommy Haas, Jelena Jankovic, Kei Nishikori, Victoria Azarenka, and Sabine Lisicki all developed their Top 20 games in the States. Andy Murray’s workout base is in Miami. Roger Federer won his last major, Wimbledon in 2012, with an American coach, Paul Annacone, in his corner. And that great young hope from Canada, Eugenie Bouchard? She lives and trains in Florida with Nick Saviano, a proud product of Teaneck, New Jersey. The U.S. may not dominate tennis anymore, but it’s still one of the sport’s indispensable countries.
It’s that word, “dominate,” that’s a big part of the problem. For most of the 20th century, from Bill Tilden and Helen Wills in the 1920s to Pete Sampras and Serena and Venus in the 1990s and beyond, the U.S. did dominate tennis. So much so that anything less is looked at as a failure. Currently, the U.S. has a total of 18 players with Top 100 rankings on the ATP and WTA tours (six men, 12 women); Spain, which is considered a nouveau tennis powerhouse, has 17 players (12 men, five women). Per capita, Spain, a nation of 48 million people, is indeed doing better than the States. But the gender split above should be enough to make us wonder whether “decline in the American game” really means “decline in the American men’s game.” On the ATP side at the moment, America is just another tennis nation among tennis nations; for anyone used to dominating, that’s not going to cut it.
Could that attitude change someday? This past summer, Americans embraced the World Cup as never before. We accepted that our team wasn’t at the top of the totem pole in that international competition, and we seemed OK with being just another sports-crazed nation among sports-crazed nations. Tennis fans from the U.S. have known that feeling for a while now. Telling us there are no more Americans left in the draw at Flushing Meadows isn’t going to keep us from rooting for the players who are.
Tuesday, August 19: In Defense of John Isner
Tuesday, August 19: Tennis Tuesday vs. The Real Housewives of New York City
Wednesday, August 20: Catching Up with Matt Cronin
Wednesday, August 20: Welcome to the U.S. Open: Qualifying Report
Thursday, August 21: Throwback Thursday: Our Favorite U.S. Open Matches #tbt
Thursday, August 21: Cover it Live, Live from the U.S. Open Draw
Thursday, August 21: U.S. Open Expert Picks
Friday, August 22: The Stars Spell "Roger"
Friday, August 22: Men's Bracket Breakdown
Friday, August 22: Women's Bracket Breakdown
Saturday, August 23: World View: Tennis is Global, Not National
Sunday, August 24: Svetlana Kuznetsova's Title, 10 Years Later