There has been much talk over the past two years about the return to prominence -- and dominance -- of American men's tennis. Jim Courier and Pete Sampras continue to wage their yearlong battle for No. 1, with a strong underclass of current, future and former top-10 players backing them up.
But as the U.S. Open begins tomorrow at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadow, N.Y., there is also talk about the women. It has been seven years since an American-born woman won a Grand Slam singles event, and after a run of nine straight Open titles, 11 years since an American-born woman won the Open.
"The world caught up with us, so then everybody started asking, 'What's wrong with the Americans?' " Chris Evert, the last American-born woman to win a major (French Open in 1986) and the Open, said recently. "Look at the men. They were asking the same thing five years ago: 'What's going to happen after Jimmy [Connors] and [John] McEnroe?' It's all so cyclical."
The chances of an American woman winning this year might be better than they've been in a while. With two-time defending champion Monica Seles still sidelined after being stabbed during a match in Germany in May, and with top-ranked Steffi Graf playing with a foot injury, the Open might be open for a change.
But there are questions surrounding each of this country's legitimate contenders. Is four-time champion Martina Navratilova, who will turn 37 in October and is three years removed from her 18th major singles title, too old to win No. 19? Is Jennifer Capriati, 18, ready to win her first? Is Mary Joe Fernandez, on the verge of a breakthrough at this year's French Open, ready to make her move into the elite?
Is there anybody else with a flicker of hope?
"There's not a long list," said Pam Shriver, who played in the first women's final here 15 years ago but at age 31 and ranked 36th, is no longer considered a threat. "There's not too many players [capable of winning a major] after Martina, Jennifer and Mary Joe. There's a class missing."
Said Fernandez, 22: "We're all moving in the right direction. We're close to it [winning a major]. The competition has improved so much that it's not an easy call any more just to say that Graf or Seles is going to win. It's more open."
While the rejuvenation of American men's tennis can be attributed to a commitment six years ago by the U.S. Tennis Association to dramatically upgrade its junior development program, the women have not made the same kind of progress. The men have won seven of the past 12 majors, including two of three this year, and the women are zero for the past 29 Grand Slams, excluding three of Navratilova's Wimbledon titles since 1986. Navratilova was born in Czechoslovakia and became a U.S. citizen in 1981.
Ron Woods, director of development for the USTA, said recently that it's harder to sustain and nurture female talent than it is to keep males of the same age from stagnating. Girls who display pro potential when they're 13 or 14 years old might be burned out by the time they're ready to turn pro.
"Girls mature faster and probably receive more help [from the USTA] at a younger age, but when they're 17 or 18, they start losing interest," said Woods. "The boys are just getting going at that age."
A recent study by the Canadian Tennis Association concluded that if a female player doesn't display the makings of a world champion by age 17, it is unlikely she will ever get that far. Most of their research was done by charting the careers of Seles and Graf. Evert said politics has something to do with it as well.
"Our lifestyle is a lot better, while the players that come out of some of the Eastern European countries and other foreign countries are hungrier than we are," said Evert. "They're more eager, they have more incentive than the Americans do. A lot of those girls don't do anything but play tennis."
Shriver wonders if there's not another politically motivated factor: chauvinism. Despite USTA claims that the same money and resources have been invested in the development of the women as in the men, Shriver isn't so sure.
"It's only natural still in sports, unless there are certain rules, that the boys and men get more attention," said Shriver, president of the Women's Tennis Association. "You have to ask questions when you see that kind of imbalance. And when you have a very male-dominated management as you have in the USTA, it's got to trickle down."
Woods said that the only inequity was in the media attention given to the plight of American tennis, starting with a news
conference at the 1987 Open and continuing for the next couple of years. The stories were strictly about replacements for Connors and McEnroe -- both of whom staged brief revivals later on -- rather than who would take over for Evert and Tracy Austin.
"Three or four years ago," said Woods, "nobody mentioned the women."