A net loss for American tennis talent

With Agassi's imminent retirement, country needs to develop rising stars

U.S. Open

August 28, 2006|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN REPORTER

The U.S. Open has always been the showcase event for American tennis.

From its roots at the fabled West Side Tennis Club in Forest Hills through its modern incarnation at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in nearby Flushing Meadows, the event has been much like the setting in which it was played.

It had become the perfect venue for New York - noisy and showy and just a little over the edge - and for a country that had come to dominate the sport for decades.

But when the Open returns there today, the buzz will be barely audible. Foreigners are dominating the game, and the Americans who had long been the stars have disappeared, replaced by talented, but mostly one-dimensional, players.

Ever since Americans failed to advance to the quarterfinals at this year's Wimbledon for the first time in 95 years, after the now-expected collective failure at the French Open, there has been much discussion about the demise of the United States as one of the world's tennis powers.

The rankings bear that out. Former world No. 1 Andy Roddick is now No. 10, and there is only one other male player, No. 7 James Blake, in the top 10. With injuries to Serena and Venus Williams, the highest-ranked woman is a creaky Lindsay Davenport at No. 11.

"In my years, which is going back to the late '70s, it's as tough as it's ever been," said Pam Shriver, who went from McDonogh School to a Hall of Fame career and is now a respected television analyst.

It's going to get tougher. There are only three male U.S. players in the top 25. American star Andre Agassi, who is retiring after he's done at the Open, has dropped to No. 39 and is one of nine men in the top 100, none under the age of 21. There are more women in the top 100, but hardly anyone considered a serious contender.

What caused the steady flow of American stars to come to a screeching halt while the rest of the world caught up and eventually passed by? It is much the same script that has been written in other sports, specifically men's basketball and women's golf.

Shriver said it might have to do with American society itself.

"I wonder if our society is producing young people that have the drive and the hunger and the dedication that it takes," Shriver said.

"We've got to have the athletes. We've got to have the natural athletes in a country of 300 million. How do we capture them for the sport of tennis and how do we guide them?"

Blake sounds uncomfortable with lumping all young people into a group that lacks a strong work ethic, but doesn't totally discount it.

"It is tough to be successful in our sport," Blake said. "Guys in other countries are very hungry, too, and success goes to the ones who are the hungriest. Some do find ways to take the easy way out. They see famous tennis players and basketball players and think it's easy because those players make it look easy.

"But I'll bet [Shaquille O'Neal], though his free throws are ugly, has spent a million hours in the gym working on them. I've lost a lot of blood, sweat and tears on the practice court."

Age-old question

Rick Macci, who has been coaching tennis prodigies for more than 20 years and includes Roddick, the Williams sisters and Jennifer Capriati among his former pupils, said identifying prospective stars at a tender age has been the major flaw of the U.S. Tennis Association.

"The people are identified at 15 or 16, when they've had some results, and it has really no direct bearing on whether they can become special," said Macci, who runs his own tennis academy in Deerfield Beach, Fla. "We're spending a lot more money and giving a lot more people a lot more opportunity and we're doing worse."

Those who have followed the sport don't seem surprised by what has happened.

"It's been coming for so many years," said Elise Burgin, who grew up in Baltimore and played the women's tour for more than a decade. "When we had four people in the top 10 for so many years, those who knew what was going on knew that the pipeline is kind of dry. In essence, it's not a new issue."

As Agassi prepares to leave the game, he continues to try to put a positive spin on American tennis. He points to Blake and Roddick as two players capable of carrying the American torch.

"When you look at James and Andy, you believe they have the skills and athleticism it takes to reach the top of our sport," he said. "Andy has been at the top, and he's still committed to achieving that top spot again.

"But we are an international sport with a lot of great players who pour themselves into it. Our players simply have to keep their heads down and find a way to aspire to the top of the game."

But the pipeline Burgin refers to appears to be providing only a slow drip of possibility, including Sam Querrey, an 18-year-old from Thousand Oaks, Calif., who recently won his first Challenger event, as well as 17-year-old Vania King, another Californian who recently broke into the top 100 among the women and won a match at last year's Open.

Disappearing act

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