Once more the signature event of professional men’s tennis is upon us, the Wimbledon Championships from jolly old England, although things aren’t that jolly for many within the Empire in the aftermath of the stunning decision by a majority of Brits to vacate the European Union.
But come on, what’s more important, the potential survival of the EU or what takes place on the manicured grass courts in London over the next fortnight? I mean, can we get our priorities straight here! Who the hell cares about the impact of David Cameron’s resignation or the governmental upheaval taking place across the pond, when we’ve got some really serious issues to worry about like whether Novak Djokovic can continue his amazing dominance in the majors or if the aging but still highly competitive Roger Federer can somehow find a pathway towards a 18th major championship.
Moreover, and not to get too jingoistic here, but another rather pertinent question arises whenever reflecting about the importance of Wimbledon and the overall landscape of the men’s game. And given the undeniable dominance that was once exerted by the United States on courts all over globe (save for those of clay), it is a most disturbing and perplexing query. Simply stated, where the hell are the Americans?
It’s as if they’ve gone underground or taken to some remote backwoods. Better put out an APB, if not fill out multiple missing person reports. Their collective disappearance has been an act worthy of Houdini. Who knows, maybe they might have even been caught up in some sort of rapture as seen in the “Left Behind” movies. What other explanation could explain such a precipitous fall from grace? Because when it comes to playing a prominent role on the ATP Tour, and particularly in the Grand Slam events, the Yanks are barely making dents, let alone creating lasting impressions. Their once mighty influence has been muted to the point where it amounts to nothing more than a faint and distant whisper. The hush they’ve been generating is darn near deafening. For the most part, they’ve been conspicuously silent.
Yes, circumstances in many sports like tennis are cyclical and can be turned around, sometimes in a dramatic 180-degree fashion. And nothing says that the U.S. can’t someday, maybe even soon, reverse its current lackluster course and become a heavyweight with the rackets again. From what we’re being told, the United States Tennis Association has upped the ante as far as making sure that promising young talent is being funneled into first-rate academies and training centers. Perhaps, a bona fide new wave of American talent is being cultivated and the next U.S. superstar or two is already being nurtured at this very moment.
But until we see the proof of such a resurgence, it’s hard to be all that bullish on American men’s tennis. Let’s just say we will remain skeptical until shown some encouraging and tangible results.
It could be effectively argued that, on balance, American men have been mired in a prolonged slump that has been anything but inconsequential. As an example, the last native player to have won a major was the now retired Andy Roddick, 13 long years ago.
So how dramatically have the fortunes of U.S. players declined?
Well, in the halcyon days of 1984, six of the top 10 and 24 of the top 50 netters hailed from the States. But from that point on, a downward spiral began and it’s amounted to much more than simply a tapering off. Just a decade later, only four Americans resided in the top 10 and a mere total of 11 found themselves in the top 50.
Today, the U.S. can’t even sniff those numbers. To put it mildly, they’re not even in the same ballpark. Tellingly, not one American can be found among the top 10 and only four take up residence inside the top 50. You talk about a descent. Hell, not even the crash of 1929 had that kind of a falloff.
Where once the Americans ruled, they now merely tag along. Where once they pounded the opposition, they have all too frequently become the punching bags.
When 31-year-old John Isner is the best you’ve got, and this is not meant to slight the towering serve-meister who is an admirable talent and currently ranked 17th on the planet, your country isn’t exactly a powerhouse. In a more perfect world and if the U.S. was truly percolating, Isner would be perhaps your fourth or fifth best player. The fact that he is the American top dog, suggests that the good ole U.S. is sorely lagging in both skill level and production. Worse still, Isner doesn’t exactly move the meter when it comes to generating interest.
Sure, Isner has had his moments, winning 10 titles in his career, which is nothing to sneeze at. And equipped with a potent serve and forceful ground-strokes, he can be a threat to anybody once he steps onto the court. But he often falters when the stakes are the highest, as evidenced by the fact he has never advanced beyond the quarterfinals in any Slam event. He’s good but he’s far removed from being elite, and at this stage for an American contingent desperate for someone to really step up, that just won’t cut it. Isner’s ordinary 14-10 match record in 2016 is a further indication that he isn’t, nor will he ever be, the answer.
Perhaps Jack Sock is the most promising of the current crop of Americans. Still relatively young at age 23 and ranked 26th in the world, Sock has shown flashes of high-end potential. Fast on is feet and quite adept from the baseline, Sock imparts impressive topspin on his forehand and his serves, both first and even the second, can be legitimate weapons. An accomplished doubles player who has regularly teamed with Vasek Pospisil with notable results (they won the 2014 Wimbledon doubles title), Sock is gifted at the net. The winner of one ATP title and the rare American who’s comfortable on clay, Sock could be special but he must avoid the inconsistency that dogs him much too frequently. His rather pedestrian 15-10 match record thus far this year doesn’t exactly inspire a lot of confidence.
Just three spots below Sock in the rankings comes Steve Johnson, who is an intriguing figure. Considered to be the most decorated college player ever, he won back- to- back NCAA singles titles among his many achievements at USC. A very competitive player who’s in tip- top shape, the 6’2” Johnson is starting to get more comfortable on the circuit at the ripening age of 26. Recently, he took down the accomplished Frenchman Richard Gasquet and followed that up with his first ever title on the grass at Nottingham. Whether his game ascends from here is the big question. On that the jury is still out but Johnson’s 13-15 match record in ’16 does give plenty of reason for pause and doubt.
The final American who finds himself in the top 50 is 28-year-old veteran Sam Querrey. In some respects, it seems like Querrey has been around forever. Having hoisted eight ATP trophies during his career, the tallish Sam has known some success. But until he took home the title in Delray Beach earlier this year, Querrey had gone four years without a trip to the winner’s circle. Still equipped with a rocketing serve and a forehand that has some wallop, Querrey can’t be overlooked or casually dismissed. But most feel his that best days are behind him although his 20-14 match record to date does suggest there is some room for hope.
Of the other four Americans inside the top 100, only the precocious 18-year-old Taylor Fritz seems to offer anything resembling tantalizing upside and potential staying power. The winner of the 2015 U.S Open Junior title and a challenger tournament in Sacramento, Fritz can bomb his serve and rip the forehand. Right now, Taylor seems to be trending in the right direction but he is by no means a sure thing for eventual top-20 status, let alone greatness. As far as Fritz is concerned, it’s a definite wait-and-see proposition.
So as you can observe, as it relates to American men’s tennis for the immediate future, though things aren’t exactly looking bleak, nothing suggests that the U.S. is on the cusp of reestablishing itself as a kingpin. It would be a more accurate portrayal to suggest that the States remain in a sort of limbo, still searching for an identity as well as some breakout, dominant players. Compared to where the tennis giant that was the U.S.A. used to be, the Americans remain a far cry from their glorious past. Let’s be real here, there isn’t anything close to resembling a Conners, a McEnroe, a Sampras or an Agassi lurking about. From a strict talent standpoint, the U.S. is decidedly underwhelming when compared to the personnel and star power of yesteryear.
Will the U.S. ever get back to that exalted place that many of us in this country almost took for granted? Hard to say, but right now it wouldn’t be all that advisable to bet on it.