It’s been nine, frustratingly long years since an American hoisted the US Open, or any grand slam trophy.
The last man to do so, Andy Roddick, retired after his fourth-round loss to Juan Martin del Potro, yesterday. A somewhat unceremonious end to a great career altered drastically by the likes of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.
Roddick’s place in American tennis is a topic of debate. Many will say that had it not been for Federer, Nadal and the like he would have many more titles to his credit. Agassi could have said the same thing about Sampras and others but put it together enough to finish with eight for his career. McEnroe and Connors each won multiple despite playing during the time of Ivan Lendl, Arthur Ashe, and Bjorn Borg. The problem with Roddick is that outside of the serve and forehand he never brought the difference-making components of his game to a grand slam level. He could never volley like the legends and his backhand, even up to his last match, never had enough pace or depth to control a point like his modern-day rivals. Bottom line there are no excuses.
However, with Roddick’s retirement comes a shocking reality:
There might not be another Grand Slam men’s singles player in America’s future for a long time.
Why is this an issue you ask? Sure we have the NFL and the NBA. No one in the world has a Lebron James or a Kobe Bryant. In baseball we always stand a chance when there are the likes of Evan Longoria, Mike Trout, and David Price coming out of colleges and high schools across the nation. NHL and soccer in this country are world-class as well, and show signs of possibly catching up to our international competition.
But as Roddick, now 30, rides off into retirement he takes along with him the last image of a homegrown talent winning on Tennis’ biggest stage. Even ten years ago I couldn’t have fathomed that when a then 31-year old Pete Sampras completed his illustrious career with a win in Flushing, New York. I don’t think I can tell you the level of alarm we should have for this recent development.
Think of this: in the context of sports history there has always been someone to take the mantle in every country in popular professional sports. When Michael Jordan retired we didn’t have to look very far to find Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, or Dwayne Wade. Did Brazilian soccer fade after Pele? Not a chance. It’s not a coincidence that Ronaldo, Roberto Carlos, Ronaldhino, Robinho, etc. came up. Argentina had Maradona, but they also in recent years have Messi and Zanetti. Did Canadian hockey die after Gretzky? No. Did baseball fade after Ruth, Gherig, Aaron, and Mays? No.
So how does a country, rich in Tennis history, allow the work of men such as Pete Sampras, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, and Michael Chang allow us to get to a point where a generation might not see a Grand Slam hero for a decade or more?
Disinterest isn’t the issue. I was an accomplished junior player, played at a high level throughout high school, and was number one at my University for almost three years. I love the game, play any chance I get, and when I was younger looked up to the aforementioned players. I saw hundreds of players, like myself, who were better than I was and know of thousands more. Is it a sacrifice to play tennis at the highest level? Yes. But it’s a sacrifice to do anything at a high level; and while we have heard the stories from legends giving up lots in order to achieve their ultimate goal that also isn’t a viable excuse because that is part of the life of successful people.
Do I have solutions? I have opinions. I have lots of thoughts about the subject and some will be misconstrued or seen as racist or even exclusionary (and I’m African-American). A look at the NCAA men’s tennis rankings tells you a lot about the state of American tennis. Consider that a majority of the top-100 players on the rosters of the highest ranking NCAA teams aren’t from here. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it also does nothing for the development of those players closest to the professional level or those trying to break through. If the development of the game isn’t being looked after by its own federation and colleges then who will? Of course I understand that with all that is at stake for these coaches with high salaries to win and keep a program alive you have to do what you can. At the same time the game on an international level will struggle.
Arthur Ashe (UCLA), John McEnroe (Stanford), Jimmy Connors (UCLA), Todd Martin (Northwestern), John Isner (Georgia), and the Bryan Brothers (Stanford) are all college products that benefited from a couple of years in the NCAA. While it isn’t necessary, it is just a thought.
But the problem with American tennis has run deep enough to now become a crisis. Sam Querrey and John Isner are good players, but they aren’t soon to crack the four-headed monster that is Federer-Nadal-Djokovic-Murray. And Donald Young, whose losing streak has now become common knowledge in all circles, isn’t even considered a threat on the challenger circuit.
So as we say goodbye to the career of Andy Roddick, he takes along with him his career earnings of over $20 million dollars, ten straight years in the top-10, 32 singles titles.
He also takes the last image we will see of an American male lifting a grand slam trophy on a tennis court for a very long time.