Andy Roddick is running out of time.
Seeded 21st at the US Open tennis championship—the year’s final Grand Slam that began on Monday in New York—29-year-old Roddick’s ranking is his lowest in 10 years at a place where he won his lone Grand Slam title in 2003. America’s highest seeded male (8th) is 29-year-old Mardy Fish, who has never been beyond the quarter-finals in New York or in any other Grand Slam. Touted as the next big hope, 19-year-old Ryan Harrison lost in the first round on Monday to No. 27 seed Marin Cilic.
Only four American men are in the top 50 rankings, a steady decline from 11 US men in that bracket in 1994 and 21 in 1985.
The women’s line-up is not too different either. Though Serena Williams is emerging as the favourite to pick up the title this year, she is seeded 28th—the highest among American women—owing to her year-long absence from the tour due to injury. She will also turn 30 this month; her elder sister Venus, 31, is ranked No. 36 in the world.
Falling Behind : (clockwise from top, left) Mardy Fish, Andy Roddick, Venus Williams and Serena Williams are still among the top-ranked tennis players in the world, but these four Americans too have either been battling injuries and poor form, or are nearing the end of their careers.
They are the only two American women in the top 50; unlike the 13 and 23 players who found space among the best in 1994 and 1985, respectively.
American tennis, it would appear, is staring into a void.
The years of American dominance in tennis now seem like a distant past. In 1983, all the top five women in tennis were Americans, led by Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert.
“Everybody came over and learnt how to do it from here and then went back and improved (upon) it. Unfortunately, everybody else improved theirs (tennis). We thought that we’re so good, we’re just going to have the best players in the world for 35 or 40 years,” former world No. 1 Jimmy Connors told Tennis.com in a 27 August interview.
Many former players, however, don’t seem to be threatened by these statistics, claiming that these are merely signs of changing times. “Tennis is, obviously, a global game now than ever before. It is also played in so many countries compared with the early 1980s, where a significant majority of events were played in the US,” says Brad Gilbert, a former Top 10 player who used to coach former No. 1 Andre Agassi, also now retired.
Stacey Allaster, Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) chairman and CEO since July 2009, said at the Roger Cup in Montreal, Canada, in mid-August that for the first time in WTA’s history, the top 10 players come from 10 different nations (this figure has changed since then to nine countries, with Russia being represented by two players on the professional tennis circuit). “I think the world is actually now a macrocosm of WTA,” she told Global Times, an English-language Chinese daily newspaper.
The spread of tennis to other countries—their growth an indirect influence on America’s declining numbers—has been propelled generally by a few stars. For instance, after China’s Li Na won the French Open earlier this year, more and more Chinese youngsters are taking up tennis (Li Na lost in the first round of the US Open on Tuesday). Tennis observers believe that over time—and with new facilities being set up across China to meet the growing appetite for the game—China should be able to churn out more champions.
“About 160 million Chinese people watched Li Na win at Roland Garros. That will inspire more young boys and young girls to play the sport,” said Allaster.
Smaller nations like Croatia and Serbia have seen similar movements. Serbia’s Janko Tipsarevic described the success of fellow Serb and world No. 1 Novak Djokovic as “positive jealousy”. Thousands of fans turned up to welcome Djokovic home after he won this year’s Wimbledon. Members of the Serbian men’s tennis team claim to have been in touch with one another “every second or third day” after winning the Davis Cup in December.
“When you see your country mates do well on the circuit, it inspires you to do wonders. Besides, players from such small nations also get motivated by the prize money,” says Leif Shiras, a broadcaster for Sky Sports and a former professional player himself, explaining why there has been a sudden surge in players from Eastern Europe, especially on the women’s tour.
Getting into other sports
Recent surveys conducted by leading tennis bodies in the US suggest that tennis is still a popular sport. However, while the overall number of people picking up a tennis racket has gone up, the number of those who do so regularly has declined.
According to a joint annual survey conducted by the Tennis Industry Association and the United States Tennis Association (USTA) to study participation among people aged 6 and above, tennis participation fell by 7.6% between 2009 and the end of 2010. At the end of 2009, though, close to 30.1 million played tennis, the highest in more than 15 years—up from 24 million in 2002 and 21.2 million in 1995.
However, a more detailed break-up of this survey presents a sorry picture. Of the total number of people playing tennis, the percentage of those playing frequently was 17.9 in 2009, down from 20.4% at the end of 2002 and 25% at the end of 1995.
American coaches feel the attraction of other sports is equally responsible for the falling numbers. “Many young Americans, especially the big guys, are taking up basketball these days. They are not going into tennis,” says Nick Bollettieri, the founder of the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Florida, US, who has coached champion players such as Agassi, Jim Courier, Mary Pierce and Monica Seles. Bollettieri feels it’s also more economical for children to get into team sports like American football, baseball and basketball than to sustain the high costs of playing tennis for years.
Taking the college route
While coaching institutes go talent searching (John McEnroe opened his own tennis academy last year in New York with the aim of helping in a child’s holistic development, instead of just focusing on all things tennis, as McEnroe alleges Bollettieri’s academy does), American children have found it easier to turn professional (players who play on the tennis circuit for prize money) through the college route. “At the end, if you aren’t making good money through tennis, you at least have a college degree to fall back on,” says Shiras.
Students attend college like everyone else and participate in inter-collegiate tennis tournaments throughout the year, a circuit that culminates in the NCAA tennis championships played every year in the US. In May 2007, John Isner, now a professional tour player and seeded 28th at the US Open, reached the NCAA singles final, losing to India’s Somdev Devvarman, who studied and played for the University of Virginia. But Isner won the NCAA team and doubles titles. While he turned pro in 2007, Devvarman turned pro in 2008, armed with a sociology degree. Devvarman, ranked No. 64, played Andy Murray in the first round at Flushing Meadows on Wednesday.
“The one thing that you don’t have when you come out of tennis academies is the education that a college provides. I think people are looking for alternatives,” says Shiras, adding that once players reach the final of the NCAA tennis championships, agents and the USTA notice them—and they get wild-card entries to professional tournaments in the country. Experts believe the college route is becoming more popular because it offers the security of a fallback option if the tennis doesn’t work out.
A wild card is a direct entry awarded by tournament organizers for special reasons (like promoting young native talent) to players who couldn’t get into the main draw by virtue of rankings or qualifying tournaments.
Steve Johnson, a University of Southern California student and the reigning NCAA champion, is one such example—he is the US Open wild-card entrant this year.
This could be one of the reasons why fewer Americans dominate the world rankings now. While competitive players who go through tennis schools have a better chance of breaking on to the tour early, since their focus is on tennis, college players like Isner and Devvarman tend to peak much later. For instance, Devvarman entered the top 100 rankings for the first time after he turned 25.
In contrast, Agassi and Courier, who came through Bollettieri’s academy, won their first Grand Slams at ages 22 and 21, respectively, and were both ranked No. 1 at some point.
What happens next
To ensure that deserving children get rackets in their hands in an otherwise expensive sport, the USTA has put in place a scheme to identify and train the next generation of American children to be able to bring them up to professional standard. In 2008, the USTA launched a programme to train children under 10—that itself became a full-fledged circuit this year, with events held across the US.
Calling it the QuickStart Tennis Play Format, the USTA built smaller-size courts, got shorter rackets and lighter balls so children aged up to 10 could enjoy learning tennis, rather than feel bogged down by the weight of the racket or the size of a regular tennis court. Effective 2012, the 10-and-under tennis circuit will adapt to this format.
“As they grow older, the size of the tennis ball becomes a bit larger, so they quite literally grow with the game, rather being thrust on to a gigantic tennis court, with gigantic rackets and tennis balls. It tries to develop young players so that they have fun with it and have an understanding of what tennis means,” adds Gilbert.
While American tennis fans will have to wait a few more years to see how gen-next shapes up, for now the daunting task of doing some damage at Flushing Meadows rests on the tiring shoulders of Fish, Roddick and, to some extent, Isner.
Illustration by Raajan/ Mint.