The U.S. Open opens serve again this coming Monday in New York. And so the debate will renew again concerning when an American men’s player will be able to contest for another Grand Slam championship.
Don’t hold your breath.
According to the latest ATP world rankings, John Isner (No. 11) and Jack Sock (No 18) are the only Americans ranked in the Top 20. And when was the last time either of these guys seriously contended for a Grand Slam title?
Glad you asked.
Isner has the game’s most powerful serve. In fact, he is third all-time in ATP history with 10,167 aces. But in his career, he has made it to the quarterfinals in a Grand Slam only twice – the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open in 2011 and the semifinals this summer at Wimbledon, an accomplishment that briefly vaulted him to No. 8 in the world. He lost that match to South African Kevin Anderson in a marathon five-setter that lasted 6 hours, 36 minutes. It was the longest semifinal in Grand Slam history.
Sock, whose career really began in earnest in 2013, has never made it past the third round of a Grand Slam – the 2013 Australian Open and the 2016 Wimbledon championship.
In fact, Sam Querrery’s appearance in the Wimbledon semifinals in 2017 was the first for any American since Andy Roddick did it in 2009. And Roddick’s 2003 U.S. Open championship is the last Grand Slam win for an American player. That’s 15 years ago.
So, as you can tell, long gone are the days when Pete Sampras, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, Roddick and Jim Courier made American tennis relevant on the world stage. And if you really want to roll back time, it was Bill Tilden who dominated the 1920s by winning 10 Grand Slams from 1920-25.
There is a prevailing theory in men’s tennis that players from different nations dominate episodically, as you would conclude by looking at how central the Americans were from the time of Ashe to end of Sampras’ career in 2003.
Here is a great example of this: American men reached the semifinals or finals 62 times at Grand Slams during the 1990s. During the next decade, Americans reached the semis or finals only 26 times.
The Australians were big in the 1960s and 1970s with the likes of Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe and Roy Emerson dominating the game.
The Swedes had their time with Stefan Edberg, Mats Wilander and Bjorn Borg. And other parts of Europe have given us Ivan Lendl, Roger Federer, Boris Becker, Novak Djokovic, Juan Martin del Potro and Rafael Nadal.
Each continent has had its share of No. 1 players in the world over the last 50 years.
If you look at tennis this way, you might conclude its not so much a dip in American talent as it’s the growth of the sport around the world.
Like baseball and basketball, men’s tennis sports a much different demographic then it did in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. The competition and talent is greater and more worldly. With more prize money has come more interest internationally among younger players to play tennis.
According to fivethirtyeight.com, 24 non-American men from 19 countries have played in a Grand Slam semifinal for the first time since the end of 2005, including such unknowables as Ivan Ljubicic (Croatia), Kei Nishikori (Japan), Fernando Gonzalez (Chile) and Grigor Dimitrov (Bulgaria).
Why Americans have not been able to keep pace is the key question. A New York Times story blamed it on our players not having “world-class worth ethic and toughness.”
Perhaps it has something to do with the tendency of American players to learn the sport on hard courts. Europeans favor clay, which in turn gets them accustomed to a quicker pace earlier in their training.
American players also tend to go to college first and then turn pro, although Courier, Sampras and Agassi won their first ATP events by the time they were 18.
Europeans usually begin playing professionally on junior circuits as teenagers. If there is an exception among American players its Isner, who played at the University of Georgia.
But whatever the reasons are, you would be smart not to depend on either Isner or Sock to turn things around over the next two weeks.