Has American Tennis Become too Soft?

It may not be too soon to panic.

Four Americans secured spots in the year-end top 10 — Venus and Serena Williams, Andy Roddick and James Blake — and the sizzling sisters have won the last three Slam titles, so there’s little reason for U.S. fans to mope and moan when thinking about what is to come for the rest of ’09.

But by the time the new decade rolls around, there may be good reason to panic. In ’08, America ended the year in a curious position — with only eight men and five women in the top 100. More significantly, only two top-50 players — 21-year-old Sam Querrey and 24-year-old Bethanie Mattek — are under the age of 26, and an argument could be made that the Williamses, Roddick and Blake have peaked.

The future doesn’t look all that bright as U.S. coaches would be hard pressed to name a surefire impact player. There are a slew of young pros with top-50 potential, but almost no one with clear top-10 stuff, outside of the athletic 17-year-old CoCo Vandeweghe, and even she’s posted uneven results.

There’s no question that the game has increasingly gone global with each passing year and, in many ways, that’s a good thing, as more standout players from more countries add flavor and fresh personalities to the sport. Afterall, who doesn’t like the charismatic Serbians?

But it’s also important for the U.S. to maintain a critical mass of elite players who the nation’s youth can look up to. For the U.S., which is the most successful tennis nation in history, having four players in the top 10 might be the bare minimum and, really, having four major contenders at the Slams is even more important. In ’08, Roddick and Blake weren’t on anyone’s list of favorites at the majors. On the men’s side, since Federer and Nadal took over the landscape in ’04-’05, the U.S. hasn’t grabbed one major crown. The women’s side is different, as the Williams sisters have combined to win 17 majors between ’99 and the first two months of ’09, but since Lindsay Davenport became a mom, our soloists have had no sizeable choir to back them up.

There are dozens of reasons why other nations have gained on America and there are still those who believe that the U.S.’ gradual decline is little more than an expected down-cycle. But the stats don’t lie, and there’s no doubt that over the past 40 years, the number of Americans in the top 100 has declined dramatically — by about 75 percent on the men’s side and more shockingly, by some 87 percent on the women’s side. And when that occurs, there’s a lesser chance that someone might break out of the pack and become an elite player.

“It’s absolutely been a decline,” said Pam Shriver. “The quality of players have gone down, but it’s not just tennis that’s facing this. I think you could look across the board at all sports and see the number of Americans dropping. Part of it is internationalization, and another part of it is a lack of talent and desire and the breakdown of the competitive framework.”

Consider this: since Roddick won the ’03 U.S. Open, only one member of his generation has even reached a Slam semi — Georgia’s Robby Ginepri, at the ’05 U.S. Open, and given his follow-up results, that might be viewed as a fluke.

On the women’s side, no U.S.-born player outside of the Williamses and Davenport have reached even a Slam semi since Jennifer Capriati at the ’03 U.S. Open. By contrast, the tennis factory that is Russia has had three different Slam champions and eight overall semifinalists during the same period.

“When the number of talented U.S. women has dropped so dramatically, we really need to look at whether our junior girls are receiving the best coaching from the most talented people out there,” Shriver said. “We have to treat our junior girls as equally as we do our junior boys.”

Common wisdom has it that the Americans aren’t as hungry as the Eastern Euros, who often have to scratch and claw to make a living for their families. It’s hard to find an analyst who thinks that this isn’t at least part of the reason for the decline — that the nation is simply being outworked. In short, America has become too soft.

“I think this Y generation, or what we call this E generation – the entitled generation, says ‘I want to play soccer and be a lifeguard in the summertime and if things don’t work out I’m just going to go home to Dad. It’s no big deal,’” opined former French Open doubles champ and current Syracuse women’s coach Luke Jensen. “The Russians can’t go home. There’s 30 percent unemployment. South America, Argentina — there’s no economy, there’s no future. You have got to make it. You don’t have a choice. You have to succeed.”

Preeminent sports psychologist Jim Loehr agrees and says that spoiled kids don’t make for great champions in anything.

“Affluence undermines drive,” says Loehr. “If you come from highly affluent family and there’s no real urgency to accomplish extraordinary things to survive, you’re not going push yourself to endure a lot of pain. You have a fallback position. That’s why it’s not surprising that a lot of top players come from areas of the world where they have to fight like a dog to survive. If you look at golf and why the South Koreans are dominating the LPGA, it’s because they have a work ethic that’s beyond comprehension. There’s a big chance of burnout, but they don’t have the fallback position. They’re betting the whole farm on the kid. The same thing with Monica Seles — neither of her parents worked and Monica was out on court knowing she was fighting for the survival of the whole family.”

Tracy Austin, now a USTA coach who didn’t exactly grow up queuing up in breadlines but became one of the most driven competitors of her era, added, “It’s all about who works harder and what’s in the gut. So many of the parents in the European countries, they’ll send the kids away. It’s a hunger and work ethic that seems different there.”

But that doesn’t explain why Austin, Davenport or Jim Courier, all who came from upper-middle-class or wealthy backgrounds, made it big; or why Roddick, who comes from a similar economic class, has been the U.S.’ top male performer over the past five years; or why Blake, who’s also from a middle- to upper-middle-class background, has been a consistent top-15 performer.

There’s a little doubt that busting out of the poor confines of Compton encouraged the Williamses to salivate for glory, but what doesn’t make much sense is why so many other African-American players who followed — like Jamea Jackson, Shenay Perry, Asha Rolle, Scoville Jenkins, Levar Harper Griffith, Phillip Simmonds (and more) — haven’t had a real impact, or why Asian Americans like Vania King, Kevin Kim, Cecil Mamiit or Meilen Tu haven’t ascended to the top.

“There’s no substitute for hard work,” said Roddick. “That’s one of the things that lacks when you see the young American players. It puts a different dynamic on things when you’re playing tennis to find a way out of the country as opposed to playing for fun.”

Loehr says that Roddick is an exception because he had the proper parenting and didn’t receive free emotional handouts.

“It’s 100 percent because his parents instilled in him that tennis is the most important thing he will ever do and they started that from the age of four. What you don’t want is parents living off the child. What you do want is hard work, delayed gratification, a dream worth working for and to show that it’s good for you to push the opportunity to extraordinary limits. Parents have to support and push at times, but do that in more than just tennis, like Tigers Woods’ father did when he said it’s not just about being a great golfer, but a great human being and Tiger used golf as an extraordinary field of force to grow up in and become an extraordinary person.”

Jose Higueras, now the Director of Coaching for USTA Elite Player Development under Patrick McEnroe and the former tutor of Slam champs Courier, Michael Chang, Pete Sampras and Roger Federer, says he has his work cut out for him in designing new USTA programs at the Home Depot Center in Carson and Boca Raton, but says that good days could be ahead. But Higueras, like Jensen, emphasized that a defined American style must come to the forefront.

“I don’t think our kids are dumber than anybody else,” Higueras said. “They’re as good as anybody in the world. If we get the right people, it should just be a matter of time. It surprises me that there are a lot of U.S. juniors who get to top 10 in the ITF and then get to the pros and fall off. If you look at the American kids in general — I don’t think we have a style…When you look at players from South America, from Europe, they play pretty much the same. The game has changed where the athletes are better, they play more from the back court, meaning that you have to be a better mover, understanding the game better, and that may be why we’re pulling back a little. We don’t have a definitive style or way of teaching.”

Jensen said that his Syracuse team is defining itself by its work ethic, its style of play and that the rest of the country should do the same.

“When I say Russian tennis, Spanish tennis, Australian — you have a definition of work ethic, of style of play. The U.S. used to have that in the ’60s and ’70s with Gonzalez, Ralston, Kramer and Trabert. There was a style, which was big serve, big volley. And it continued through the ’80s and ’90s. Now I talk to the top players in our country and I say point blank, ‘How many days a week do you practice?’ ‘You know, four or five.’ ‘Four or five? What are your tennis ambitions?’ These are elite players. They want to play D1 tennis. They’re not even thinking to the peak of Mount Everest. They’re just kind of getting to base camp…When do the Americans show up at the practice courts? When do the Russians show up? The Russians are the first ones there and they’re the last ones to leave. None of the Russians are looking to get autographs. They’re here to win. Are we here to win? Are we here on vacation or are we here to win? Every one of my kids runs five miles every day. That’s 1,850 miles a year. They do 500 crunch sit-ups, 100 push-ups every single day. It’s all up to how badly you want it and we’re going to want it more than the Russians and the South Americans and everybody else. And if that doesn’t work, if hard work doesn’t work, I don’t know what else there is.”

Higueras, who in his day was known as one of the tour’s most dedicated grinders, said that many of today’s players are nurtured in the wrong environments and lack the mental stamina of a Sampras, Courier or Chang.

“I don’t think our kids are exposed on a daily basis to what it takes to become a champion,” he said. ” If you go to Europe, it’s pretty simple: the kids work four to five hours a day and it’s a grind. It’s not that easy. If it were, then everybody would be great. In the old days our kids maybe had a little bit more of that mentality…If they want to become great players, it doesn’t come for free and it doesn’t happen just trying once every other day or once a week. It comes by trying every single day.” As John McEnroe says, being an impoverished player who is supporting an extended family is no automatic key to success. The right environment is always key. “Just because someone was hungry and was in the middle of a war zone in Serbia doesn’t mean that that’s the only way to get a champion in tennis,” he said. “Look at Nadal and Federer; they come from Mallorca and Switzerland. Those are two perfectly good upbringings, and they’re the best in the world. So someone found something inside of Nadal that’s remarkable. We need to try to get better athletes in our sport.”

Loehr said that in Federer and Nadal’s case, it wasn’t their economy that mattered so much, it was how their parents and/or extended families handled their approach to sport.

“You can still make it if you’re affluent or middle-class, if you have parents who are connected and understand hard work and don’t try to buy their way into the finals…Not enough parents understand how to create the right conditions at home.”

Loehr argues that the greatest obstacle the U.S. faces is that the sport has become too expensive for most families to afford. While just playing the sport at public parks, buying rackets, balls and shoes and paying for a few clinics isn’t prohibitive, top juniors require a whole lot more. Providing private coaching and travel for a competitive junior over a 10-year period costs well into the six figures.

“If IMG and Nick Bollettieri hadn’t helped Monica [Seles], she couldn’t have done it and would have just vanished,” Loehr said. “You need an unbelievable sense of drive, like the Williams sisters had, but they also had a pathway opened up to them and then earned it. In this country, playing tennis is very expensive. It’s such a large country and you have to cross it to be recognized and get to the highest level and there are serious financial barriers. While in Europe, they don’t have the same geography and can play all these tournaments and the cost isn’t as great. In the U.S., the only people who can afford it are affluent and it’s a perk and a status symbol. They aren’t vested 100 percent. When we do find athletes who are gifted, they can’t pay the tab for coaching and to travel. As you get better and better, more of the cost has to be taken over by the USTA or outside sources, so it becomes less expensive for you to reach a certain level, but you’ve earned the right to have your expenses paid for. It will make it possible for those who aren’t affluent to get to the top.”

Shriver isn’t sure if there is a true fix. “I think we can say for sure that the days of having a large volume of players is over, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have quality players. It’s a matter of setting up the right framework and pathway for success and finding the correct way to do that in this society isn’t going to be easy.”

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Managing Editor Inside Tennis Magazine