American men's tennis in serious lull
Special to FOXSports.com
With the season-ending Tennis Masters Cup Shanghai just over a month away, U.S. men's tennis has hit a major impasse as the current generation of veterans struggle to stay relevant.
Top-ranked Roger Federer has already run away with the title of Greatest Player of his Generation; three-time French Open champion Rafael Nadal is a clear No. 2; and this year, Serbian sensation Novak Djokovic has definitively seized the No. 3 spot, reaching the U.S. Open final as well as the French and Wimbledon semis.
Where does that leave this generation of mid-20s Americans — Andy Roddick, James Blake, Mardy Fish and Robby Ginepri? It leaves Roddick and Blake hoping to win their first Davis Cup title in the final against Russia at the end of November, and Fish and Ginepri trying to up their ranking before the season ends and gain some momentum going into 2008, as neither of them is on the U.S. Davis Cup squad.
Roger Federer's gains have come at the expense of Andy Roddick and other U.S. players. So when are the Americans going to make a comeback? (DEAN TREML / Getty Images)
"The thing about Roger is he's cemented himself as such a dominant player and he's not giving anything away," Fish told FOXSports.com. "When you go out and play Nadal off clay, he's had some losses that (have) been a little eye opening. He's cemented himself as the No. 2 and is an unbelievable player, but he's lost to guys like Mikhail Youzhny, Tomas Berdych and Djokovic on hard courts, so you can walk on court and think, 'This is a match I can win. If I play my game, I can beat him.'
"With Roger, he's been so dominant that he doesn't give anybody that false sense of hope that they really have a shot. That's a big thing for him. There are some guys who feel like they can beat him, he is human, but he's been so dominant that if you see your name next to his on that line on the draw sheet you're not feeling so good about yourself."
There was hope that this group of Americans would pick up the torch when the greatest U.S. generation ever — Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang — retired one after another. But since Agassi won his last Grand Slam title at the 2003 Australian Open, only Roddick has been able to leave a stamp on the game when he won the 2003 U.S. Open and briefly became No. 1 in the world.
Then Federer began to take off; Nadal became a Bjorn Borg-like force on clay beginning in 2005; and now it's Djokovic — not Roddick or Blake — who managed to snare a win over Federer this year and scare him in the U.S. Open final. Roddick played possibly the two best sets of his life in a 7-6 (5), 7-6 (4), 6-2 loss to Federer in the U.S. Open quarterfinals. It was his 13th defeat in 14 matches against Federer.
"Tiebreakers are such crap shoots, but Roger seems to pick his game up and sees those little openings and he takes it every time," Fish said. "Nadal, Djokovic and Andy think they can beat him. Andy has played him close and if Roger is just a little off, Andy can win that match. James thinks so, too. But Roger has been so dominant, he just squashes all hope."
The United States hasn't had a man in the winner's circle in the last 16 Grand Slams, its worst drought since the mid-1980s, when Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg grabbed the reigns of the Tour away from John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. It wasn't until Chang won the French Open in 1989 that an American became relevant again.
The country is in much the same shape now, with the Europeans dominating and the Americans, Australians and, of course, British, only feeding on table scraps.
Very soon, U.S. tennis fans may stop looking at Roddick's generation as the group that can fight off Federer and begin considering whether the new trio of young Americans — serving demons Sam Querrey and John Isner and the soft-handed Donald Young — have major titles in them. It's still too early to tell whether any of them can eventually become top 10 players, but it's pretty clear that at this point, none of them has shown a pattern that you often see from the all-time greats — making a huge impression at a Grand Slam early in their pro careers.
Each of those three players needs a year or two of further seasoning, which leaves it up to Roddick, Blake, Fish and Ginepri to hold the fort down for at least another Slam cycle. The ultra-competitive Roddick has made substantial strides in his game over the past year and a half under his coach, Connors, but with each passing Grand Slam, he's looking less and less like a guy who has enough athleticism and technical ability to put together another run at No. 1. The 26-year-old Blake, who is attempting to defend his title in Stockholm this week, is one of the most mentally troubled elite players of the past decade when it comes to the majors. His best finish at a Grand Slam is a quarterfinal appearance at the U.S. Open (2005 and '06). Ginepri, a former top 20 player who reached the U.S. Open semifinals in 2005, seems completely lost.
And Fish, an Olympic silver medalist who reached a career high No. 17 in 2004, feels like he's playing his best tennis of the year, but isn't sure that anyone on the planet can stop Federer's march to breaking Pete Sampras' all-time record of 14 Grand Slam titles if the Swiss stays healthy. Fish says that he and his close American friends will keep taking cuts at the god-like Federer, but he doesn't sound convinced that another cycle of U.S. pre-eminence is just around the corner.
"It's amazing," said the 25-year-old Fish. "Roger and I are the same age. I feel like with the Americans, we are only going to get better and smarter because it's not like we are playing football and our bodies are falling apart because we're getting tackled. You just have to keep it going and see if Roger slips up and gets a little nicked up like everyone else does. He never gets injured and he picks his spots as to when he's training and when he takes time off perfectly. It's amazing. I don't know how he does it."