Wimbledon, July 1, 2002
U.S. men's tennis: RIP, fellas
By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist
© St. Petersburg Times
published July 1, 2002
Once, they roamed the earth, thick and plentiful.
They were strong, and they were fast, and it seemed they would last forever. They were American male tennis players, and at times the herd was so thick you could barely see the court beneath their feet.
There were Tilden and Kramer, and Budge and McKinley. There were Smith and Ashe, and Connors and Tanner. There were McEnroe and Gerulaitis, and Sampras and Agassi. They came one after another, different styles, different temperaments. But they all could play the game, by golly. And when it came to the second week of Wimbledon, you could count on seeing them.
Now here we are.
Hey, America was warned. For years, we in your local Alarmist Union have been warning you the pack was getting thin. Extinction is forever, we said. And did you listen? Did you pick up a racket? No, you did not.
And so here we are, looking forward to a week at Wimbledon where our men don't really matter. Frankly, we might be looking at about 157 weeks where our men don't matter because it seems like it's going to take about three more years before our kids get ripe.
Eighty years. Not since 1922, almost to Babe Ruth's pitching days, has Wimbledon entered its final 16 without an American male. Since the Open era started in '68, we've had at least two. On the other hand, there used to be a lot of carrier pigeons, too.
You know how bad it is? In Sunday's Independent, John Lloyd was encouraging Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi to retire. John Lloyd! Lloyd said that watching Sampras the other day reminded him of himself, which may be the meanest thing anyone ever said about Pete.
Young players, such as Jeff Morrison, will tell you that nothing's wrong. That Andy Roddick and James Blake and Marty Fish and the rest will be just fine, thank you. On the other hand, here we are. Sixteen men and what do you get? Another week of a Wimbledon that isn't even wet.
So what happened? When, exactly, did the youth of a nation decide that tennis wasn't as cool as it was the day before?
Ten reasons for the fall of American tennis:
1. Tatum O'Neal. After reading John McEnroe's You Cannot Be Serious, I am certain of this one. I think we need to launch an immediate investigation into just how many of these players Tatum married, and when. And if not Tatum, check into other actresses such as Brooke Shields and Bridgette Wilson, who did the unthinkable to Sampras. She made him happy.
2. Bad recruiting. The Brits beat us to Greg Rusedski. If you haven't noticed, the counterfeit Brit is doing quite well this year. Ah, if only he had bolted to, say, Iowa instead of England. I say we immediately try to recruit players from other nations. I think Lleyton Hewitt would be a fine Floridian, don't you? We could move Tim Henman to Boston and Marat Safin to California and Andre Sa to Alabama. (Hey, it worked with Martina Navratilova, didn't it?)
3. Video Games. Once upon a time there was Pong, and we were happy. We would spend hours moving that blip back and forth, working the angles. Then we would go out and play tennis, which was the live version of Pong. Now, there is the X-box. Which leads us to:
4. The X-Games. In recent years, we've become quite good at sports no other country plays. And where do you think those athletes come from? That's right, from the tennis courts. Right now, at this very minute, someone is putting away his tennis racket in order to go surf or skateboard or snowboard. I checked. There is no snowboard competition at Wimbledon (although, I admit, there should be.) Also, Tiger Woods took up golf.
5. The country clubs. Once, America led the world in producing the snotty little rich kids who made such great tennis players. These days, the pampering is all wrong. Rich kids shouldn't get a Porsche when they're 16. They should get a Mercedes and work their way up to a Porsche.
6. Bud Collins' pants.
7. The money. It's gotten so big a player can own his own country without ever reaching the semifinals. (Not a very nice country, of course. Maybe Greenland). Worse, it's turned the players into rock stars. Ask yourself. When is the last time you felt you knew a player's personality? People blame Sampras for the loss of personality on the tour; I blame agents and entourages.
8. Bjorn Borg. Once, it seems, tennis players came from Australia or America or other warm climates. When Borg broke onto the scene, he showed players could come from anywhere. Now, they do. (So do baseball and basketball players, for that matter). Of course, they all seem to train in Florida. Shouldn't there be some sort of tax on that?
9. The nicknames. All the really good ones are gone. Once, there was Jimbo and Superbrat, Nasty and Boom-Boom. Now, they are calling Andy Roddick ... A-Rod. For goodness' sake, say A-Rod to anyone on the street, and they'll say, "Alex Rodriguez? Are the Rangers in town?" How are you going to be No. 1 with a used nickname? (I know. It worked for Pistol Pete Sampras, didn't it?)
10. Assault rackets. It was once said the revolver was what really made men equal. That's true for the tennis racket, too. Unlike golf, which vexes over every new golf ball, tennis equipment has gone unchecked too long. The result is everyone plays a nuclear style of tennis, with tiny mushroom clouds appearing after each serve. Pretty dull stuff. As a result, those tennis courts near your house remain empty.
McEnroe has suggested a return to wooden rackets would be good for everyone. It would make players play more creatively. It would make matches more interesting. It would make fans watch.
Of course, who's listening to McEnroe?
It's not like he's from a nation where men play tennis, is it?