American players were once so much a part of the fabric of Wimbledon that in 1980, when asked who the main challengers to defending champion Björn Borg of Sweden were, former Roland Garros champion Tony Trabert named six US competitors. Trabert’s group did not even include the American Jimmy Connors, who had won the 1974 title, but did include John McEnroe, who would end up losing a dramatic five-set final to Borg.
American men won 15 Wimbledon titles from the start of the Open Era in 1968 (the first year that pros and amateurs were allowed to compete together) but have not won one since 2000, when Pete Sampras lifted the last of his seven crowns.
Armed with the tour’s most feared serve, American Andy Roddick, a 2003 US Open champion, reached the Wimbledon final on three occasions and came awfully close to winning the title in 2009 when he dropped a five-setter to Swiss Roger Federer. But Roddick retired last year.
Now, for the first time ever, the US do not have one male on tour who holds a Grand Slam title.
The names of US men who stood proudly in front of the duke and duchess of Kent raising the winner’s trophy, such as Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe, Connors, McEnroe, Sampras and Andre Agassi, are still on the champions plaques inside the locker room of the All England Club, but they are no longer fighting for the title.
With the exception of Australian Lleyton Hewitt’s title run in 2002, the winners at Wimbledon have become an entirely European group, with Federer having won the title seven times, Spaniard Rafael Nadal twice and Serbian Novak Djokovic once. Those three men, along with Britain’s Andy Murray, dominate today’s game, so much so that they have been tagged with the moniker “The Big 4”.
In the past decade, since Federer won his first major trophy at Wimbledon in 2003, they have combined to win 36 of the 39 majors. Prior to this European quartet, the tennis world was headed by another foursome, this one American, with Sampras, Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang, who combined for 27 Grand Slam titles between 1989-2003. The last US male to hold up a Grand Slam title of any kind was Roddick at the US Open in 2003.
“US men don’t stack up since the world has caught up to us,” says former Wimbledon quarter-finalist Johan Kriek, a native of South Africa, who was a top 10 player in Borg and McEnroe’s era and has lived in the US for decades. “It’s simple really: The talent right now on the US men’s side is quite shallow compared to 10-20 years ago.”
When Wimbledon opens its doors for its 2013 version on Monday, the US will have two seeded players in John Isner (world No.21) and Sam Querrey (No.19), neither of whom has gone beyond the fourth round of the tournament.
Sampras cannot pinpoint the exact reason for the decline, but believes that the success of his generation was rare and may never occur again. “It’s a tricky time,” he says. “The game has gotten so global. (There are) a lot of talented players around the world, so that it is tougher for America to dominate. It’s hard to duplicate that every decade. (It) might take a few more years to get a crew of Americans. It goes in cycles. Unfortunately, we’re not where we want to be in that cycle.
“You’ve Nadal, Federer and Djokovic dominating the game. It’s hard to really compete with those guys when it comes to the (John) Isners and the (Sam) Querreys. Those guys are head and shoulders above everyone else. So it’s a tricky time. But hopefully we can turn this around,” adds Sampras.
Courier, who twice won Grand Slam titles at both the Australian and French Opens and also reached the Wimbledon final, says US players need to open their minds and try to understand how others are succeeding. “Our players need to take a look around the landscape and see what is happening on the tour and see how players from other countries are making better use of their opportunities,” says Courier, who now serves as the US Davis Cup captain.
“Basically they need to train correctly, prepare correctly and, just as important, schedule correctly. It’s a long, tough year and you have to make sure you are at your maximum going into the Slams,” he adds. “I am particularly impressed with Spain. They get it right.”
Isner, 28, and Querrey, 25, are mid-career players who have similar styles: big serves and forehands. Even though they grew up watching Sampras serve and volley and had seen tapes of McEnroe’s successful creative style, neither of them tried to copy the great champions. The American style of attacking grass-court play, which was also employed by serve and volleyers Ashe and Smith, has been tossed into the dustbins of history, partly because the surface at Wimbledon has slowed down and the bounces are more pure. But that does not mean that they should be able to have more success on grass.
“It’s more of a mindset,” says John McEnroe’s brother Patrick, a former pro who is now head of the United States Tennis Association (Usta) Player Development. “Isner’s return is a problem, so that hurts him on grass, but he’s underachieved at Wimbledon. He has to go in there with the right mindset and attack, and go for more big second serves. Just kicking it up on grass isn’t as effective; serve-and-volley is tough for him because he isn’t the most nimble guy.”
The thought in US tennis circles is that outside of the 6ft, 9 inches Isner, who does own wins over Federer and Djokovic, there isn’t any obvious player on the scene who is capable of winning a major this year.
But there are some possibilities in the pipeline. At the French Open (26 May-9 June) in Roland Garros, four young players made it into the main draw, three of them by qualifying: Jack Sock, Steve Johnson, Rhyne Williams and Denis Kudla. All but Kudla are attacking players. Patrick and his coaching staff oversee the careers of all of them.
“In regards to the men, I think we turned the corner at the French, I really do,” Patrick says. “These guys are a little late to the party, but they are starting to get it.”
Patrick doesn’t expect any of them to make major waves at the All England Club this year, owing to their lack of experience on British grass, but he does believe that their games can eventually translate into success.
Twenty-year-old Sock has firepower, but is still a bit immature (he lost in the second round at Roland Garros to Tommy Haas and then in the first round of Wimbledon qualifying). However, with a little more seasoning, he might be the US’ next top 10 player. Or it could be 21-year-old Ryan Harrison, a coach’s son, who has a good understanding of the game. But he has struggled against top players, including a blowout loss to Djokovic at the 2013 Australian Open and a five-set loss to Isner in Paris.
Former No.1 John McEnroe, who won Wimbledon three times, is more hopeful than sure that any of this group will even come close to what he accomplished. “Ryan, I always felt, was a solid player, top 20 potential, but I didn’t see that individual sort of trait that would separate him with some of these other guys,” he says. “Some of these guys have that extra potential gear. I like Sock, but I don’t know exactly what’s happening as far as his commitment (goes). I think, at times, he’s made some positive steps. But I’m hopeful that someone comes along that will shake things up, particularly if he’s American and brings some juice back to what’s going on in America. Obviously, right now, you’re just talking about the other four guys who, if anyone, can possibly win a major.”
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