That Was Then
Agassi had stone washed shorts with pink spandex, his own signature Nike pastel colored shirts, and a flowing Rick Springfield like mane that earned him Brook Shields. Chang had the Reebok Pumps so he could play like 6'0 (he was only about 5'6), and resembled your high school valedictorian and president of the student body who everyone liked, but no one knew that well. Pistol Pete had a serve and volley like no other, Bridget, and male pattern baldness that seemed to stop at just the right time. McEnroe was freakishly talented. His unfiltered passion for the sport, albeit abrasive, was invigorating. Despite being a-hole in the minds of the rest of the world, his tantrums would later on earn him millions making American Express commercials and commentating, not to mention bad game shows and cable talk programs. If you weren't in Mac's court, or in other words, weren't a Billy Joel loving Long Islander, you were a Connors fan.
Jimmy defined perseverance, heart and all things good about a professional athlete. He was regular guy who just happened to be a great tennis player that mothers, fathers, and kid's cheered on. Who doesn't remember exactly where they were during the insane Krickstein match? I remember I was on route to Giants Stadium for a football game listening to it on the radio. Speaking of, Krickstein contended just enough that you could remind people he was a Jewish kid from Michigan with a hot girlfriend, his father was an orthopedist who could have easily been Alan Greenspan's twin brother, and everyone was connected to him somehow through Jewish geography. Courier was like a Corona in a koozie, at times great on a hot summer day, but not as good in other seasons. He was the Zack Barnes (Peter Horton) of "Side Out." Point being, back then America had talent and personality from the top to the middle. Liken it to having Hogan and The Rock on the upper echelon and then crowd favorites good enough to compete against them like Tito Santana and Superfly Snuka.
At the end of the day, we were deep enough where simultaneously there could be a notable American playing in Louis Armstrong, the Grandstand and one of the outside courts. Least we forget the fortitude of foreign rivals who for the most part we disliked but lent a "Red Dawn," "Rocky IV" Cold War much needed competitive rivalry tone. There was Becker, arrogant and cocky, but fiercely competitive, and the youngest man to win Wimbledon at age 17. Since retirement, he's been know more as the Ace of the poker table than the tennis court, lending himself as the spokesperson for Poker Stars while evading a tax here and there. There was Lendel, the cold blooded fundamentally efficient Czech New Yorker's were prone to dislike, but tolerated because he was married to nice Jewish girl and lived in Greenwich. Lastly, we had Edberg, the cool as a cucumber classy Swede who without fail served and volleyed consistently well and was hard not to appreciate. Like Federer, his game seemed effortless, and you never got bored watching him play. He had one of the best signature polo shirts in the game, and for all we know today, Tiger's wife could be his daughter.
This Is Now
We don't have an American we can get behind that we believe can win a major or at the very least contend for titles regularly. We haven't since Sampras and Aggasi retired, who even at the end of their careers were a cut above today's players. In today's ATP Top 25 rankings, you'll find Andy Roddick ranked 5 and James Blake at 22. Last year at this time Roddick and Blake were ranked (8) and (9) respectively. Credit Roddick for not faltering, but you're only as good as the Grand Slams you've won, and despite a lethal serve, he's hasn't closed the big ones. Both Americans are worlds apart from tennis'axis of evil, Federer (1), Nadal (3) and even Djokovic (4) when he feels like playing. Andy Murray has risen quickly and impressively to the number 2 spot, but I'm still waiting for him to win a Grand Slam before anointing him top billing. If not for injuries, Rafa would be in the number 2 spot. Next in line you have Sam Querrey at (23) (the tall guy), and Mardy Fish (26), respectable, hard working guys who play above their potential, but hard to see them as contenders. Apart from Roger's disturbingly close relationship with Anna Wintour, his penchant for black patent leather Nike shoes during twilight Open matches, Rafe's knickers (which seem to be going away thankfully) and Menudo doo, and Novak's Jekyll and Hyde acts, it's hard not to like or at least respect these guys. How much so because we have no Americans regularly contending is debatable. Would we love Tiger as we do if he wasn't' an American? Where's our Tiger and Phil of tennis?
There's reason why Tiger is BFF with Roger, and why he openly supports him over Roddick. If you must know which Americans are next in the rankings, you'll have to scroll down your mouse for a while past countless FRA, ESP, ARG, RUS, SRB, CZE, CRO and GER notations, only to find Robby Ginepri (75), Robert Kendrick (78) and Kevin Kim (100). At this point, they may as well be a bunch of people who tried to friend you on Facebook. You can actually become a fan of Roger Federer on Facebook and for his part, he does some great fan friendly updates. Where is our latest prodigy like Great Britain's Andy Murray who is only a grand slam or two away from being a regular top contender? We are time and time again given a false sense of hope that Andy Roddick will turn the corner, but it's really not all that different than suggesting the Jets will win a Super Bowl in my lifetime. You start to feel for the guy, because he plays so darn hard when he's one the court (probably too hard than his talent allows), you hear about his getting married and maturing mentally, but it's hard to imagine his ever pulling it out in a close match. That was confirmed unfortunately at Wimbledon this year. Like the original A-ROD, he tends to tighten up in the heat of competition and is not as mentally fit as he is physically. Similarly, Andy shares A-ROD's lack of digression and media training. Just look at his jilted expression and envy after losing to Federer at Wimbledon. He was almost punkish. It was hard to watch Andy's crass mixed Roger's class. Sometimes I wonder how much better he could have been if he was not chosen to carry the American torch and had someone other than the underachieving James Blake picking up some of the slack.
What's the Problem?
We're not really cultivating players in college anymore as either tennis programs are being cut or increasingly dominated by foreigners, just like our best tennis academies in Florida have been for years now. Where's the incentive to join the tennis ranks if the sports has a lesser perceived scholarship value and importance on campus? There's a welcome mat to come train in the U.S. in the best facilities, climate, and under the finest instruction, and dominate the sport under another flag. Without a couple legitimate American stars, who is there to emulate and aspire to follow in the footsteps of? Every sport needs it handoff. Michael to Kobe to Lebron; Montana to Young to Manning; McEnroe and Connors to Sampras and Agassi to____?
Why does the talent of yesteryear disappear after retirement, and when they reappear, they do so in large part to the broadcast booth? Why is at that mediocre players turn to coaching (e.g. Brad Gilbert) and not the other way around? Why is the USTA not cultivating our stars of the game better? Is it a matter of having heart and talent? After all, two our brightest spots in the women's game came under the tutelage of Richard Williams with Venus and Serena. In a sport typically labeled as being cherished and played by the upper-middle class, the Williams sisters came from a lower socio-economic background, yet were instilled with the tools and determination to rise above. So, why isn't the USTA doing more to bring tennis to inner cities and more diverse backgrounds as a means to tap into a new prospect pool and instill hope and opportunity in something other than conventional sports?
A tennis court can be outlined on the concrete just as easily as a basketball court, and rackets are the same price as sneakers, if not less expensive. Look outside the lines of the U.S. and look at rise of the Serbian men and women professionals, who developed their games playing in swimming pools without water.
This is 2009 U.S. Open and the Mind of the Spectator
New Yorkers arrive at National Tennis Center Center in Flushing Meadows secretly hoping Justin Gimmelstob will come out of retirement and give us one last run through the third round. Fans anxiously await the unveiling of the new 2009 US Open logo so they can update their caps and t-shirts from the year prior, (we wonder how much bigger can the Polo logo get) and look forward to the next wave of innovation from American Express, who somehow manages to find a way to do more experiential marketing with less American talent every year. What's missing on the retail frontier these days is the signature player attire. Who can forget Edberg, Lendel's and Agassi's bespoke playing shirts that were available for sale like a piece of memorabilia. Now, most players are either sleeveless or wear factory issued Nike uniform. Gone is the originality, gone is the more niche Diadora, Serigo Tachinni, and Le Coq Sportif attire myself and countless other young aspiring tennis players adorned thinking it would get us to the #1 singles spot on the Varsity tennis team.
The only guy doing it right is the consummate professional Roger Federer, aka RF. He is worthy of his own Nike crest like his buddy Tiger. To his credit, unlike Tiger, Roger has actually been better at finding his brand of humor, just look at the ESPN style tongue and cheek NetJets commercial and fodder after matches. I used to feel guilty for rooting Roger on over Roddick, but the modern day RF requires no rationalization from an American fan's perspective. You see, I've digressed already, and am not even at the gate yet.
Moving on, when we get passed the gates we're delighted by the perk of having mini satellite TV's and wonder when the time will come when we can order food from our seats. On that note, we wonder what new culinary delight will be in the food court. Will Bobby Flay have created a signature Nadal Smashed Mojito for $20, and how much is too much to put on our corporate cards to entertain clients with it being a recession and all? Wait, is that the cast of Top Chef I see whipping up dishes behind Court 10 where rumor has it a promising junior from Stanford is warming up? Watching Andy Roddick in Arthur Asche, we get a little sucked into that false glimmer of hope again as we witness his monster serve. If he contended more and had a better temperament, New Yorkers could have warmed up to him like they do Phil Mickelson. He spends more time tugging at his ill fitting Lacoste polo shirt than he does hitting winners. With Jimmy Connors in his court a year ago, we liked him a little bit more, but only because we miss seeing Jimmy so much. One U.S. Open title six years ago is an afterthought and most would probably attach an asterisk to it since it didn't come against Roger. Unfortunately, the next best thing, James Blake, who despite a heartfelt admirable tennis comeback years ago, has proven less than inspiring himself. What he brings which Andy does not is an annoying entourage called the J Block, a contingency of 30 something Ivy League professionals (Blake went to Harvard briefly and is from Yonkers which we are reminded about every match by commentators) who probably had a class or two with Blake, but would be in better company at Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium.
Our best possible outcome is Blake and Roddick facing one another midway so one of them has to move on. Note, the omission of Roger or Rafe for whatever reason from late round play nullifies any forward progress or championship by Roddick. It's like winning the US Open with out Tiger and Phil competing. Again, trivial stuff, but this is the mind of today's American tennis fan, who has been delegated to food court and analysis and pessimism.
So What's America to Do to Get Through This?
1) Require all American prospects to train in swimming pools without water (it worked for the Serbs)
2) Have Nike bring back stone washed shorts with built-in spandex and if that doesn't work, have Reebok reissue The Pump
3) Establish an age limit mandating that all foreign players must be at least 21 years old to train in the United States; at least this gives a head start
4) Make everyone go through rigorous training in Dubai
5) Pressure Agassi/Graf and Sampras/Wilson to reproduce at least 5 children
6) Call on President Obama to anoint a special task force for solving America's tennis talent shortage (foreigners living the US such as Lendel may serve)
7) Get rid of the "J Block" at the US Open (justification on the grounds of drawing comparisons to the former Hennmen's Hill need not apply, they were Brits).
8) Offer Federer and Nadal dual citizenship in the U.S.
9) Find Nick Bollettieri and give him a bigger role
10) Bring back wooden rackets, maybe it will even out the playing field
11) Allow flash photography and heckling at U.S. Open matches
12) Make Roddick and Blake double's partners
13) Ask Richard Williams for permission to make Serena and Venus compete on the men's circuit and have him rewrite the training manual for the USTA
14) Have Jeff Zucker commission a reality show on Bravo, Search for the Next Great Tennis Star, hosted by none other than Johnny Mac (it can packaged with Wimbledon coverage as the return of "Must See TV")
15) Launch a Senior's Tour. It just might be more compelling than the current fare.
If All of the Above Fails
16) Test Nadal for steroids
17) Check Novak's papers
18) Make Roger disclose his holdings in Dubai
19) Authorize the use of performance enhancing drugs
20) Join forces with another country to play under a joint flag