No one tuning in to the U.S. Open men's and women's semifinals and finals this weekend is going to want to hear this, but I have bad news: the vaunted American "tennis boom" of the 1970s and '80s was a fluke. We were supposed to see tennis broken out of its country-club, upper-crusty enclaves and delivered to the masses. And for a while, it worked. The result, in fact, is the massive National Tennis Center complex, which annually hosts the U.S. Open.
America took to tennis for a while. Public courts sprang up everywhere, young kids got racquets and took lessons, and a generation of marketable American stars -- Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, even a naturalized Martina Navratilova -- emerged. It inspired a mega-generation, which included Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, and the Williams sisters.
But then the nation lost interest. Or more accurately, had its interest diverted, into Tiger Woods' brand of golf, a resurgent Major League Baseball, fantasy football, big time hoops, X-Games -- the whole EPSN-ificated suite of competitive contests. Now the bottom has fallen out of American tennis. I live in Los Angeles, a one-time tennis hotbed, where on any given day, the city's vast supply of public tennis courts is...completely empty.
A common lament at this year's U.S. Open is that we have no up-and-coming male pro players, and when the Williams sisters are finished, the situation looks grim for the ladies. Jimmy Connors, doing commentary for the Tennis Channel, said that the country is already a generation behind on junior development and unless something happens soon in terms of catching up, we'll fall two generations behind.
Nothing is going to happen. It's important to remember that this is historically consistent. Tennis has always gone through boom and bust cycles in America. We had great champions in the 1920s and '30s, like Bill Tilden and Don Budge, but tennis became a second-tier sport again after World War II and didn't really pop back into Americans' consciousness until the '70s and '80s boom.
This is evident in the caliber of world-class players we have today. Andy Roddick is the only American man in the top ten. James Blake, a class act, if never a serious threat as a Grand Slam champion, has fallen out of the top ten. The next few American men, guys like John Isner and Sam Querrey, are rising, but it's hard to see them challenging the raft of European and South American players who currently dominate the game. On the women's side, it's even worse. Melanie Oudin was a great story at this year's Open, but the top women are from the countries of the former USSR, Belgium, and France. We have Venus and Serena, but they're not going to be around forever.
The experts who monitor the game can talk all they want about identifying juniors early and getting them into tennis, or adopting some of the passion, innovation, and sheer love for the game that we see in the likes of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer. But it's not going to work because the broad public support for the game isn't there. Trying to force things back to the way they were in the 1980s is a futile undertaking. I hate to be pessimistic, but I take some solace in my belief that the cycle will come back around in another 20-30 years and America will go tennis mad again.
By then, this false debate over the future of American tennis will be long forgotten. We'll be less likely at that time to see a manufactured, built-by-pros U.S. challenger to the world's tennis elite. These young men and women won't play because everyone wants them to -- they'll play because they love the game and can't imagine doing anything else. Tennis is an individual sport. The most important motivation doesn't come from the group. It comes from within. And the sooner we confront the fact that the U.S. tennis boom was an anomaly rather than destiny or the norm, the sooner we'll solve the "problem" of American tennis.
Oh, and by the time we stage our comeback, maybe we'll have a roof on the largest tennis stadium in the world, so our national tournament isn't stalled for days by rain in September.
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