Wimbledon 2013 was one for the record books.
There was the good: Andy Murray became the first British men's champion in 77 years.
There was the bad: Court conditions forced injuries leading seven players to withdraw on one day.
There was the ugly: For the first time in 101 years no American man reached the second week of the tournament.
Yet, it was the record-setting 4 hour and 43 minute Men's semifinal that proved most telling when it comes to what American men's tennis is missing and what it needs. In a word, athletes.
Novak Djokovic, the world's #1 player and easily the best returner in the game faced the 6'6'', big serving Argentine, Juan Martin del Potro. In a match many now consider to be one of the most physically demanding ever played at a major -- it had everything: deft shot making, spectacular gets, exhaustive baseline rallies, booming serves, and huge momentum shifts. As the match approached its fifth hour -- Djokovic emerged victorious -- his mental toughness and sheer stamina taking him over the finish line. Illustrating again why 33 of the past 34 Grand Slam titles belong to only four men: Djokovic, Nadal, Murray and Federer -- del Portro, ironically being the exception.
Every sport places high demands on their athletes, however few sports (ie: Ironman triathlons, basketball, soccer and hockey) outside of tennis require their athletes to repeatedly execute over extended periods of time and with such precision and intensity their arsenal of physical versatility and skills in order to win. In tennis, where a player's aerobic and anaerobic thresholds are constantly under siege and their work to rest ratio hovers between 1:1 - 1:3, it is easy to see why elite athleticism is at a premium. Explosiveness, power, strength, agility, flexibility, mental toughness, and muscle and cardiovascular endurance have become the earmarks of today's champions.
Players like Nadal, Murray, Djokovic, Ferrer, Tsonga and Federer exhibit the explosiveness of Olympic sprinters - often while changing direction numerous times -- yet each also possesses the stamina of a top-flight marathoner. With such capabilities, it 's not surprising that these players dominate the game. This, after all, is the generation of foreign players who benefited from a then emerging training philosophy in European tennis known as multilateral development -- where priority is placed on high, multi-sport performance, VO2 maximization and physical and neuromuscular development. The foresight of those in Europe and the lack of a similar one here at the USTA - begins to tell the story and answer the burning question: What's become of American men's tennis?
Beginning in the 1990's and realizing the game of tennis was starting to evolve, countries like Spain, France and Switzerland began shifting their priorities. De-emphasizing the serve and volley and accelerating a player's baseline game, resulting in their need to be in optimum physical and mental condition in order to be successful. With their federations, academies and national clubs on board, re-thinking the type of players they needed to develop became top-of-mind. No longer was it based solely on skill. Instead a high value was placed on the young, multi-sport athlete - opening doors to kids who'd previously never considered playing tennis and most likely never would have. It wasn't long before a new breed of tennis player was born overseas.
One who was now faster, fitter and stronger - with a still mind and a ferocious spirit.
Quickly they began to ascend the rankings. Dismantling opponents and amazing spectators with their punishing power, superb speed and dogged determination. Soon they were hoisting trophies, collecting sizable paychecks and being celebrated by a new legion of fans - most important being - young kids. Tennis was cool again everywhere except here in the United States.
As eastern and western Europeans, South Americans and others catapulted into the men's top 10, Americans plummeted out. Their centuries-long dominance in venues worldwide was coming to an end. As fewer American men remained relevant, the sport attracted less positive attention, making it difficult to see how appealing to the next generation was even possible. To make matters worse, the USTA's methodology wasn't changing. They remained single-minded, lacking a vision for the sport's future and how integral it was to re-position itself with America's youth...believing their past successes would again repeat themselves. This self-inflicted gunshot wound would deeply penetrate the heart and soul of American men's tennis with a post-mortem that continues to reveal its many causes of death.
At the same time soccer and to a lesser degree, lacrosse, were commanding the attention of children around the country - especially in cities and towns that historically saw high levels of youth tennis. Instead, kids signed up in droves to play these newer "high-speed" sports - no longer interested in the sport of tennis. Adidas and Nike didn't do tennis any favors either. Aware of soccer's rise in popularity, both apparel companies launched aggressive marketing campaigns aimed at their new, young consumer, applying the same successful tactics they'd used when promoting basketball and football. Highlighting the superstars of soccer, the global fanaticism associated with the game and it's flair for the dramatic. Adding a new athlete to the mix of those seen as "cool at school." Soccer and lacrosse were legit sports in the youth culture and tennis was dealt another blow.
The USTA's laundry list of past failures and years of complacency created the perfect-storm of missed opportunities, most evident the chance to recruit, cultivate and develop an entire generation of superior athletes similar to those who currently reign supreme or who are well positioned to soon infiltrate that elite group.
It's hard to say how long this drought will continue. With Patrick McEnroe now heading up the USTA's player development, changes have been made and more are promised.
The return of men's tennis to its rightful place in the fabric of America sports culture is imperative. To successfully affect-change the USTA can not fear the unconventional when it comes to hiring new coaches, executives and marketers to re-invigorate the sport, elevate the brand and execute the vision and strategies necessary to develop a strong stable of exceptional athletes destined to become future champions and re-writing the record books for decades to come.
What took place this year at Wimbledon was ugly and never again should American men's tennis live on the wrong side of history.