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ESPN COMMENTARY: Approaching Extinction Of U.S. Tennis

Thursday, May 27, 2010

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by Roy S. Johnson

Catch them while you can. Wave your flags. Root, root, root for Andy Roddick and the Williams sisters. Do it now. Love 'em or not, take a snapshot because they're the last of a breed, the endangered species of American tennis champions.

After them, extinct. Gone. Done. Think dodo birds.

Or so it seems right now.

Roddick has won only a single Grand Slam, and it was so long ago (U.S Open, '03) we still thought housing prices could only go up and few people outside of Hyde Park had heard of Barack Obama. But Roddick remains the No. 8-ranked player in the world, and is still a threat to boom his way to a Slam, and he's married to a supermodel.

After Roddick, the highest-ranked American men are John Isner (No. 19), someone named Sam Querrey (No. 22) and German-born Tommy Haas (No. 23), who became a U.S. citizen this year. From there you won't find another American man in the rankings until Mike Russell (No. 82) and the still popular but fading James Blake (No. 83). Isner, Querrey, Russell and Blake have won 15 singles titles (none of them Grand Slams), but 10 of them belong to Blake.

Venus and Serena? They're history in the flesh (literally, at times). Baby and Big Sister, straight outta Compton, are the No. 1 and No. 2 players in the world, the first siblings to achieve such a distinction since, well, Venus and Serena did it in May 2003. They have won 79 singles titles (19 of which are Slams), plus doubles and mixed doubles Slam titles. Most importantly, they've defined this generation of women's tennis. Since 2002 when Venus first reached No. 1, seven women not named Williams have been No. 1, and yet here Venus and Serena are, still thriving, lingerie outfits and whatnot, still at the summit of the game.

Which Americans behind them might reach such a pinnacle some day? Please. No one I see carrying the red, white and blue right now. The next-highest-ranked American woman is U.S. Open darling Melanie Oudin, at No. 37. Yet we've heard nary a peep since her coming out at Flushing Meadows last fall, when she became the youngest player since Serena to reach the quarterfinals, defeating fourth-seeded Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova en route.

Then comes Vania King at No. 69. Neither survived the first round at Roland Garros.

Among the "next" American men, only Isner reached the second round. Querrey and Russell lost in the opening round, and Blake didn't play in the tournament. (Taylor Dent, Robby Ginepri and Mardy Fish, a trio of players with lower expectations and approaching 30, also won opening matches.)

So catch The Contenders now. Roddick is just 27; Serena is a year older. Venus turns 30 in June. Physically, they should be around for at least a few more years. But fatigue and other, sexier endeavors may tug them away sooner than you know, and when it happens, tennis in the U.S. will become, well, soccer.

No, it will be worse.

As soccer, the world's most popular sport, prepares for its quadrennial global orgy, it continues to gain steady footing in the U.S. among sports fans. American Landon Donovan is certainly higher on the buzz meter than any American male tennis player not named Roddick (did I tell you he was married to a super-swimsuit model?).

Meanwhile, save for a couple of torrid weeks in the fall, and the weekends when we watch the finals of the French and Wimbledon, tennis doesn't even register a blip on our radar anymore. Interestingly, grass-roots participation in the sport has never been higher. The 2009 TIA/USTA Tennis Participation study shows that total tennis participation tops 30 million players for the first time in the 22-year history of the survey.

On the flip side, television ratings are tumbling, even for the biggest events. When Americans Andre Agassi and Serena Williams won the 1999 U.S. Open men's and women's singles titles, an average of 3.5 million television viewers watched each telecast. Three years ago, when Sweden's Roger Federer and Belgium's Justine Henin won the titles, that average had slumped to just 1.9 million viewers. (Viewership was up last year.)

The impact of an American champion is perhaps most stark at Wimbledon, which no American man has won since Pete Sampras in 2000. That year, more than 4 million U.S. viewers watched the event. By 2006, that number had plummeted to 2 million. Even with a slight uptick since, the audience has remained below 3 million. Interestingly, American women (or rather, a Williams) have won eight of the past 10 Wimbledon singles titles, though it has not been enough to stem the overall decline in viewership.

Clearly, without Roddick and the Williamses to at least make us care, tennis stands poised to fall behind soccer in popularity in the U.S.

Oh, sure, someone could always have a moment of greatness. Any of our upstarts could snatch a magic carpet and ride it to a Slam final, maybe even a title. But who's the next Roddick, who won his Grand Slam at age 21 or the next Williams, who captured their first Slam singles titles at 20 (Venus) and 18 (Serena)?No one.


Let's face it, we stink at tennis. Really stink. Despite the USTA's best efforts (or worst, depending upon whom you're talking to) to discover and nurture the next generation of tennis stars, officials simply cannot manufacture greatness. Not when the sport has become more niche than even golf, which has Tiger Woods (don't laugh), Phil Mickelson, Anthony Kim and other Americans who are a threat to be in the final pairing on any given Sunday.

Just recently, tennis icon John McEnroe announced he was opening an academy in New York. He shuns the "total immersion" model used by most of the more noted academies and is modeling his program after the one in Port Washington, N.Y., that helped build his game. Gifted players play regularly, but attend school independently from the academy. In other words, they have a life. He also hopes to draw kids from areas of the city, such as Harlem and Brooklyn, that have not traditionally been sown for tennis stars.

"People feel, put the kids in the middle of nowhere, isolate them, so all they can do is live and breathe tennis," McEnroe told The New York Times. "Me, I went to Florida with Harry Hopman, at 15 or 16, for one day and said, 'I've got to get out of here.' Never would I have made it if I had to do that. It would have been a form of torture."

I know the argument that our best athletes are playing other sports -- even relatively minor but booming ones like lacrosse. But can't we find, say, 10 kids (five boys, five girls) who can play this game at the highest level?

Sadly, no. The only kids picking up tennis racquets these days are kids whose parents play, and that's just not enough to produce champions.

And without champions -- or even potential champions -- our interest in the sport will continue to wane, especially as even the popular top foreign players like Federer, Rafael Nadal and Sharapova begin to fade due to time or injury.

Too bad. With names such as Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Don Budge, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Chris Evert and others so much a part of America's past glory, it's sad that tennis no longer gives us a thrill. But it happens.

It's happening. Faster than we know. Roy S. Johnson, a veteran sports journalist and media consultant, is the editor-in-chief of Men's Fitness. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

Posted by Shelia

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