U.S. playing catch-up in tennis world

Martin Rogers

Have you heard the one about the Swiss, the Spaniard, the Scotsman and the Serbian?

Apart from being a nightmare for anyone cursed with a lisp, the above sentence represents the elite of men's tennis. And the joke is on the United States.

The power base of the men's game is no longer stationed in North America, with the dwindling U.S. talent stocks rarely more apparent than right now.

Andy Roddick sits at No. 5 in the rankings and remains a consistent contender despite only having one Grand Slam title to his name. However, the epicenter of the sport has shifted to Europe, with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic having sat tight in the leading four spots in the rankings for more than a year.

So what has happened to U.S. tennis? What has happened to the nation that spawned multiple champions John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier?

Why is it that heading into the U.S. Open on Monday, that of the American contingent, only Roddick has any kind of chance at glory?

"The rest of the world has just caught up," Roddick said. "Tennis is popular in this country, but there are so many other big sports. A lot of the best athletes go into football or basketball or whatever.

"In other countries it is not like that. Tennis is probably the second-most popular sport in the world, but not over here. It makes it difficult but U.S. tennis has not gone backward, the overall level has just gone through the roof."

Behind Roddick though, the rankings make for miserable reading. The fast-emerging Sam Querrey has soared to No. 22, making him the second-highest American, one slot ahead of James Blake. Mardy Fish is No. 26 but has pulled out of the Open with a rib injury, and no other American players occupy the top 50 and only five more make the top 100.

Contrast that with 20 years ago, when six U.S. players were in the top 10 and 30 in the top 100.

"It is a matter of how the game has changed," said coaching guru Nick Bollettieri, who welcomes pupils from all around the globe to his training academy in Florida. "Back then you didn't get kids from Serbia or Russia or countries like that rising to the elite level. The best coaching opportunities were over here and American players had a big advantage.

"That has all changed and you have these kids now who have great motivation and a desire to succeed. Tennis has evolved into a game where your background need not matter if you can get the right technical assistance and build a career for yourself."

There also is plenty of international strength on the women's side, but the success of the Williams sisters serves to highlight the drop-off in the success rate of the men.

Case in point: Roddick's triumph in the 2003 U.S. Open was the last time an American won a Slam, with 23 barren majors having elapsed in between. Meanwhile, each Williams sister has won multiple Slams in that time.

Some critics have argued American players no longer possess the hunger and desire to reach the very top, with comfortable livings to be made as a top-20 or top-30 player.

Querrey, who has reached tour finals but has only won one this year, insists the determination is still there.

"It is just so competitive," Querrey said. "I want to be as good as I can be and I am very pleased with the steps I have made. [But] anyone who tells you this is an easy way to make a living is kidding themselves.

"The overall standard is much higher than years ago – it is all about the strength in depth, which is outstanding. There are good American players coming through and I think there always will be, but people have to start lower down the pecking order and work their way up."

That's because tennis has gone global over the past two decades and this year's U.S. Open men's field includes players from Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Ecuador and Latvia.

"You see guys from everywhere," Roddick said. "And they can all play. You can't take anyone likely or say that any country is superior. It is down to the individual and what they are prepared to put in."

So has U.S. tennis gotten weaker or has the world caught up? A combination of both is probably closest to the truth, but one thing is for certain: If Roddick makes a dramatic breakthrough and adds a second Slam title Sept. 13, few would be talking about the weakness of American men's tennis any longer.