Twenty years of darkness: American men’s tennis hits inglorious milestone

<span>Photograph: Nick Laham/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Nick Laham/Getty Images

It started out as a trickle.

In 1993, the relatively unheralded Sergi Bruguera won the first of his two consecutive French Open titles, becoming the first Spaniard to claim a men’s major since Manuel Orantes’ triumph at the US Open in 1975 (Arantxa Sánchez Vicario had won the women’s title in Paris in 1989). Then a few years later, in 1998, Bruguera’s countryman, Carlos Moya, claimed the French Open. He was followed by two more Spaniards, with Juan Carlos Ferrero’s triumph in Paris in 2003 and Albert Costa’s victory there a year later. For a country that had a rather modest pedigree, Spain was becoming a presence in men’s tennis.

And then, of course, came the flood.

When Rafael Nadal, in all his swashbuckling, capri pant-wearing glory, exploded onto the scene at the French Open in 2005, it was clear that the Spanish forces had arrived. Not only did Nadal embark on a tear of dominance unlike anything that tennis, or maybe any sport, has witnessed – accumulating 14 French Open titles – he also demolished the stereotype of the clay-only label that had been affixed to the Spanish men; Nadal would reach six Wimbledon finals between 2006 and 2011, winning two. He has also won four US Opens and two Australian crowns. (Nadal is currently recovering from hip surgery and hopes to play one final full year on tour in 2024, so a 15th French title cannot yet be ruled out.)

And just as Nadal’s career begins its inevitable fadeout, in steps in another superstar from Spain.

Carlos Alcaraz, like Nadal, was forecast for great things from his junior days and he has not disappointed. Still only 20, Alcaraz will be gunning for his third grand slam title when he begins his US Open campaign next week. There is a growing consensus among the tennis observers that a haul of 10 majors is a conservative prediction for Alcaraz.

Alcaraz is an all-surface threat and he possesses such a remarkably well-rounded game that it’s hard to identify what his greatest strength is. While they share nationality, he and Nadal have different playing styles – with some overlap – to steamroll opponents.

So one all-time great is followed immediately by another superstar from the same country who has a different style of play … sound familiar? Maybe not for younger fans but there was a time when there seemed to be an endless parade of American men competing for slam titles.

In fact, aside from the period of the Jack Kramer pro tour/pre-Open era in the 1950s and 1960s, when many American players such as the great Pancho Gonzalez shed their amateur status and opted out of the majors in order to make a living, never more than a few years elapsed without a slam victory for the American men in the nearly 150-year history of the sport.

Consider, since the start of the Open era in 1968: Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe were succeeded by Jimmy Connors who then passed the baton to John McEnroe. Then after a – gasp! – four-year lull, in stepped Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi. Sampras and Agassi would be the defining rivalry of the 1990s. And after Sampras orchestrated, arguably, the greatest exit in sports history when he retired after his 2002 US Open victory over Agassi, Andy Roddick won the tournament in 2003 and it appeared that all was normal for American men’s tennis.

But this year’s US Open marks an inglorious anniversary of futility: it is now 20 years since Roddick defeated Juan Carlos Ferrero to become the last American man to win a grand slam singles title. In a sport where generations can often be defined in seven-year increments, it’s been a lifetime since Roddick’s triumph.

It must be noted that this drought applies only to the men, as American women – led by the Williams sisters – have won 35 major titles since the 1998 US Open. And Coco Gauff, the latest American star, will surely be one of the favorites in New York, especially after her victory on Sunday in Cincinnati. Although even the women are going through a relative drought: the last US woman to win a grand slam singles title was Sofia Kenin at the 2020 Australian Open.

So why is it that the Americans, who ruled the sport for more than 100 years, haven’t been able to produce a male grand slam winner in so long? In a country with bountiful riches, a diverse population and a climate suitable to the sport, it’s a glaring question.

There are various theories. Some say it’s because young athletes in the United States have too many choices among sports and other activities. Others believe American men are too one-dimensional, possessing strong forehands and serves but lack all-court awareness. Or some suggest that it’s because American juniors don’t train enough on clay where one is forced to be more creative and construct points, or that the United States suffers from a lack of a strong national training program or that there isn’t as much of an emphasis on footwork as there is in soccer-playing countries.

Some will counter such negativity and claims of American hopelessness by correctly stating that this is an unfair argument, considering there are more Americans in the ATP top 50 – eight – than any other country, including three in the top 15: Taylor Fritz (ninth), Frances Tiafoe (10th) and Tommy Paul (14th). And the American men whom the tennis cognoscenti think have the most potential aren’t far behind – injury-plagued Sebastian Korda, ranked 33rd, and Ben Shelton, currently 46th.

But if you were promoting American tennis, would you rather have the No 1 player in the world, or several ranked in the top 50, as a way to showcase the sport in the States?

France might prove to be a useful comparison. During the age of the Big Three, France produced several players who many thought were capable of winning a slam – Richard Gasquet, Jo Wilfried Tsonga and Gaël Monfils – but they always came up short, as nearly everyone else did against Federer, Nadal and Djokovic.

And then there are the countries that produce clusters of elite players, such as Switzerland. Who could have predicted that the tiny country would produce the great Federer along with Stan Wawrinka and Martina Hingis, all born within a few years of each other?

It’s still too early to tell if Spain will become a perennial force as the United States once was. Or whether Sweden serve as a more apt analogue? Starting with Björn Borg’s first slam title at the French Open in 1974, Sweden enjoyed a 20-year run of uninterrupted brilliance as Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg followed immediately after Borg. That trio collected 25 majors. But except for Tomas Johansson’s surprise victory at the Australian Open in 2002, Sweden hasn’t come close to a grand slam title since (and the country has never had a female champion in a major).

Since tennis has grown internationally and access to the sport has exploded, perhaps it will be impossible for a country to have a century-long influence in the slams as the United States men once enjoyed. But for the time being at least, Spain, in Alcaraz, is unquestionably riding a wave of dominance that may well last close to three decades.