America Still Waiting For Next Great Tennis Champ

By Don Wade

Before last year’s U.S. Open, GQ asked a question with John McEnroe-like bluntness: “Why does America suck at tennis?”

Tennis legend John McEnroe warms up on a practice court before an exhibition doubles game at the Regions Morgan Keegan Classic on Monday at The Racquet Club of Memphis.  

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

It’s an offensive question to American Ryan Sweeting, 24, playing at this week’s Regions Morgan Keegan Championships at The Racquet Club of Memphis, and ranked 78th on the ATP World Tour.

“What does that mean? That no one has won a Grand Slam?” Sweeting asked, incredulous. “That’s journalists who don’t know anything about tennis.”

Perhaps.

Or maybe it’s that journalists recognize that since Andy Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open they haven’t had a story about an American male Grand Slam winner. And there was a time when Grand Slam winners were the norm – “when winning was sort of expected,” as McEnroe said here this week before playing a doubles exhibition match.

A generation ago if JohnnyMac wasn’t winning a Slam, then Jimmy Connors was winning one. Later, from 1992 to 1994, Americans won nine of 12 Grand Slams (three each year), as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier took turns raising trophies above their heads.

The top seed at this week’s tournament in Memphis is 26-year-old American John Isner. He’s ranked 13th in the world, stands 6-9, and has a dominating serve. Yet the best McEnroe could say for him was that “Isner has an outside shot at winning a major, if things fell his way.”

Everyone acknowledges that the sport goes in cycles and right now it’s stuck on Serbia’s Novak Djokovic beating Spain’s Rafael Nadal (the last three Grand Slams). Just to find a Grand Slam winner other than Nadal or Djokovic, you have to go back to the 2010 French Open won by Switzerland’s Roger Federer.

So, if American kids were to study tennis at its highest levels, it would offer a great geography lesson but not much of an American history lesson. McEnroe’s last Grand Slam singles title came at the 1984 U.S. Open. He is now 53, a New York bad boy-turned graying legend who when walking onto the Stadium Court at The Racquet Club still was cheered like a rock star, albeit in short pants.

“It was a magical time,” McEnroe said of his run. “Everyone was a character, a personality. Tennis was on the rise, there were great rivalries.”

No American on the tour today can touch that magic, but for decades now the questions have come, questions that can feel like accusations as everyone searches for the next great American player.

“It could be a little bit unfair,” said American James Blake, 32, who reached No. 4 in the world in 2006 and is now No. 61. “But it’s part of what you let yourself in for when you’re on the ATP Tour. Guys like (Sam) Querrey and Donald Young are starting to deal with it, guys like Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock (each 19), will be dealing with it.

“I dealt with it, Andy dealt with it, and I know early on Andy got a little frustrated. But you know the questions are going to be part of any press conference. So you just give your stock answer and go on.”

Part of Blake’s stock answer, but no less valid, is that the game is more globalized than ever, more athletic than ever, and the draws at Grand Slams are deeper than ever. Even McEnroe concedes that in his day the smarter and more skilled players could defeat the superior athletes.

“They couldn’t out-physical you,” McEnroe said.

But what was the nearly six-hour 2012 Australian Open finals match between Djokovic and Nadal if not the Ultimate Iron Man of tennis?

“Tell me one player from 25 years ago that could have lasted six hours,” Sweeting said. “If you’re not physically fit now, it’s impossible to compete.”

More and more it’s a game for athletes first, technicians not at all. So imagine if one of America’s best athletes had chosen tennis instead of basketball.

Kevin Durant’s speed and quickness, being that tall (which helps with leverage), what could someone do with that ability?” Blake wondered.

Yet for McEnroe the discussion about reviving America’s greatness in tennis always comes back to opportunity and preparation. To that end, he has started a tennis academy in New York for young players. Of course, the discussion also must include finding a way to win when it is so much easier to take your loss and go home.

After McEnroe and Sock beat Blake and Querrey in the exhibition doubles match, McEnroe was asked to assess Sock’s potential.

“He’s got an incredible upside,” McEnroe said. “This is the time to start going 100 percent mentally as much as physically.”

Translation: Sock’s not there yet. Nor is anyone else. Which is why tennis doesn’t just play in the shadows of the NFL, NBA and major college sports, but even of golf – a good nap spoiled when compared to tennis in McEnroe’s day.

“If you had told me 25 years ago that golf would get double the ratings of tennis, I’d have laughed at you,” McEnroe said.

Nearly a decade since the last American won a Grand Slam, there is no laughing.

Only waiting.