It’s the dog days of summer. It’s another 90-degree day in the heat of the most brutal two months in professional tennis. Week after week the world’s top tennis players compete in the U.S. Open Series in preparation for the granddaddy of them all: the U.S. Open in Flushing Meadows, NY.
Last week it was the Rogers Cup in Montreal. This week it’s the Western and Southern Financial Open in Cincinnati, OH. Next week it’s the New Haven Open at Yale.
At the Western and Southern Financial Open, John Isner sits at the bottom of the pedestal. There’s Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and about ten other guys ranked ahead of Isner in the ATP 1000 world rankings.
Wherever he goes, his physical presence is felt. At 6’9”, Isner is always the noticeable guy in the room and on the TV screen. But in the world of American tennis, he is nothing but a shadow to what has become a flat and sad fall of what was once the best tennis country in the world.
Center Court at the Western and Southern Financial Open is by no means the same platform as Arthur Ashe stadium at the Billy Jean King tennis center, but it’s certainly a great opportunity to prove your worth against the elite players of this generation.
It’s Sunday, and somehow John Isner is still standing tall. He has played his best tennis of the season; beating the world #1 Novak Djokovic and former U.S. Open champion Juan Martin Del Potro to advance to the finals of the ATP Masters tournament.
Now he faces his greatest challenge and most feared opponent of the tournament, Rafael Nadal. In front of a crowd of over 10,000 people in a tennis crazy town called Mason, OH, Isner has the chance to pull of the biggest win of his career and lay the foundation for a huge run in the U.S. Open starting in two weeks. Isner’s win could help rejuvenate the American tennis community and bring some desperately needed exposure back to our home soil.
Well, there it came, and there it went. Two hours later, the 2013 men’s singles champion at the Western and Southern Financial Open isn’t John Isner; it’s Nadal. Nadal beat Isner 7-6 (8) 7-6 (3) on Sunday to win the tournament and capture his 59th professional title. It was another disappointing end for men’s American tennis.
Although Isner failed to win the biggest match of all, his week in Cincy was promising, and gives me hope that just maybe he will advance past the quarterfinals and make a serious run at the U.S. Open. But Isner’s lack of success brings us to the point of collapse, and back to the question that American tennis fans have been asking since Pete Sampras won his last Major in 2002: where is the next great American tennis player?
We all thought it was Andy Roddick. Roddick was the American tennis player at it’s finest: a world-class serve, a great forehand, and an even better affinity for disobedience off the court. When he won the U.S. Open in 2003, it was thought that American tennis was right back at the top of the kingdom and firmly grasped by Roddick.
Ten years later, we’re still asking ourselves the same question. Roddick never won another Grand Slam title, and last year he abruptly retired after the U.S. Open, citing the physical abuse and mental toll the game had taken on him.
The history of American tennis is rich and bountiful. Filled with amazing players, great characters, and elite athletes, this once prideful tennis country has lost its edge to the likes of Russia, Spain, and pretty much every other country in the world.
I must admit, I have to take some responsibility for the lack of American dominance in the tennis world. I gave up on tennis when I was 10 for reasons that are unbeknownst to my conscience. My two younger brothers won’t admit it, but I had an absolutely dirty inside out forehand.
Looking back on things, I regret the decision I made and I’ve had to live with the pain of giving up on a sport that gave me so much in return. Playing vicariously through my two younger brothers has never been easy, but it’s a painful reminder as to why this game is so special, and more importantly, why there needs to be an American male to break the barrier and help our nation return to form.
Since Roddick’s U.S. Open win in 2003, not a single American male other than Roddick has even made it to a Major final, let alone won a grand slam. In fact, no American males other than Roddick and Andre Agassi have made it past the quarterfinals since Roddick’s single Major championship victory.
As time has passed in those ten years, new American men have been called upon to represent the U.S. as the figurehead to regenerate American tennis. First it was James Blake, than it was Mardy Fish, for a little while it was Sam Querry, and now it’s Isner’s turn.
Critics may be yelling to look at the women’s game, where Serena Williams is the clear number one in the world and arguably the greatest women’s tennis player of all-time. True in every way, but any tennis expert will tell you that American tennis must be carried on the shoulders of a man. Not because anyone is sexist or discriminatory against women, but because the balance of power and the keys to supremacy in the tennis world is held in the epic five set battles and heated rivalries built only in the men’s game.
As the U.S. Open is set to begin next week, the questions still remain unanswered. Can American tennis be saved? And where is the next great American tennis player?
I can most likely guarantee John Isner will not be holding the U.S. Open trophy in three weeks, and he will probably be dealt his 7-2 offset hand of cards at either the round of 16 or the quarterfinals.
So what does the future hold in store for American men’s tennis? Honestly, I think it would be wrong for me to answer that question, because simply I don’t know, and I don’t think anyone else does either.
There is a wave of young talent out there, but none of the young promising juniors have turned into anything special on the pro tour. Chase Buchanan was once heralded as a tennis prodigy. After a successful career at Ohio State, Buchanan has struggled as a professional. He has yet to crack the top 500 in the ATP rankings and he hasn’t dominated like he did as a junior. Jack Sock reached the third round in last year’s U.S. Open, but he too has been a bit of a disappointment since. Donald Young has been neither here nor there, and Ryan Harrison hasn’t made it past the second round of a major either.
In the collegiate ranks, the number one ranked player is currently Jarmere Jenkins of the University of Virginia. Cluttered in the mix is Peter Kobelt, Ryan Lipman, Evan King, and Dennis Novikov, who won a round at the U.S. Open last year as a wild card entry.
All of these players certainly have the potential to make some noise if they choose to turn professional, but history tells us that college tennis players never translate to anything greater than John Isner (who played at the University of Georgia), sometimes great but mostly inconsistent.
With the NFL, NBA, and every other sports entity that this sports obsessed country watches on national television, it is hard to give a reason as to why kids should participate in a sport that gets the roundup coverage on ESPN2. When the Little League World Series takes precedence over professional tennis on ESPN, it’s hard to prove a kid wrong.
It’s a shame to know that one of the greatest champions in the history of sports, Roger Federer, is nothing but a mere name to the average kid. With all the corruption that we are seeing in our “mainstream” sports today, maybe parents should try something different: turn off the TV, put a racket in their kid’s hand, and show them how much this sport has to offer.
Hell, it may be the simplest solution to the problem, but sometimes that’s all it takes.