Friday, August 6, 2010

Falling Down the Mountain

Roddick falls out of the top-10 and American tennis hits a 35-year low. What comes next?

Watching the decline of American men's tennis has been like watching a train wreck in ultra-slow slow motion. For a while, it looked like Andy Roddick's wobbly wheels might be replaced by John Isner's or Sam Querrey's before the train swerved off the tracks and came to rest on its side next to the cabooses of those other former tennis juggernauts, Great Britain and Australia. But Roddick's fortunes have taken a turn for the worse this year, and Isner's and Querrey's futures remain as much in doubt as they were at the conclusion of last year's U.S. Open.

The result? For the first time since 1973, the ATP's top-ten is without a single American player. After Andy's loss to Frenchman Gilles Simon last night, the cold hard truth has finally taken over the warm fuzzy comfort of a century of tennis dominance. The train, in other words, has crashed.

Is this a bad thing? Of course! But is it the end of the world, and for that matter, the end of American tennis? Of course not.

Writers like me, who are already familiar with this story (the train wreck, in slow motion), will no doubt take pleasure in driving the final stake into the heart of tennis fans all over the country. "You're sport is dead here," we'll say, as if having a blog or a job at the local paper gives us the right to smash the hopes and dreams of anyone who has it in their heart (Isner, Querrey, Harrison, Kudla, Sock, Nishikori, and countless others) to revive this formerly revered entity known as American Tennis.

Editors note: I just got an e-mail that read "Are American men doomed for the U.S. Open?"

In response to those who want to know whether or not American tennis will become something more than the contents of a dusty old trophy case full of the names of yesteryear, I think that patience first, and understanding next, are the key ingredients to future success.

If we want to take the perspective of entitled, unsympathetic fools, then yes, the American men are doomed for the U.S. Open. Because for us, the unsympathetic and over entitled American tennis fans (spoiled by the glory years of Sampras, Agassi, McEnroe, and Connors) , nothing short of Grand Slam titles will ever be good enough.

But we shouldn't just give up believing that American doesn't possess athletes worthy to continue our influence and uncanny predeliction for the sport. Smashing American tennis is not an impossibility, and to look at in such a way is an exercise in futility. It'd be a self fulfilling prophecy, so why not believe?

I think the key question that many die-hard American tennis fans will have to answer is the following: do you love tennis or do you love American tennis? Because if you love tennis, you will enjoy watching young Americans embrace the challenge of trying to reinvent themselves and their games within the paradigm of the new modern game.

It is in no way shape or form going to be easy, and Patrick McEnroe, the General Manager of USTA's elite development program, knows that in ways that many of us have not even begun to comprehend. In our defense (unsympathetic fans), we've been watching the wheels come off the American Tennis train for quite some time, and it's been a pretty compelling fall from grace, so we haven't had time to actually get constructive about the future.

But P-mac (John's younger brother) has, and he's doing his best to think outside the box when it comes to training young talent for a future in a game that is very different from the game that Americans so naturally excelled at on so many levels. Patrick McEnroe has shown a keen eye for what makes players and programs successful, and he has exhibited a willingness to follow, embrace, and learn from the example of the Spanish and other successful programs.

It may not do much to ease the sting of looking at the ATP's current top-ten, but it does give fans reason to hope in the States. Now is not the time for bitterness or frustration now is the time for humility, acceptance of the facts that lay before us, diligence, and—more than ever—passion for the purity of the sport.

The train may have crashed, but the tracks are still there.

All we need to do is rethink the train.

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