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There’s hope for US men’s tennis at Grand Slams after long dry spell

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Since Pete Sampras last won at Wimbledon more than two decades ago, these have been lean times for the US men at the All England Club, a symbolic snapshot of their broader disappointments on the world stage.

Pete Sampras of the US watches his return to compatriot Andre Agassi during the final of the Mens Singles competition at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships July 4 1999. File Picture: Ian Waldie, REUTERS

THE GLORY days of American men’s tennis had one glowing constant: plenty of success at Wimbledon.

Jimmy Connors won the men’s singles title in 1974 and 1982, and Arthur Ashe’s historic victory in 1975 – when he became the first Black man to win the tournament – was a pivotal moment for American tennis and a breakthrough for diversity in the sport.

John McEnroe also thrived at Wimbledon, winning in 1981, 1983 and 1984, with his antics solidifying him as one of the most memorable American champions in the sport’s history. Andre Agassi won in 1992, and then Pete Sampras re-established American dominance at the All England Club, winning every year between 1993 and 2000 except for 1996. In all, American men left London with the championship trophy 14 times in that 27-year span.

But since Sampras last won at Wimbledon more than two decades ago, these have been lean times for the US men at the All England Club, a symbolic snapshot of their broader disappointments on the world stage.

Only Andy Roddick has even reached the Wimbledon final since 2000, with his last appearance coming in 2009. In the past decade, as European stars dominated the sport, American men have registered just three semi-final appearances in Grand Slams – and none at Wimbledon since 2018.

There have, of course, been pockets of success and spikes in prosperity, and there is reason to believe we’re entering one. The United States has 11 players ranked in the top 100, second only to France’s 12. There were four American men among the final 16 players both at Wimbledon last year and at this year’s Australian Open, the latter of which produced the first all-American men’s quarter-final in any Grand Slam since 2007. And Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe are in the ATP’s top 10 as Wimbledon begins.

Still, that’s a far cry from an era when the top of the rankings were overflowing with American men. The next generation of talent is on the way, but it’s still not clear whether it is ready to take up the mantle forged by the legends of the sport.

Here’s the grim truth: After Roddick last reached the Wimbledon final in 2009, no compatriot made a Grand Slam semi-final until Sam Querrey ousted defending champion Andy Murray at Wimbledon in 2017. That was a drought of 2,933 days, more than twice as long as it took Voyager to reach Saturn. The wait time for the next Grand Slam semi-finalist, John Isner at Wimbledon the next summer, was one day short of a year. Tommy Paul, 26, made the semi-finals at this year’s Australian Open – more than four years later.

The Women’s game

The American women haven’t had comparable challenges. The game remains among the most lucrative professional sports for women, and in a country with robust opportunities for athletic girls, the United States hasn’t had a problem keeping up. It also benefited from Serena Williams’s rare dominance.

Since Roddick’s last Grand Slam victory in 2003, Serena Williams won 17 Grand Slam singles titles. Her sister Venus won Wimbledon three times from 2003 to 2008. In 2017, Sloane Stephens captured the US Open and appeared in the French Open final a year later.

Coco Gauff became a teenage sensation when she defeated Venus Williams in the first round of Wimbledon in 2019. She reached the final of the French Open three years later.

The American men, on the other hand, haven’t just failed to win the biggest titles; they have had far less representation in ATP fields than they once enjoyed. According to data collected by Jeff Sackmann, founder of TennisAbstract, a comprehensive database of professional tennis results and statistics, American players accounted for more than a quarter of all entries in ATP events during the early 1980s, but that has dwindled to single digits since the late 1990s.

It’s hard to consistently maintain top spots in the ATP standings when there are fewer American players drawing into these events.

Focus shifted to junior tennis

Martin Blackman, who has overseen player development at the US Tennis Association since 2015, said in an interview that the federation’s focus has shifted to junior tennis in recent years to help refill the pipeline.

“The number of boys and girls coming into the sport, in the long term, you can control that. You can fix those things. But in the short term, you really can’t,” he said. “Are American juniors getting scholarships at the Division I level? That’s been a major concern for us from a macro perspective; that’s a real issue of the health of the ecosystem. The sheer numbers of players you have playing at the ATP level, that’s gone down a little bit in the last couple years, and we are concerned about it.”

Fritz, a 25-year-old Californian, had his deepest run at a Grand Slam event last year, reaching the quarter-finals of Wimbledon, and ascended to No.5 in the world in March, just a few slots better than his current ranking of No.9. Before Tiafoe’s move to No.10 last month, there had been no other American man in the top 10 over the past three years.

But just four American men reached the top 10 from 2010 to 2019. Compare that with the 24 Americans in the top 10 from 1980 to 1989, and it’s easy to see how much ground the American men have ceded to their peers.

The sport has gone global

One of the driving factors of that transfer of power is that the sport has gone global. Spain and France have assembled talented stables of pros, and growing popularity and participation in countries such as Serbia, Argentina and Japan have expanded the international talent pool.

“It’s important to understand that in the mid-’80s when we dominated – we absolutely dominated – we were living in a different world,” Blackman said. “The Berlin Wall was still up, tennis wasn’t in the Olympics, federations weren’t investing in player development the way they are now, the majority of professional events were in the US, and so on and so on.”

And then there’s the Big Three. Serbia’s Novak Djokovic has spent 389 weeks at No.1 and has a men’s singles record 23 Grand Slam titles. Spain’s Rafael Nadal has 22 Grand Slams, dominating the French Open and sending a few Americans home early. Switzerland’s Roger Federer earned 20 Grand Slam titles and often stood in the way of American players’ success in major tournaments.

Just ask Roddick, who had to endure a stinging loss in their epic 2009 Wimbledon final, much as he did in their finals in 2004 and 2005.

Now it’s time for the next generation to start producing results. Tiafoe’s appearance in the top 10 is encouraging, as was his semi-final appearance in last year’s US Open, but the 25-year-old Hyattsville native’s lone other appearance in a Grand Slam quarter-final came four years ago in the Australian Open.

Fritz made the quarter-finals in a Grand Slam once, at Wimbledon last year. Sebastian Korda, 22, also has one Grand Slam quarter-final on his résumé, earned at this year’s Australian Open.

The list goes on. Brandon Nakashima, 21, has made it past the round of 16 just once in 13 tries. Paul’s best outing before this year’s Australian Open was reaching the round of 16 at Wimbledon last year.

Reasons for optimism

To be fair, the overall win rate for American men is on the upswing. Americans are winning almost 57 percent of their matches in Grand Slam events since 2020, up from 45 percent from 2010 to 2019. Their win rate in all tournaments is 56 percent over the past three years, up from 51 percent in the 2010s.

There are more reasons for optimism. The ATP rankings, when sorted by various age groups, show the United States has solid up-and-coming talent. Learner Tien, Darwin Blanch and Alexander Frusina are among the highest-ranked players not yet 18 years old. Only France has more players in this group.

Alex Michelsen, Kyle Kang and Aidan Kim give the United States the most ranked players not yet 19 years old. American men also lead the way among ranked players not yet 23 years old, a category that features the No.1 player in the world, Spain’s Carlos Alcaraz. Korda, Ben Shelton, Nakashima and Jenson Brooksby are in this grouping, giving some hope of a return to the glory days.

A decent showing at Wimbledon – with Federer retired, Nadal sidelined by an injury and four American men reaching the round of 16 at the recent grass-court Queen’s Club Championships – could help confirm that US men’s tennis is on the right track.

A letdown, though, would be a poignant reminder of decades of struggles.

American tennis fans and officials believe the country still belongs among the world’s elite. That won’t matter until players start proving it on the court – and in the sport’s biggest events.

The Washington Post

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