- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 5, 2009

American tennis fans love to remember the glory days, whenever they were. The days of McEnroe and Connors. Or the days of Agassi, Sampras, Courier and Chang.

Those days are gone. This is no longer an era with multiple American men in the ATP Tour top 10, and even the top 50 shows a dearth of U.S. talent compared with past years.

It is truly an international sport now, and the United States Tennis Association is scrambling, both at the grass-roots and the elite level, to raise the American game.

“When you compare it to the late ‘70s and so forth, we did have a huge number of Americans involved,” USTA president Lucy Garvin said. “I think we are working very hard to make sure that we get back in that position. We’re starting to see some results, but it’s going to take time.”

At the moment, Andy Roddick is the only American in the ATP World Tour men’s top 10. Mardy Fish, currently the No. 2 American, is ranked 20th in the world. James Blake was once as high as fourth but has battled injuries and fallen to No. 21. Sam Querrey, Robby Ginepri and John Isner have shown promise at times but have not broken through with major wins. No American has won a Grand Slam title since Roddick took the U.S. Open in 2003.

The Grand Slam drought can easily be explained by the sheer dominance of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal in the last five years. The lack of depth in the American men’s game is harder to explain, but those involved with tennis point to growth of the sport internationally. Jeff Newman, tournament director for the Legg Mason Tennis Classic, used last year’s champion Juan Martin del Potro to help illustrate a point.

“A lot of the South Americans and Europeans are performing tremendously well on all surfaces,” Newman said. “And a guy like del Potro, coming from Argentina you’d think was a clay-court player. But then he pulls off four tournaments on hardcourts last year but also then reaches the semis of the French Open.”

So what’s the USTA to do? For starters, the organization hired Patrick McEnroe, a well-respected former pro, to oversee the development of the top players and the operations of tennis centers in Boca Raton, Fla., and Carson, Calif. Those facilities, along with regional tennis centers around the country, serve as part of an effort to develop an overarching philosophy of coaching and training.

“It’s kind of a total team effort in terms of upping the ante in what we’re bringing to the table from a coaching perspective and then trying to get everybody to share as much information as possible,” said McEnroe, who serves as the general manager of elite player development and the captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team. “We have the resources. We have the desire from the kids and the ability. I think we need to do a better job of educating the kids at a younger age and coaching them and teaching them the right way to train. I think we can do a lot better.”

McEnroe said the USTA must start working with players when they are younger, even younger than the organization had previously thought worthwhile. This year it introduced a new QuickStart tennis format, geared to children as young as 5, featuring shorter court dimensions, easier scoring and foam balls.

The USTA points to some encouraging signs at the grass-roots level. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association this year named tennis the fastest-growing sport in America among traditional sports, with participation increasing nearly 10 percent in 2008. The association this week named tennis one of nine “family-friendly” sports growing in popularity. Also, Taylor Research Group reported an 88 percent increase in tennis racket sales between 2003 and 2008.

Translating that success into ATP Tour wins will take time, but there have been some encouraging match results of top players lately.

Roddick’s loss to Roger Federer in an epic five-set final at Wimbledon was the best Grand Slam result for an American in four years, and he likely will enter the U.S. Open as one of the favorites. And American tennis appears to have benefited from the decision to officially label the summer hardcourt season as the U.S. Open Series, with live television coverage and bonus money tied to players’ performance in the U.S. Open.

Querrey has made three consecutive finals, winning the tournament last week in Los Angeles. Though he lost in the opening round to German Benjamin Becker in the District on Tuesday, Ginepri is just two weeks removed from beating Querrey to take the title in Indianapolis. And John Isner reached the quarterfinals of Los Angeles and the semifinals in Indianapolis and also won his opening match Monday night.

“This is our best surface,” Isner said. “Robby is really comfortable at Indianapolis, so I wasn’t surprised. Sam has been playing unbelievable. And I’ve won six matches in three tournaments on hardcourts. But it’s no shock for us Americans. And I’ve played well so far.”

Will the Americans ever dominate the top-10 rankings as they did in past decades? Perhaps not. But people are working on it.

“Is one country ever going to have half the draw in a Grand Slam?” McEnroe asked. “No, it’s too worldwide a game for that to happen. But we definitely can do a better job.”

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