Americans in a shadow as international stars shine

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PARIS — Andy Roddick, understandably, is rather tired of hearing the question, in one form or another: What’s wrong with U.S. tennis?

When a local reporter raised the subject at a tournament in Rome last week, Roddick replied wryly: “No bigger crisis than Italian tennis.”

A little later, Roddick added: “As far as harping on American tennis, I think we’re kind of a victim of our own success over the years in the sport. If you still stack us up against most countries, we’re coming out ahead.”

Well, yes, that is true. What’s also true is this: The United States has reached a low point in tennis. Not merely because the country no longer churns out new champions with regularity, but also because it is not really relevant at the top of the game right now.

Earlier this month, for the first time in more than 35 years of computerized rankings, no player from the U.S. appeared in the ATP or WTA top 10. Plus, the last American man to win a Grand Slam singles title was Roddick, at the 2003 U.S. Open - 29 major tournaments ago. If, as expected, that drought continues at the French Open, which starts Sunday in Paris, the gap will equal the longest in history for U.S. men — a 30-Slam shutout from 1955-63.

Roddick himself won’t compete in Paris: He withdrew from the French Open on Thursday night, citing a right shoulder injury. That leaves the tournament without the three most significant active singles players from the United States, because Serena and Venus Williams pulled out earlier.

To Roddick’s point, that’s nothing compared with what some others are enduring: Andy Murray has lost three major finals in his bid to become the first British man since 1936 to win a Grand Slam title.

Yet the recent American problems are a stark change for a nation that has produced players such as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Don Budge, Bill Tilden, the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Tracy Austin, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King, to name only some.

“We’re so used to having champions for the last, oh, century,” said Venus Williams, owner of seven major singles titles. “Right now is something we’re not used to.”

When it comes to taking home trophies, Roddick and the rest of the American men have been forced to deal with the same obstacle everyone else has for the past several years: The consistent excellence of a couple of guys from Switzerland (Roger Federer) and Spain (Rafael Nadal).

Those two countries - well, those two men - alone account for 24 of the 29 Grand Slam men’s singles titles since Roddick’s victory in New York. The others have gone to Serbia (two to Novak Djokovic, whose Australian Open championship in January is part of his 37-0 record heading into the French Open), Argentina (one each to Juan Martin del Potro and Gaston Gaudio) and Russia (Marat Safin). Roddick has come close, playing in four Grand Slam finals from 2004-09, but losing each to Federer.

“Clearly, the game has been dominated by a couple of players,” said former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, John’s brother, “and clearly, we have a lot of work to do.”

In this week’s rankings, there’s only one man or woman in the top 10: No. 10 Mardy Fish, followed by Roddick at No. 11. The top American women are Serena Williams at 17th, and Venus Williams at 29th; neither has played in months. Bethanie Mattek-Sands is next at 36th.

Here’s another indication of where things stand: Some of the biggest bits of news connected to U.S. tennis in the run-up to Roland Garros have been the withdrawals of the Williams sisters; the release of a book about John McEnroe’s rivalry with Bjorn Borg decades ago; and a public back-and-forth between Donald Young, a 21-year-old who recently returned to the top 100, and the U.S. Tennis Association, a spat involving a French Open wild-card entry he didn’t get and a nasty tweet he posted in frustration.

As for the American men’s title chances in Paris, consider these career records there: Fish is 2-5, 26th-ranked Sam Querrey is 0-4, and 39th-ranked John Isner is 2-2. None has been past the third round.

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