- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2005

WIMBLEDON, England — When Andy Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open, he strutted into his postmatch press conference and, slapping a table for emphasis, declared with a smile: “No more, ‘What’s it feel like to be the future of American tennis?’”

Well, kid, it’s time to rephrase the question: What’s it feel like to be the only thing going in American men’s tennis?

Unless a U.S. man wins Wimbledon on July 3 — and Roddick is the only one with a realistic shot — it would mark seven straight Grand Slam tournaments without an American champion, dating to Roddick’s breakthrough in New York. That would be the longest such drought in more than 15 years.

The final remnant of the previous generation of American tennis players, Andre Agassi, is 35 and fading, and he pulled out of Wimbledon for the second year in a row. So when seedings were announced last week, No. 2 Roddick was the lone U.S. man in the top 16. It’s the first time there weren’t at least two since Wimbledon first seeded 16 players in 1968.

“It is worrisome to me,” U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said. “Clearly, it is a problem for us.”

Perhaps everyone was spoiled by all the championships and increased interest brought home by Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. Still, there is plenty of other evidence that this a fallow period for U.S. men in tennis:

• Even with Agassi and Roddick in the fold, the United States lost to Croatia in the first round of the Davis Cup in March. That extended the Americans’ drought since their last Cup title to a decade, the longest gap since the 1930s.

• No U.S. man made it past the second round at the French Open in 2004, the first time in more than 30 years that happened at any major. Then it happened again at this year’s French Open.

• In last week’s ATP Tour rankings, there were just four American men in the top 50 — Roddick, Agassi, No. 30 Taylor Dent and No. 41 Vince Spadea — and just eight in the top 100. Argentina, meanwhile, has five players in the top 20.

Roddick, 22, could be a leading man for years to come, along with two-time defending Wimbledon champion Roger Federer of Switzerland and 19-year-old Spanish phenom Rafael Nadal, who won the French Open in his tournament debut.

Look past Roddick, though, and there doesn’t appear to be an up-and-coming American ready to excel.

“Tennis is the second-, third-biggest sport in most European countries. Certainly, in South America, it’s just more popular,” McEnroe said. “It’s a way out. They’re hungry. These kids are hungry.”

But that’s only part of the story.

A lack of top American men hurts the sport in two ways: It can have a rollover effect when youngsters don’t have role models who inspire them to take up tennis, and it can sap interest among fans now.

In surveys conducted by the Tennis Industry Association — a trade group for manufacturers — and funded by the U.S. Tennis Association, the number of people who say they played tennis has been stagnant for a few years, while those classifying themselves as frequent players declined each year from 1999 to 2003.

And look at the TV ratings. Roddick’s loss to Federer in last year’s Wimbledon final drew the best ratings since 2000 — the last time an American was involved. Last year’s U.S. Open final, in which Federer beat Australia’s Lleyton Hewitt, set a record for the lowest rating, a 29 percent drop from when Roddick won in 2003.

“It’s something that we need for the success of tennis, particularly in this country but around the world, too,” McEnroe said. “We need Americans.”

The sport appears to be doing just fine elsewhere, however. Attendance increased from 2003 to 2004 by about 4 percent on both the men’s and women’s tours. Sponsors keep pumping in money, such as Sony Ericsson’s six-year, $88 million title sponsor deal with the women’s tour.

Still, U.S. players are needed to spur the sport’s popularity. Eventually, they will come along. They always do.

“Before we wring our hands in total despair, remember the days of McEnroe and Jimmy Connors that were never going to return? Less than a generation later, there was the Sampras-Agassi-Chang era,” said Cliff Drysdale, a former pro who has been calling tennis at ESPN since it launched in 1979.

“Is it a disaster for tennis in America? No, it’s not. The fact that we don’t have stars right now is a temporary thing.”

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