- The Washington Times - Friday, August 4, 2006

Upon further review, American tennis is not dead. In fact, it has quite a strong pulse.

With more singles players in the top 25 than any other country and two top-10 players, America is doing just fine in men’s tennis compared to the rest of the world. But the major problem with American tennis is not the rest of the world, but America’s own successful tennis history.

With Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Michael Chang and retiring Andre Agassi, Americans claimed 20 Grand Slam titles and almost always maintained the world No.1 position in the 1990s.

“We Americans are spoiled when it comes to having tennis players in the top 10 in the world — we need to start off with that fact,” said Patrick McEnroe, captain of the U.S. Davis Cup team and ESPN tennis commentator. “We are used to having players compete for Grand Slams regularly. And the fact of the matter is that it isn’t happening. We are not as strong as we were. But there are not as many countries that had a run like we did.”

Even with a seemingly too rich tennis tradition to live up to, current top Americans such as No.5 James Blake and No.10 Andy Roddick have not produced even the slightest ripple in major events.

An American has not advanced past the round of 16 in any Grand Slam this year, yet four players remain ranked in the top 25, and the U.S. Davis Cup team is in the semifinals.

“The truth is, we are a factor,” McEnroe said. “Tennis is a broad, international game and when you compare us to other countries, we are doing well. We have good young players in the pipeline and two in the top 10. Tennis is the only sport where the rankings never lie. You might be able to pad your numbers in baseball, but if you are ranked in the top 10 in tennis, you have earned those results. There is a reason.”

But there also are three reasons why Americans like Blake and Roddick have suffered a Grand Slam drought: Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and injuries.

Federer and Nadal, the world’s Nos.1 and 2 respectively, have combined for 10 Grand Slam titles in the past five years, eight by Federer.

“The way Federer is playing, it seems like he is unstoppable for a little while,” said Blake, who has not advanced past the round of 32 in a Grand Slam this year. “But everyone is human, so there has to be a chink in that armor somewhere.”

McEnroe is more realistic.

He said he thinks Americans will improve to where they are playing in Grand Slam finals but not necessarily win them anytime soon.

“The fact is that Nadal and Federer are dominating the men’s game and everyone else is playing for third,” McEnroe said.

Blake has won 12 of his last 14 matches and appears to be on a hot streak heading into the U.S. Open. The same cannot be said about his fellow countrymen, nearly all of whom have been hampered by injuries.

After losing a final to Blake in Indianapolis in early July, Roddick has had to withdraw from two consecutive tournaments, including the Legg Mason, because of a muscle strain in his back. His ability to compete at his full potential in the upcoming Open is questionable. Yet Mardy Fish, Jan-Michael Gambill, and Robby Ginepri appear to be back to their winning ways after injuries forced them to take time off from the game.

Ginepri, who really just fell victim to a lack of confidence, dropped to No.104 in July of last year, but has climbed back to No.19. Fish, who underwent two wrist operations in 2005 has fought his way from No.341 in February to his current position at No.70.

Jan-Michael Gambill, a former top-20 player, took more than a year off after shredding tendons in his serving shoulder. As the Legg Mason’s “lucky loser,” he already has picked up his first ATP victory of the year.

Not only are injured players returning, but young phenoms like 18-year-old Sam Querrey are picking up professional victories. Querrey has gone 4-7 this year and lost a close three-set match against No. 86 Wesley Moodie 6-2, 6-7 (4), 6-7 (6) in the opening round of the Legg Mason.

Former top-25 player Taylor Dent has been sidelined since February with a back injury. But the consensus among the players at the William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center is that if the top Americans can get healthy and stay healthy, then even more of them will be in the top 25.

“I’ve been asked about it more than anybody, and it looks like the state of American tennis is pretty good,” Gambill said. “We are fine.”

With the Open, America’s Grand Slam event, approaching, there is no better time than now for Americans to step up. Perhaps Arthur Ashe Stadium can help transform American tennis from fine to great.

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