The all-American matchup at the Australian Open between Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka ended in the middle of the night in the United States, which meant few back home saw their entertaining five-set marathon.
That’s nothing new - U.S. men’s tennis hasn’t been prime-time material for years.
The last American man to win a Grand Slam tournament was Andy Roddick at the U.S. Open in 2003, and there’s no sign the drought will end anytime soon. Fritz, who rallied to beat Opelka in Melbourne on Wednesday, was the only seeded American man when the tournament began, and he’s 27th.
Only three Yanks are ranked in the top 50.
“For a country this big, with these resources, it doesn’t make sense,” said longtime coach Rick Macci, who helped develop Roddick, the Williams sisters and reigning Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin. “But I don’t see it being what it once was ever again.”
Opelka, for one, isn’t surprised the United States has the same number of seeded men in Melbourne as, say, Bulgaria or Norway.
“It’s just not that big of a sport in the States,” Opelka said. “It’s just the reality of it. The States doesn’t care that much about tennis.”
The sport enjoyed a higher profile when Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier were winning championships, including four in a row at the Australian Open in the 1990s. But while countries in Eastern Europe and Asia have emerged as forces, the sport’s popularity has declined in the United States - especially among young boys who dream instead of winning trophies in the NFL or NBA.
The outlook is much rosier in women’s tennis. The United States has four seeded women in Melbourne, including Kenin and Serena Williams. Nine Americans are ranked in the top 50, among them 16-year-old prodigy Coco Gauff.
There are no Coco Gauffs on the men’s side.
“Tennis is still a delicious thing on the menu for a female athlete in this country,” Macci said. “It’s different for the guys. If I had LeBron James at age 10, there’s no doubt in my mind I could have gotten him to No. 1 in the world.”
Macci, who runs a tennis academy in Boca Raton, Florida, questions the structure of the U.S. developmental program. He said future great athletes can be identified when they’re still in grade school, and recruiting them for tennis would be the best way to bolster the men’s game in America.
“If I ran the show, I would hunt for those needles in the haystack,” Macci said. “I would identify the best athletes - running, jumping, height, genetics - at 7, 8, 9 years old, and then put them with the best coaches.
“Why put money into an average horse when you should be putting it on a thoroughbred? It’s not that complicated. This is the only way it’s going to change.”
Hall of Famer Butch Buchholz has watched the landscape shift since he was a top professional in the 1960s before starting the tournament now known as the Miami Open in 1985. He agreed the sport could do a better job of recruiting young talent, especially in the inner city.
“You have to convince these kids that tennis is an OK sport for them,” Buchholz said. “I don’t know if we have reached deep enough to find the best athletes. That’s a challenge, because those kids want to play basketball and football.”
The United States Tennis Association has inner-city programs in more than 250 locations. But the expense of the sport creates a challenge, as does the need for championship-quality coaching, said Martin Blackman, general manager of player development for the USTA.
As for trying to find needles in the haystack, Blackman said Macci’s ability to project the potential of 7-year-olds is rare.
“That’s not a strategy. That’s not scalable,” Blackman said. “To move the dial and get better athletes into the game has to be a programmatic effort.”
The USTA developmental program “is probably the best in the world,” Blackman said, and he’s optimistic there will soon be a payoff at the top of the men’s game. He said at least half a dozen Americans possess top-10 potential, and the United States has 16 boys ranked in the top 100 in juniors, more than any other country.
At the moment, the great American hope might be 20-year-old Sebastian Korda, a former world No. 1 junior and the son of 1998 Australian Open champion Petr Korda. Another player who could conceivably end the Grand Slam drought is the 6-foot-11 Opelka, a former Wimbledon juniors champion whose dominating serve makes him a threat anywhere.
Opelka (ranked 38th), Fritz (ranked 31st), Tommy Paul (53rd) and Frances Tiafoe (64th) are all 23 and good friends who root for each other. Fritz said he’s confident one of them can break through and win a major title.
“One hundred percent,” Fritz said. “I don’t think any of us are anywhere near our full potential. Reilly, Frances and Tommy, especially those three guys - they’re so far away from where they’re going to be. So I think it’s just a matter of time for all of us.”
Perhaps. “You better not mess with the U.S. male,” Elvis Presley once sang.
But that song is an oldie.
AP Tennis Writer Howard Fendrich contributed to this report.
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