Tennis: Americans facing up to home truths at US Open
After a drought in recent years, the US public is desperate for home winner to be crowned at Flushing Meadows, writes Kevin Mitchell
Published 29/08/2010 | 05:00
Just as the wait for a home winner of Wimbledon gnaws at the British national psyche like an unfed rat, so America's yearning for another John McEnroe or Pete Sampras has recently inspired mild panic across the Atlantic.
Their drought has been much shorter and their angst is leavened by the continued dominance of Serena Williams in the women's game, as well as the rude health of the commercial side of the game. But their pride is as wounded. McEnroe hinted at the dilemma when he said, "It doesn't seem as though there is a lot out there right now. Is there someone else, I don't know about who's 18 and who's about to break through and win everything?"
Not in his own country. Donald Young, who so impressed McEnroe the day they hit up when the African-American prodigy from south Chicago was 10, looks dispirited at 21. A series of wild cards has kept him vaguely in the picture since he turned professional at 14, although he has edged back to the top 100 again.
McEnroe's brother, Patrick, the US Davis Cup captain, is also general manager of player development for the US Tennis Association and sees more of the talent available than does John. He is reasonably upbeat. "It's a big thing to say, 'Look, there's no American in the top 10'. That's certainly not something I take lightly. But it's not that surprising when you look at the way the game has changed and the global nature of the game."
But the future is looking dim and the present is not blinding. A week before tomorrow's start of their own national tournament, the final slam of the year, the Americans did not have a player in the men's top 10 for the first time since computerised rankings began in 1973. But for the 2003 champion, Andy Roddick, muscling his way back to ninth place, the US Open would have been the American mirror of Wimbledon, a host event driven almost exclusively at the top by guests, although the same could be said of the other slams in Paris and Melbourne.
That makes Patrick McEnroe's point and underlines the rise of the old Eastern Bloc, which has no major and many of the best players. The power shift in tennis in the open era has accelerated dramatically since the once unshakeable political, economic and social walls came down over the past couple of decades. There is hunger in the east, complacency in the west.
As for the Americans, whose post-war hegemony was interrupted only by the Australians until the arrival of the Europeans (sans UK), their smiles could yet return over the next fortnight. Roddick or the competitive Sam Querrey at least have the form to give Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray a decent fight.
While Roddick is the highest-ranked American, it is Fish (ranked 21, between John Isner and Querrey), who looks a decent outside bet of an upset. American fans could be doing our heads in with chants of "USA!" again if Fish stays on a roll that started about the time he got disgusted with the two stones of extra flab that made him a walking target on the circuit. He ripped it off and is a rescued talent. After beating Roddick to reach the final of the Cincinnati Masters last Sunday, he gave Federer a decent argument over three sets, with a bullet serve and two-fisted backhand considered the equal of Marat Safin's.
But where were Mr and Mrs Fish coming from when they called their boy Mardy 28 years ago in Minnesota? Maybe they foresaw that he was going to live up to it, as in stroppy and difficult, which he was in his youth, a cocky young prospect hunting down pizzas with more enthusiasm than he did in retrieving returns on his booming serve. Mardy may be mighty at this US Open because he has nothing to lose. He has already lost 30lbs of flab. Now he wants to get rid of his anonymity.
Mardy Fish is famous the way Donald Young is famous. Like, not very outside tennis. Young was going to be the Tiger Woods of tennis. In 2004, Newsweek picked him out as the only athlete in their annual "Who's Next?" feature. Barack Obama was on the same list. He became the youngest year-end junior world No 1 at 16 years and five months. He won the Australian Open junior title at 15. Two years later, he did it at Wimbledon. On the circuit, the opposition could not cope with his speed and court savvy. He was mature beyond his years -- and then he learned the lesson all players learn: the only guarantee in sport is defeat. He handled it well enough, but could not bounce back and disillusion set in.
Young has hung in, though. He has grown to 6ft and filled out. It is difficult to identify any dreadful weakness -- except to acknowledge that there are other players who are simply better than he is. The promise that was so rich has evaporated. Last week he got into the Cincinnati tournament on a wild card and went out in the first round after a tough struggle with the equally erratic Latvian Ernests Gulbis. Young will do well to get past Gilles Simon in the first round at Flushing Meadows, where he has received another invitation.
For some, this shortfall provides an opportunity for perspective. Roddick bridled when it was pointed out he was the last American to win the US Open. "Define what you mean by US tennis," he said, "because that's a vague term. If you're talking about TV ratings and participation and stuff like that, the numbers suggest those things have never been higher. So what exactly are we talking about?
"We're a global sport. But all the numbers that are being reported as far as apparel sales, participation and TV ratings are concerned are up. So I have a hard time dealing with the question that says: 'What's wrong?'"
As patriotic as Americans can be they are also great bottom-liners, and that line appears in their bank statements. Some numbers are good. There are, for instance, four Americans -- Roddick, Fish, Querrey and Isner -- in the top 25 for the first time since 2006. Americans have won nine ATP world tour titles this season, seven behind Spain and far ahead of the next best, France and Croatia with three each.
Commercially, the game is buzzing. There are 18.5 million Americans out on the courts most weekends, up 43 per cent since 2000. And there is another prospect on the way. Ryan Harrison, 18, is the youngest American in the top 250 and reached his first ATP world tour quarter-final last month. So, they have got things to cheer about; if they want lessons on how to handle ongoing grief, well, they know where to go.