by David Zakhodin
When we American tennis fans watch the best players in the sport compete for the highest stakes, we often see the above snapshot. On the stage where the men separate themselves from the boys, a recurring pattern occurs: Americans are nowhere to be seen. This decade of tennis has been categorized by so many underwhelming performances from American players that soon we’ll be discussing droughts the way the British did before Andy Murray appeared. But in order to truly understand the currently bleak state of American tennis, we must traverse history to examine America’s rise to tennis supremacy.
As the Grand Slam tournaments arose, four countries ruled the sport. Between 1877 (the first year of Wimbledon) and 1960, only eight players won a Slam who were not American, Australian, British, or French. Even though these four nations were equally successful at their respective Slams, Americans had begun to distinguish themselves as the hallmarks of the sport from the onset. When Open Era tennis began in 1968, two Americans had already become prominent icons: Bill Tilden and Don Budge. Tilden’s reign in the 1920’s was highlighted by world #1 status and leadership of the U.S. Davis Cup team in its heated rivalry against France. Budge dominated the sport in the years prior to World War II and established his longevity by playing well after serving in the Air Force. Both players not only won Slams but also gave rise to a sport in America defined by elegance and beauty.
While Tilden and Budge put American tennis on the map, the years immediately leading up to the start of Open Era were dominated by the great Aussies: Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, and Tony Roche. However, in the late 1960’s came two Americans who would become tennis cornerstones: Jimmy Connors and Arthur Ashe. The former with the grit and fire that gave the sport energy it had never seen before; the latter with ever steady composure and grace that extended both on and off the court.
In addition to re-installing America to the winner’s circle of Grand Slams with their combined eleven victories, Connors and Ashe elevated American interest and passion for the game with their personal rivalry, which culminated in Ashe’s upset triumph in the 1975 Wimbledon final. While Ashe left the sport early to pursue an historic humanitarian agenda as a result of his battle with HIV, Connors paved the way for a new polarizing American tennis legend: Johnny Mac. When most people remember John McEnroe, they recall his rivalry with Bjorn Borg, but it was Connors who gave McEnroe the edge he needed to become a winner of seven Slams himself.
By the late 1970’s, Connors-McEnroe became the epicenter of American tennis. Featuring heated confrontations and meltdowns on court, this rivalry demonstrated contrasting styles of play that foreshadowed alternatives to serve-and-volley tactics. It was McEnroe who played the traditional serve-and-volley thanks to the best pair of hands tennis had seen to that point while Connors relied on a superb return game and his ability to put the ball in any spot in the court. Unfortunately, the six year age difference between the two titled the rivalry in favor of McEnroe toward the end of Connors’ career, and McEnroe was left standing as the only top notch American throughout the 80’s. Despite becoming world #1 and winning seven Slams, McEnroe’s volatile attitude and questionable commitment to tennis opened the 80’s to an era of European dominance that planted the seeds for Europe’s dominance today. With Bjorn Borg mastering Roland Garros and Wimbledon, tennis popularity grew in Sweden where Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg took the reigns. Other European icons such as Ivan Lendl and Boris Becker made their way to the pinnacle of the sport by reaching world #1 and winning multiple Slams while America was left in the dust aside from a fluke Roland Garros title from Michael Chang.
As bleak as the late 80’s may have looked for American tennis, we kept producing future prospects. In fact, the 90’s yielded a powerful resurgence that led to the Golden Age of American Tennis defined by a new rivalry more heated rivalry than Connors-McEnroe. Enter Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. If you thought Connors and McEnroe were polar opposites, then Sampras and Agassi definitely raised you a couple grand at the poker table. The former pairing at least featured similarly fiery maniacs both on and off the court. With the latter, it was night and day. A soft-spoken gentle giant from southern California against a flamboyant, swashbuckler turned bad boy from Vegas. Before illustrating how Pete and Andre gave birth to the Golden Age, an honorable mention must be given to Jim Courier. For a guy whose backhand was worse than most juniors playing three times a week, Courier grinded out four Slams with minimal talent and pushed Pete and Andre to develop into more resilient competitors as a result of their many encounters both at the junior level and on the professional tour.
When comparing the two legends of America’s Golden Age of Tennis, it may seem that Pete’s fourteen Slams trump Andre’s eight. However, evidence suggests that pure numbers fail to characterize this rivalry. Pete won the head-to-head and spent more time as world #1, but it was Andre who accomplished the feat of winning the career Grand Slam. What captivated fans around the world was the fact that these two were the best the world had ever seen at their style of play. Pete Sampras had the best serve-and-volley combination of all time; Andre Agassi was the best ever ball-striker and returner. During their matches, there were periods where points would last a maximum of three shots, and then all of a sudden there would be an extremely crucial long rally that would decide the outcome of the match. This level of excitement combined with the known fact that the two were not especially fond of one another both on and off the court is what drove this rivalry to captivate and define American reign over tennis. Not only was it something to relish, but it was a part of the sport’s history to be enormously proud of.
Therefore, it’s only fitting that these two legends each won their last respective Grand Slams back to back. Pete beat Andre in his last career match to win the 2002 U.S. Open; Andre followed up by winning the following Australian Open and would only reach one more U.S. Open Final in 2005 where he was by then clearly outmatched by rising phenom Roger Federer. As expected, Sampras walked away from the game graciously and quietly. Agassi’s exit was anything but that. The physical and emotional pain he went through during that last run at Flushing Meadows followed by one of the greatest speeches ever given by an athlete marked the official end of the aforementioned Golden Era. Pete and Andre had hung up the sneakers, and a void had been created that has yet to be filled.
During the period in the early 2000’s when Pete retired and when Andre’s results began to plateau, a new hope for American tennis had already emerged. All eyes were on young Andy Roddick who captivated fans with a funky service motion that rocked the radar gun. In addition to having a big serve, Roddick was a baseliner who relied heavily on dictating the point with his forehand. Perhaps the biggest transition from the 90’s to the new century was the disappearance of serve-and-volley tactics. After the turn of the century, only Goran Ivanisevic and Pete Sampras (who combined for three Slams during this period) were serve and volley Grand Slam champions. What drove the sport away from serve-and-volley tactics and toward the era of long rallies from the baseline was the improvement in the technology of strings and racquets. While Americans were quick to adopt the technology, they were very slow to adapt to the new philosophy of the game and thus dug themselves a hole that they have yet to rise from.