On Monday night at Madison Square Garden The PNB Paribas Showdown, featuring four of the world’s top players, took place. Well actually, three of the world’s top players. To put Andy Roddick in the same conversation as Roger Federer, Maria Sharapova, and Caroline Wozniacki is a bit unrealistic these days. Though Roddick did beat Federer in this exhibition match in straights, the night will be remembered mostly for Rory McIlroy (see below), now the world’s number 1 golfer, coming out of the stands, taking the place of his girlfriend Wozniacki, and winning a (generous) point off of Maria Sharapova.
Roddick, now the world’s 31st ranked player, shouldn’t get too excited about winning an exhibition match against Federer, who has beaten him 21 of the previous 23 times they have played. Sure, Roddick has been hampered by a number of injuries and is putting a positive step forward by winning anything vs. Federer, but the 2009 Wimbledon Classic between the two is a far distant memory. With Roddick dropping in the rankings and Mardy Fish and John Isner the only American men inside the top 25, an American winning a Grand Slam is about as unlikely as McIlroy abandoning his 9 iron for a tennis racket. Donald Young, still only 22 years old, has long been tipped as the “next big thing”, but his modest 43 world ranking, short Grand Slam runs, and questionable attitude doesn’t exactly inspire visions of the next Arthur Ashe. With Roddick’s time seemingly passed, Fish having never gotten passed the Quarters in a Grand Slam, and Isner being best known for playing in the longest match in tennis history, the future of American tennis looks bleak.
Even without a strong American presence on the men’s side, tennis has not really seen a dip in viewers. Tennis is arguably as popular as ever with Nadal, Djokovic, and Federer making all the headlines. Even the Australian Open epic between Nadal and Djokovic, which aired at an hour when only frat guys and new parents are awake, was seemingly talked about by everyone and their mother. With that being said, what American tennis fan doesn’t yearn for the next Connors, McEnroe, or Agassi? They represented everything good and bad about American tennis; Big game, big ego, and big hair. When I was growing up I used to look foward to Agassi v. Sampras matches like I looked forward to Christmas morning. Hell, I even used to get amped for Agassi v. Blake at the US Open. Now we’re lucky if we see an American even get passed the fourth round.
So the question is, what has led to this decline in American tennis? There are a number of factors that have enabled the rest of the world to gain ground on the US. In an interview that GQ conducted with Agassi, McEnroe, and briefly Pete Sampras (not surprising the notoriously pompous Sampras only fielded one question) they pinpointed factors such as superior athletics over skill, the fact that foreign players are growing up playing on clay which translates better to other surfaces, and that American players are more concerned with hitting ground strokes than really learning the ins and outs of the game. Retired, McEnroe and his brother Patrick, may still be the most influential American tennis figures working towards the revitalisation of American tennis. They are both eager to develop younger players an open tennis academies. They not only show a willingness to speak out on the decline of American tennis, but they, among others, are also offering solutions. The fact is, the best young athletes aren’t choosing to play tennis. Often players or parents don’t know where to begin when looking for tennis lessons. Often there aren’t enough accessible or affordable options available. This is a trend that needs to be remedied if the US is to enjoy another golden era.