In 2003 Andy Roddick was the best player in the world. I know, I know, you’re thinking ‘hang on a minute, surely that was Roger Federer?’ After all The Fed won Wimbledon, beating Roddick along the way and looking suitably imperious.
But A-Rod was on fire come the American hardcourt swing when he won two Masters Series events (the nine tournaments that sit immediately below the four grand slams in terms of prize money, rankings points and prestige) in consecutive weeks, followed by the US Open. Federer by comparison didn’t win a Masters that year and reached the final of just one, in Rome, where he lost to little-remembered Spaniard Felix Mantilla.
So Roddick ended the year as the deserved No1-ranked player, and holder of the most recent grand-slam title. And since then, nothing. Nada. No grand clam for an American male tennis player. Not even a final appearance.
John Isner has been a regular in the world’s top 10 and last year gained a well-merited first Masters title with his win in Miami. And Jack Sock, who has won a grand-slam doubles title at Wimbledon in 2014, won the Paris Masters at the end of 2017, but to date he has yet to reach the quarter-finals of any of the majors. Isner plays his first Wimbledon quarter-final today, and has once reached the same stage at the US Open. Both are very fine players, but neither is going to win a slam.
For those of us who grew up watching Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe win multiple slams, with Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Roscoe Tanner and Vitas Gerulaitis also weighing in, or, more recently, when Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, aided by Jim Courier and Michael Chang, were dominant, it’s unthinkable. It seems there were always American contenders. But not now. Where have they gone?
In part, of course, it’s down to the domination of the men’s game by Federer, Rafa Nadal and Novak Djokovic, with strong support from Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka. Other factors are at play too. American football, basketball and baseball are all way out ahead of tennis in popularity in the States and the financial rewards are far greater, certainly for the average jobbing professional player.
The American college system, for so long a proving ground for the best young talents, is now dominated by foreign players. Indeed Britain’s Cameron Norrie who has impressed in his first year on the pro circuit, was the top-ranked college player last year. These days there are academies and training centres all across Europe – the need to base yourself in America, an ocean away from family, no longer pertains.
Finally, there is the perennial issue that Americans like to watch Americans win. They are perhaps less interested in sport for its own sake, so in the absence of an iconic figure, TV ratings, and interest in general, decline.
It will almost certainly take the arrival of a major new star to reignite American interest. And that doesn’t look imminent.