Tennis

Feared US tennis void now a reality

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Greg Couch

Greg Couch has been a national columnist at AOL Fanhouse and The Sporting News and an award-winning columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He was featured twice in "Best American Sports Writing" and was recognized by the US Tennis Writers Association for best column writing and match coverage. He covers tennis on his personal blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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And, poof, just like that, American tennis is gone. No, not just from the Australian Open, where the last American man standing, John Isner, lost before the first weekend of the year’s first major. US tennis is gone from the world map, too.

The top players have faded, and the bottom ones aren’t good enough. This is the moment US tennis has been nervous about for years:

Not one American man is good enough even to contend for a major championship. Forget Wimbledon. Forget the US Open. And only one woman, Serena Williams, is good enough. She will hide the problems in women’s tennis in the United States for a little while longer.

But the men? They are a vacuum.

It has been coming for years. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors passed the baton to Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, who passed it to Andy Roddick, who managed to win just one major. But still, he was a top player. And now? Roddick has crossed the finish line and put the baton on the ground somewhere. No one will take it. You want it? It’s yours.

Isner, famous for his marathon at Wimbledon two years ago, won another marathon in Australia and then lost one on Friday to noted choke-artist Feliciano Lopez. And for the first time since 1973, not one American man is in the fourth round in Australia. Keep in mind, in 1973, most players didn’t care about the Australian Open. No American men came that year.

Whether you care about tennis or not, this shows, yet again, that no matter what Americans believe about the order of the sports world, the US cannot expect to dominate everything anymore. We have gotten plenty of examples of that by now. In the US, we think of sports success as birthright. Also, if we give something an effort, we will be best.

But tennis has seen this coming, and the United States Tennis Association has tried to stop it, pouring money into programs in the US, having a fallout with its top prodigy, even buying a kid’s nationality from Argentina. The USTA has fumbled and bumbled so much, and it is a study in a bureaucracy attempting to accomplish something.

A few years ago, the USTA turned its player development program over to Patrick McEnroe, John’s brother. He walked into a disastrous program that was unable to identify juniors with potential and was loaded with coaches who didn’t know how to teach the modern game.

McEnroe made major changes, hiring foreign coaches, putting an emphasis on getting kids to train on clay courts the way they do it in Spain, and setting up national training centers and regional ones.

The thing is, while he still needs a few more years before being fairly judged, it seems that the system has a knack for developing players who can reach only the top 50 or so.

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We still can’t tell if the right players are being identified or developed. There seems to be a bad habit of teaching everyone one style, as if champions can be built from a mold. One coach that the USTA uses told me that the regional centers seem to be part-time get-togethers of top players. And the clay McEnroe used is American green clay, which plays nothing like the slow red clay that Spaniards use to learn how to develop and build points.

Super phenom Donald Young and his parents have had such a bad relationship with the USTA and McEnroe that last year, Young tweeted “Fu—USTA!!’’

And a little less than two years ago, the USTA essentially bought top Argentinian 18-year-old Andrea Collarini, who was born in New York, but moved out when he was 3 and grew up overseas. He learned how to play in Argentina, but the USTA offered him a better deal than anything Argentina could afford, and suddenly Collarini was playing as an American.

“We were shocked,’’ Argentina’s Davis Cup captain at the time, Modesto Vazquez, told me at Wimbledon in 2010. “It’s unfair. You are a big country. We have invested in him since he was 14. He was one of the chosen ones.’’

Collarini, now ranked No. 487, has not developed quickly. And the USTA’s record of not developing any champions is intact.

But maybe that’s unfair. Maybe a champion cannot be developed by a governing body or a system at all, even one that brings in huge revenues in a country that holds one of the world’s four major championships.

It’s possible that champions just come on their own, and that a governing body just needs to promote the sport to as many kids as possible and then help along the talented ones who need help.

Well, as you look through the up-and-coming US men, you find that every last one of them has a major flaw.

Roddick, now 29, couldn’t finish his second-round match after he reinjured his hamstring. As his body starts to fall apart, he has fallen out of the top 10, probably for good. He is now ranked No. 16.

“I don’t think it’s coincidental that all of a sudden in the last year and a half or two years that I’m getting hurt more,” he said in Melbourne. “It’s just frustrating because you can do all the right things and it might not matter.”

Last year, approaching the age of 30, Mardy Fish lost weight, got into shape, surpassed Roddick and climbed into the top 10. Apparently, he was just a seat-warmer, as he seems to have reached his ceiling.

The best American player now, though not the highest ranked, is Isner. He’s the marathon man, famous for that three-day match in 2010 at Wimbledon.

But he also is the marathon man because his serve is unreturnable and he can’t return serve. So no one can beat him, but he can’t beat good players, either. And his matches go on forever.

It’s impressive that hasn’t gotten to him. His passion, and definitely his guts, win him those matches. He just doesn’t have the backhand. Or the footwork. Or speed.

Margaret Court

Court of controversy

Eleven-time Australian Open winner Margaret Court is still making headlines:

Young is finally a top-50 player, but he still hasn’t grown up enough and he mopes when he’s losing. Sam Querrey can do most anything, but he has no fire.

The best hope is 19-year-old Ryan Harrison, now ranked No. 77. He took a set off No. 4 Andy Murray in Australia. Harrison has power and touch and smarts. He also has fire and passion. Maybe too much, as he was fined last year for throwing his racket in a tree at the French Open, and for taking a divot out of the grass courts at Wimbledon.

Nineteen-year old Jack Sock, ranked No. 380, also offers hope.

On the women’s side, a bunch of players are in the top 100, but no one is ready. The only US woman left in the draw other than Williams is 22-year-old Vania King, who is talented but seriously handicapped at 5-foot-5 in an era of tall, power players.

“When (the Williams sisters) stop playing tennis, there’ll be someone else to take their spot . . .,” Sloane Stephens, an 18-year-old ranked No. 95, said in Melbourne. “There’s a lot of us, so who knows who could break through.’’

That’s always the theory. But no one was there for the men. The Williams sisters still have a couple of years left, which can buy time for an American woman to develop. On the men’s side, time is up.

The USTA is trying, and studies show that American kids are taking up the game more and more. But everyone has gone home from Australia. That baton for the next American tennis star is still waiting there, on the ground. Sooner or later, someone is bound to pick it up. Right?

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