US tennis seems unable to man up

Columnist Greg Couch breaks down Day 4 at Wimbledon.
Columnist Greg Couch breaks down Day 4 at Wimbledon.
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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.



So now it’s down to this: Not only aren’t there any U.S. men capable of winning a tennis major, but there aren’t any ready to compete. And there isn’t even a representative to ask about it.

So it falls on some guy named Bobby Reynolds. He was the last American man standing at Wimbledon but lost Thursday to Novak Djokovic. It’s the first time an American man hasn’t reached the third round of Wimbledon since ’12.

That’s 1912, when the Chicago Cubs World Series winless streak was up to ... three years. One thing: No American men even entered that year.

“I knew a couple Americans played today,” Reynolds said after his match. “I don’t feel like I’m carrying the U.S. flag, the lone guy left. I just happened to play the last match.”

True enough. So it was bad luck that he had to be the one to turn out the lights.

Well, these one-time fluke things happen sometimes. Unfortunately, this isn’t one of those. Yes, the best American, John Isner, hurt his knee and retired from his second-round match.

But the truth is, you can expect to see more of this from American men’s tennis. No one is here. You can’t even be confident anyone is on the way.

American tennis misses Andy Roddick. Through most of his career, he gave the United States a contender in majors.

At the end, he at least provided cover. He was basically the complaint department, getting most of the blame for not winning enough majors. See how that worked? The guys who weren’t contending weren’t even in on the discussion or criticism.

What went wrong? People have been asking that for years.

Consider the timing: Several young U.S. women seem to be emerging at the same time the men have fallen off a cliff. Sloane Stephens has a real shot at reaching the quarterfinals. Madison Keys, 18, is into the third round. Jamie Hampton, who lost to Stephens, is ranked in the top 30.

And of course, Serena Williams dominates the sport, buying time for the next generation.

Meanwhile, the men’s pipeline is all cracks and leaks and spills.

I still believe Isner will make at least one great run in a major, though that’s not the same as being a constant force at the top of the game. He has the big serve but has lacked footwork and a strong serve return. Both are improving. I asked him the other day if he had lost a lot of weight. It looks like he has. He said he was eating healthier and that he thought he had added a little muscle in the weight room.

As for young players, Jack Sock, 20, is the best bet. But he’s ranked just 102 now and has several steps to climb. Big hopes were on Ryan Harrison, 21, whose progress has hit a ceiling.

So what’s at play? First, tennis is the only women’s sport to have made it into the mainstream in the United States. So it becomes a prime place for American girls to go while boys turn to football and basketball. Also, America has Title IX and other countries don’t. That means more opportunity for U.S. girls in sports.

Reynolds pointed out the argument most often used: Tennis has become an international sport. It’s not like American football players compete against quarterbacks and linebackers from other countries.

All true. But why can’t American male tennis players compete with their peers from other countries?

Frankly, the U.S. Tennis Association has botched this with an unorganized effort, oftentimes focusing on the wrong kids to develop. On top of that, it has had a falling out with top prospects Donald Young and Taylor Townsend. A few years ago, it all but purchased prospect Andrea Collarini, who had been born in the United States but grown up in Argentina. The Argentine tennis federation was furious.

Collarini is now back playing for Argentina again.

When the United States produced the great generation of Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi and Michael Chang, among others, much of that was the work of coach Nick Bollettieri. He told me Tuesday that the plan was to put the best juniors together and have them beat the s*** out of each other all day long.

USTA player development, under Patrick McEnroe, is getting the best prospects together and trying to bring in better coaches. McEnroe has not had success yet at the top of the game.

How unfair that the questions were falling on Reynolds, a 30-year-old journeyman who worked his life to get to Centre Court, Wimbledon. His 7-6, 6-3, 6-1 loss to Djokovic, No. 1 in the world, was not a failure in American tennis but a success in one hustling non-superstar’s life.

He said he would keep so many memories from the match, that he loved it, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime thing.
Yeah, whatever. What about American tennis?

“A lot of young guys are coming up through the college ranks or have gone pro with skipping college,” he said. “You know, obviously, they're young. But I think they have a lot of potential. Maybe, you know, in just a couple years hopefully a good one's coming.”

Maybe hopefully.

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