At French Open, US men could tie Slam drought mark

Andy Roddick, understandably, is rather tired of hearing the

question, in one form or another: What’s wrong with U.S.

tennis?

When a local reporter raised the subject at a tournament in Rome

last week, Roddick replied wryly: ”No bigger crisis than Italian

tennis.”

A little later, Roddick added: ”As far as harping on American

tennis, I think we’re kind of a victim of our own success over the

years in the sport. If you still stack us up against most

countries, we’re coming out ahead.”

Well, yes, that is true. What’s also true is this: The United

States has reached a low point in tennis. Not merely because the

country no longer churns out new champions with regularity, but

also because it is not really relevant at the top of the game right

now.

Earlier this month, for the first time in more than 35 years of

computerized rankings, no player from the U.S. appeared in the ATP

or WTA top 10. Plus, the last American man to win a Grand Slam

singles title was Roddick, at the 2003 U.S. Open – 29 major

tournaments ago. If, as expected, that drought continues at the

French Open, which starts Sunday in Paris, the gap will equal the

longest in history for U.S. men – a 30-Slam shutout from

1955-63.

To Roddick’s point, that’s nothing compared to what some others

are enduring: Andy Murray has lost three major finals in his bid to

become the first British man since 1936 to win a Grand Slam

title.

Yet the recent American problems are a stark change for a nation

that has produced players such as Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim

Courier, John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, Don Budge, Bill

Tilden, the Williams sisters, Lindsay Davenport, Tracy Austin,

Chris Evert and Billie Jean King, to name only some.

”We’re so used to having champions for the last, oh, century,”

said Venus Williams, owner of seven major singles titles. ”Right

now is something we’re not used to.”

When it comes to taking home trophies, Roddick and the rest of

the American men have been forced to deal with the same obstacle

everyone else has for the past several years: The consistent

excellence of a couple of guys from Switzerland (Roger Federer) and

Spain (Rafael Nadal).

Those two countries – well, those two men – alone account for 24

of the 29 Grand Slam men’s singles titles since Roddick’s victory

in New York. The others have gone to Serbia (two to Novak Djokovic,

whose Australian Open championship in January is part of his 37-0

record heading into the French Open), Argentina (one each to Juan

Martin del Potro and Gaston Gaudio) and Russia (Marat Safin).

Roddick has come close, playing in four Grand Slam finals from

2004-09, but losing each to Federer.

”Clearly, the game has been dominated by a couple of players,”

said former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, John’s brother,

”and clearly, we have a lot of work to do.”

In this week’s rankings, there’s only one man or woman in the

top 10: No. 10 Mardy Fish, followed by Roddick at No. 11. The top

American women are Serena Williams at 17th, and Venus Williams at

29th; neither has played in months. Bethanie Mattek-Sands is next

at 36th.

Here’s another indication of where things stand: Some of the

biggest bits of news connected to U.S. tennis in the run-up to

Roland Garros have been the withdrawals of the Williams sisters;

the release of a book about John McEnroe’s rivalry with Bjorn Borg

decades ago; and a public back-and-forth between Donald Young, a

21-year-old American who recently returned to the top 100, and the

U.S. Tennis Association, a spat involving a French Open wild-card

entry he didn’t get and a nasty tweet he posted in frustration.

As for the American men’s title chances in Paris, consider these

career records there: Roddick is 9-9, Fish is 2-5, 26th-ranked Sam

Querrey is 0-4, and 39th-ranked John Isner is 2-2. They have one

fourth-round match in 20 French Open appearances among them; that

was in 2009 by Roddick, whose participation this year was put in

doubt by a recent shoulder injury.

There are a total of nine U.S. men in the top 100 this week, the

same number as Germany and France – and five fewer than Spain (a

country with a population about one-sixth that of the United

States). There are only four Americans in the ATP top 50, the same

number as Argentina and only one more than Italy; Spain has 10 in

the top 50.

”The game got so global just in the past 10, 15 years. …

Tennis in America has slowed down. It’s not as dominant. It doesn’t

make me feel sad or angry. It’s just a reality check,” said

Sampras, who won 14 Grand Slam titles and finished No. 1 in the

rankings a record six years in a row. ”We’re fine. We have some

good young players. But they’re not Grand Slam winners and they’re

not No. 1 in the world, so it might take some time.”

On the women’s side, the U.S. Fed Cup team lost 5-0 to Germany

in April and was eliminated from the competition’s top tier for the

first time, meaning the 17-time champion Americans now need to win

their way back to the elite level.

And no American woman has won a WTA or Grand Slam title since

Serena Williams at Wimbledon in July, a span of 50 tournaments.

During that stretch, only one woman from the U.S., Mattek-Sands,

even has reached a final.

”If I knew why other countries were having success, we’d be

copying it quickly,” Venus Williams said. ”It’s happening right

now, but it doesn’t mean it’s something that’ll be forever.”

AP Sports Writer Andrew Dampf in Rome contributed to this

report.

Howard Fendrich can be reached at

http://twitter.com/HowardFendrich