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The decline and fall of U.S. men’s tennis

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For the first three-plus decades of the open era in men’s tennis, the sport was dominated by Americans. Americans won 48 of the first 124 major titles contested after the foundation of the ATP in 1973, ending with Andy Roddick’s win at the 2003 U.S. Open. Since then, 77 major titles have been won without a single victory by an American men’s player.

Now a large part of this is explained by the fact that 61 of those titles have been won by just three men: Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, and Novak Djokovic. That all three of the greatest tennis players of all time have been active over the past 20 years, and that none of them happen to be American, isn’t in itself any sort of statistical anomaly.

But the decline of American men’s tennis goes far beyond that. When we look at much broader definitions of greatness than winning major titles, the situation is equally dire. Over the past 30+ years, American tennis has produced just one man who has spent a significant amount of time ranked in the world top ten. This was Roddick, who retired ten years ago now. The fact that a cohort of great American players came up in the late 1980s — Sampras, Agassi, Courier, and Chang — disguised for quite a time the further fact that it was at just that point that American men’s tennis just stopped producing great players, with again the exception of Roddick.

American men have occupied nine of the 328 quarterfinal spots, two of the of the 164 semifinal spots, and zero of the 82 finalist spots in the majors contested since Roddick’s retirement. In other words, it’s not just that American men aren’t winning major titles, it’s that in the past 30-plus years the U.S. has produced just one man who has even competed for major titles: an astonishing fact for those of us who grew up in the era of Connors and McEnroe in the 1970s and 1980s, and saw it give way to the Sampras-Agassi-Courier-Chang generation in the 1990s.

What’s going on?

One explanation I’ve seen floated are that tennis is too much of a country club sport in the US compared to the rest of the world, and rich kids almost never become super-elite athletes, because they’re unwilling to make the sacrifices necessary to do so. (I suppose it’s worth noting in this context that the highest-ranking current American player, Taylor Fritz, is the great-great-grandson of David May, the founder of the May Department Store empire. )

Another, related one, is that the best U.S. men’s athletes don’t go into tennis any more. The problem with both of these putative explanations is that these factors certainly haven’t gotten worse since the 1970s — if anything tennis has gotten more egalitarian in the U.S. since then, since it’s a far less expensive sport to play, at least casually, than golf, which is the true country club sport, and which US men continue to dominate, comparatively speaking.

Other explanations include claims that US men are ruined by the youth development system in the country, which produces robotic baseliners who have no nuance to their games. Again the problem here is that the youth development system is the same for men as it is for women, and U.S. women certainly haven’t had anything like the same decline as U.S. men, even if one looks beyond the dominance of the Williams sisters.

So I haven’t heard any convincing explanation for the remarkable collapse of super-elite men’s tennis in the US over the past generation. This could of course just be random chance: there are so few super-elite players, defined here as players who spend a lot of their career in the world top ten and make regular deep runs in major tournaments, that the fact that the US has produced only one such men’s player since the 1980s, and none in the past 20 years, may just be pure bad luck.

But it’s an interesting thing, at least to those of us who are interested in such things.

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