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In search of the next American tennis star
It’s poor form to start with a caveat, but let me say this at the outset: Serena Williams singlehandedly dismantles the notion that America can no longer produce tennis stars. She is the greatest women’s player ever, who belongs in the conversation for the greatest athlete of all time, full stop.
That said, though, perhaps you’ve heard: American men have fallen off the pace, as well as a cliff and the face of the earth. It’s all true.
And that’s why fans got so excited about Christopher Eubanks’ run at Wimbledon.
To see him take out the ATP No. 5 (and Greek flow god — Always Be Conditioning) Stefanos Tsitsipas would’ve been cool no matter what, because it’s always cool to see a young player have his first big moment.
It was even cooler to see him get close to another, even bigger moment against ATP No. 3 Daniil Medvedev, the modern Rocky vs. Ivan Drago vibes of which were not lost on this viewer, lack of resemblances aside.
And the reason it’s especially cool to see a young American player have those kinds of moments is because it’s been a while. A long while. We’re desperate for somebody, anybody, to take up the starred-and-striped mantle.
What Happened To This Country?
It has now been 20 years — 20 years! — since an American man won a major, which was Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open.
Roddick was just 21 at the time, and having risen to the world’s #1 ranking, he seemed destined for more.
His success continued, but it didn’t include another major. He made four other finals, the last of them in 2009, but each and every time, he lost to some guy named Roger Federer.
Roddick wasn’t the next great star that America had started taking for granted when he arrived on the scene.
Fans took the disappointment doubly hard when the proudest era of men’s tennis in modern history did not continue, as had seemed inevitable.
It stopped — sort of with Roddick, but really with Andre Agassi — and hasn’t found its way back since.
Ahh, the 80s
Older fans will remember Michael Chang winning the French Open in 1989 — the first American to conquer the clay in 34 years — bridging the gap between two dominant eras, headlined first by Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, and then followed by Agassi and Pete Sampras.
When Chang won, he ended a five-year drought in American Grand Slam winners. The anxious wait seemed catastrophic at the time. This had never happened before. Five years? Heavens, no.
Over a century-plus, the United States had never gone more than four years without at least one of its players winning one of those majors.
Looking back, we had it pretty good. Those were the days.
And just to underline how good those days were, the two periods that bracketed Chang’s win were phenomenally successful.
Between Connors and McEnroe alone, the two Americans won 15 majors — mostly at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon — in the decade between 1974-84.
Their battles with one another, and with Bjorn Borg (who we have to thank for The Baumer) remain the stuff of legend.
(Sidebar: not for nothing, times have been equally tough on the Swedes since the Borg-Wilander-Edberg trio hung ‘em up, but we’re giving them a pass today — congrats on the NATO progress btw!)
With the emergence of Jim Courier, Agassi, and especially Sampras, America’s dominance only increased.
Courier won four majors in a two-year period starting in 1991. The next year, Agassi won his first of eight Grand Slams, and the year after that, Sampras began his run of 14.
While I’ve established I’m not a math guy, I’m pretty sure that all adds up to 26, which is even more than 15, and — I feel comfortable declaring — pretty solid!
Sampras’ last win was 2002, and Agassi’s was 2003, the same year that Roddick won his one and only.
So ended American tennis, a long fall from a great height.
Gas > Brakes
American tennis seems capable of producing just one model these days: a muscle car that wants for handling.
Roddick played power tennis, relying on a booming serve and a blistering forehand. Guess what Eubanks does?
It’s what the rest of the Americans do too — each with slight variations of course, but still — whether it’s John Isner, Francis Tiafoe, Sam Querrey, Jack Sock, or Taylor Fritz. The list goes on.
They’re working off the same template, and many think that one-dimensionality is a direct consequence of developing primarily on hard courts, rather than the clay surfaces more en vogue abroad.
On a harder, faster surface, it’s easier to overpower your opponent with speedy serves and groundstrokes. That’s where Americans excel, and historically have.
A slower surface like clay is better suited to a player like Rafael Nadal, whose best attributes — his heavy topspin, court coverage, and sheer Gruden’s Grinder endurance — are all enhanced on red.
Americans don’t play or practice much on clay, growing up or beyond, and to call that a problem is probably fair to an extent.
Having played a good bit of tennis myself back in the day, I know I didn’t, and I also know what I and my peers were generally trying to do whenever we were out there.
We wanted to hit flashy winners, and on the hard court, that played.
We certainly didn’t want to be pushers, or moonballers, and we weren’t that interested in being serve-and-volleyers either. We wanted to be #sick, ripping lasers and booming aces when we had serve.
I recall my inspo back then being Juan Martin del Potro, the 6’6” Argentinian who did this against that one guy we mentioned earlier. Frederick, I think, was his name… ?
Kids tend to do what they think is cool, which tracks. It’s more fun to practice a windmill dunk than your free throws, too. But one will make you a fundamentally sound player, and the other will not.
So it’s possible that American tennis culture, such as it is, isn’t helping with our general state of affairs.
However! Big however!
Again, the Serena of it all.
And besides, Americans were playing mainly on hard courts back in the 80s and 90s too.
Jim Courier was very much in the same mold we see today. Big serve, massive forehand; not a ton else. That got him four majors, which is better than the vast majority of players in history have ever gotten. Not bad.
Even the greater greats, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, only won once at Roland Garros between them. Clay has never been a strong suit for the Americans, no matter the era.
What I’m saying is: the manner in which American tennis players are brought up and coached may have changed a bit, very possibly for the worse, all while the game has gotten to be more global and thus more competitive.
But I don’t think the hold-up is purely, or even mainly, structural. Much of the backdrop has also stayed the same.
For me, it has more to do with timing.
Del Potro won that U.S. Open in 2009, and that was that. He never won another, which puts him right in line with Roddick, who competed around the same time.
And my theory is, essentially, all those guys were fucked from the jump. Since Jump Street, I should say.
In tennis, long before basketball made the term ubiquitous, the Big Three are pretty clearly the three greatest players ever: Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal, and that Federer guy — who just keeps popping up, doesn’t he? — all of whom played against one another in roughly the same era.
Starting with that fateful year of 2003, those three went on such a historic run of dominance that hardly anyone was ever able to break their vice grip on the game.
Only Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka, each with three, managed more than one major in the two decades since.
Both were excellent players, and to be fair, no American has been equally good in the same period, so that’s tough to argue on its own.
Next Man Up
Problem was, there wasn’t.
Federer, Nadal, and Djokovic each won at least 20 Grand Slams over the course of their careers, with Djoker at a record 23 and counting.
Sampras’ 14 used to be the record until they came along. To have three separate guys blow that number away, essentially all at once, speaks to a unique era of tennis wherein no one else could elbow in.
And none of the three were American.
Decades ago, many of the top players were. What if America might have actually been overperforming expectations back then, and has since overcorrected to the point of maddening almost-but-not-quite-ness?
Maybe it’s all just a cycle, and we’re still waiting for another turn.
For what it’s worth, there are many who find Sebastian Korda — he of the very athletic family — to be the next great hope. You didn’t see Eubanks taking many of these types of points against Medvedev on Tuesday:
Hope springs eternal, and it springs awfully fast off the hardcourt.
The breakthrough’s coming, one of these days.
But until then, here’s to the wait, and every almost along the way.
You know who’s in the way now? Carlos Alcaraz. He’s 20, and he just beat Djokovic in one of the best Wimbledon finals we’ve ever seen to win his second major. He’s already here.
Congratulations to him. Today, he showed the precocious composure that makes a star in this sport. Nothing is guaranteed in this or any other sport, but I suspect he’ll have more to come.
Settle in, America. Looks like the wait just got longer.
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