J.R. and Henry: Are the better days behind us?
What happened to American tennis? We’re well into the second week of Wimbledon and the Americans in both the women’s and men’s draws have long since exited. In fact, in the three grand slams thus far, no American has yet to make it past the quarterfinals. What’s up with that?
Where are the days of McEnroe-Connors; Sampras–Agassi; Evert-King, and the all-Williams finals (Margaret Smith Court was long before our time)? It appears they are all over.
Now are the days of Roger Federer, Raphael Nadal, Justine Henin-Hardenne and a whole slew of female Russians, including the delightful Maria Sharapova. Yes, Lindsey Davenport and James Blake are in the Top 10, but neither one of them has made much noise since the Australian Open when Davenport made it to the quarterfinals. While we applaud James Blake’s triumph over Raphael Nadal in the 2005 U.S. Open and his breathtaking five-set loss to Andre Agassi, his meltdown to Max Mirnyi at this year’s Wimbledon demonstrates that Blake simply isn’t mentally ready for the big time.
(More after the jump)
The Williams sisters, once the most dynamic duo in all of female tennis, have been plagued by injury after injury. Serena hasn’t played a grand slam match since the Australian Open where she took a quick exit in the third round. She’s been out with an ankle injury and a hip injury, which has affected her overall fitness. While she hopes to return this summer, the outlook isn’t good. Couple that with the fact that Serena hasn’t made any noise in a grand slam since the 2005 Australian Open.
Venus has struggled as well. She made a quick exit at all three grand slams this year and, prior to winning Wimbledon in 2005, hadn’t picked up a grand slam win since 2001 (despite five appearances in grand slam finals). She’s not injured. Rather, she’s just playing poorly. Her national ranking has stumbled to 12 and it is clear with the dominance of the top 4 female players in the world at Wimbledon (they all reached the semi-finals) that the outlook is not good for Venus to rise again to prominence on the world stage.
But with the Williams sisters and Davenport, at least there is some hope. There better be, because according to the WTA rankings released before Wimbledon, the next highest ranked player after Venus is Jill Craybas at 42. She bowed out in the first round of each grand slam this season. Jamea Jackson had a solid run in Wimbledon and she’s young as did Shenay Perry. But after them, we notice names like Lisa Raymond and Amy Frazier. Not much hope.
If you thought this outlook was bleak, take a look at the men. When the days of Sampras-Agassi ended, we thought that the next great young American rivalry was on the horizon. James Blake, whom we talked about before, rebounded from a life-threatening injury to not only walk again, but to play professional tennis. That kind of will has grand slam champion written all over it. But then he lays an egg at the French and again at Wimbledon, a surface where he should thrive in the way Agassi thrived.
And then there’s Andy Roddick. When he won the U.S. Open in 2003, we thought he was about to go on a tear the likes of Tiger Woods. Little did we know that breaking up with Mandy Moore would have such a correlation to his poor performance. Not even Vincent Chase took a hit this bad. Since that Open title, Roddick has been in only two grand slam finals and was pummeled by Roger Federer each time. This year, playing perhaps the worst tennis of his career, he hasn’t made it past the fourth round of a grand slam and took a quick exit from both the French and Wimbledon.
But we can’t ride Roddick too hard. He did date Mandy Moore. Seriously, the troubling thing about Roddick's and Blake’s tumbles this year is that looking behind them, there’s no other American within light years of the top 10. No other American is ranked in the ATP Top 50. While Robby Ginepri, Mardy Fish, Justin Gimelstob, Paul Goldstein once provided some promise, we’re hopeful that some new young talent will emerge (we hear that Little Rock’s Peter Schults, via Duke University, is making some noise on the Challenger Circuit).
But perhaps what we’re more upset about than anything is that two weeks ago, Andre Agassi announced that he was retiring. We could see it coming. Federer, Nadal and a whole slew of European players -- much younger players -- were winning matches against him with more consistency.
We’ll miss Agassi’s flash on the court and his powerful return of serve. It’s not the between-the-legs passing shots or the swinging volleys that impressed us; it was his drive to compete. He bounced back from several plummets down into the depths of the tour rankings only to emerge time and again as the player we always knew that he was when he stormed the court in 1986 at the ripe age of 16.
Agassi won eight Grand slams during his professional career and capped off a career grand slam with a victory in the French Open in 1999. That was something not even Pete Sampras achieved in his career and something Roger Federer, who is on the verge of winning his fourth Wimbledon in a row, has yet to do. In fact, only Fred Perry and Roy Emerson have accomplished such a goal. Don Budge and Rod Laver won all four Grand slams in a single year (Laver did it twice). That’s some company. And he did it all while playing in 62 grand slam events (soon to be 63) and breaking Jimmy Connors open era record along the way.
We will miss Andre Agassi just as we missed Pete Sampras, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Chris Evert and Billie Jean King before him. Those were the better days of American tennis. And unless Agassi can give us one more day of magic in Arthur Ashe Stadium at the U.S. Open in September, the better days may truly be behind us.
J.R and Henry blog this sports column at Little Rocking twice a week.