Wimbledon: Roddick safe but US contenders thin on the ground
Published 28/06/2012 | 11:37
There are 61 American competitors in action at Wimbledon, far more than from any other nation, but depth no longer indicates strength. Strip away the doubles players and the former stars at invitation events and only 22 are playing singles. Strip away the outsiders, the no-hopers and the already beaten, and Uncle Sam is left with just Serena Williams to fly the Stars and Stripes.
Andy Roddick would not agree with that assessment but, increasingly, seems his Wimbledon chance went in that epic 2009 final when Roger Federer beat him 16-14 in the fifth set. Yesterday the Texan needed two tie-breaks to edge past the battling Briton Jamie Baker, the world No 186. Roddick should beat Germany's unseeded Bjorn Phau next up and might fancy his chances against David Ferrer, the No 7 seed, on grass in the third round but Juan Martin del Potro should lie in wait in the fourth. Mardy Fish, the only other surviving American men's seed is scheduled to exit to Wilfred Tsonga at that stage. That may be it for the American male at Wimbledon. Again.
There was a time when the bald eagle's brethren picked off the opposition in SW19, and elsewhere. From Stan Smith in 1972 to Pete Sampras's last triumph in 2000, via Jimmy Connors, Arthur Ashe, John McEnroe and Andre Agassi, Americans won 15 of 29 men's titles. Since there has just been Roddick, three times a losing finalist. It is not a burden he enjoys. "I've been dealing for the majority of my career with being on the heels of probably the best generation any country has ever had, but I just focus on my next match," he said.
The story is the same at the other majors. Agassi is the last man to win in Paris (1999) and Melbourne (2003). Most humiliating of all is the record on the home hard court. Roddick was the 19th domestic US Open champion in 36 years when he won in 2003, but none has even contested the final since Roddick lost it six years ago.
As with the decline of the American heavyweight boxer, there is a variety of factors. One, according to the noted legendary coach and Independent columnist Nick Bollettieri, is cost. He said: "We go in cycles, but tennis is a very expensive sport and many of our athletes are going to other sports because they can't afford it. If we had guys like [basketball players] LeBron James and Kobe Bryant it would be a different ball game but you have to pay for them. I believe we have to get the big, strong athletes – because tennis is about physique now, when they are about 11, 12, boys and girls, and sponsor them.
Bollettieri added that it is now a global sport. He said: "You also have to remember back in the Eighties there were only about six countries playing tennis, now it is the whole world. Our students come from all over."
Twenty years ago this week there were only 21 nationalities in the top 100 – and 15 Americans in the world's top 30. Now there are two Americans in the top 30, and 37 countries represented in the top 100.
In America, as in Britain, they are seeking to expand the sport's reach. Conscious that they are losing the pre-teen generation to soccer and little-league baseball the United States Tennis Association has developed an initiative called "10 and Under Tennis" with smaller courts and rackets, and slower, lower-bouncing balls. Like the Football Association, it has finally realised that asking children to play with adult equipment and pitches is daft.
However, such programmes take years to come to fruition, In the meantime Americans are hoping for a last hurrah from Roddick or Fish, and for the likes of Donald Young and Ryan Harrison to deliver on their teenage promise.