The Rise and Fall of American men's tennis
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“I let my racket do all the talking”
The year was 1983 and this is what the legendary American tennis player John McEnroe had to say when puffed up journalists asked him what he intends to do as he had not won a major for almost a year and a half. He delivered in some style by winning the 1983 Wimbledon.
The previous generation saw the likes of Arthur Ashe and Jimmy Connors. And even while McEnroe was playing, Connors was quite a force to be reckoned with. Then we saw a plethora of American tennis players at the top. Starting with Michael Chang, who is still the youngest Grand Slam winner when he won the French Open in 1989 at the tender age of 17, to Jim Courier and his fellow Bollettieri academy mate Andre Agassi and last but not the least Pete Sampras.
These players combined have won over 35 Grand Slams; this shows the prowess of American tennis at that point of time. The last American to win a Grand Slam was Andy Roddick who won it at the 2003 US Open. The past few years have been ones to forget for US tennis with not many quality players coming through. Barring John Isner and to a certain extent Sam Querrrey, there is no one keeping the American flag flying high in men’s tennis.
When Agassi and Sampras came onto the scene, it seemed like McEnroe’s grandeur had come to an end as his brash persona which gave the crowd more than one reason to watch a McEnroe match. McEnroe and Connors’ era seemed to be the start of something big for US Tennis. The baton was later carried forward by the stylish Las Vegan and the big serving Californian.
While the latter was a very attacking player with the traditional play of serve and volley, the former was one of the best returners the game has ever seen. Agassi’s double handed backhand down the line is one shot which surely paid his cheques; whenever he was in trouble, he unleashed it. Even the fastest of players found it too hot to handle.
Sampras on the other hand was scripting a story of his own. He won a record 7 Wimbledons. His ability to get down the aces when it mattered the most was a vicious nightmare to even the best of receivers. Coupled with his volley game, it made a deadly combo.
Few have been able to surpass the serve and volley game of Sampras and the returning game of Agassi since; Murray is probably the closest to Agassi and Federer during his early years the closest to Sampras.
US tennis has never been the same since their retirement. While saying that, we shouldn’t totally count them out as they’ve been able to produce players, who if not consistently, at least in bits and pieces, have produced efforts that are worthwhile. For eg. Robby Ginepri made it to the semi finals of the 2005 US Open. But since then no one else has been able to rekindle that magic.
The same goes for James Blake. At one point of time, he was touted to be the future of US tennis, no, world tennis. His lightning pace, aggressive ground strokes and a one handed backhand which was as beautiful as one can imagine made sure he was at least for some time the poster boy of American tennis. But somewhere down the line, he stopped winning and became another of the country’s ’15 minutes of fame players.
Amidst all this, there was a fast serving bloke from Austin, Texas who had a devastating forehand. He was of the name- well you know him – yes, Andy Roddick. He is the last American to win a Grand Slam. He was the last American to reach a Grand Slam final as well when he reached the Wimbledon final in 2009 again loosing to his nemesis, Roger Federer. Everyone expected much more from him, but the chapter of Andy Roddick is over and it’s better to concentrate on what they have.
The era’s of the 70s, 80s and 90s has champions. Champions are the purple cows among all the white cows, they’re different. They are the people who are able to bail themselves out of crunch situations. That is what defined John McEnroe. En route to his final at Wimbledon in 1980, he hadn’t lost a set. But during the fourth set, Bjorn Borg was leading and was on his way to clinch his fifth straight Wimbledon. Then came the fighting spirit of the brash American. The set went into a tie breaker. The tie breaker lasted 20 minutes. The match went into a fifth set. Although Borg went on to clinch the match, it was the fighting spirit of McEnroe that we no longer see in the American tennis players today.
American tennis soared into a new low when not even one player entered the quarter finals of the US Open in 2012. Roddick was the last to bow out as he lost to big serving Argentinian Juan Martin Del Potro.
Contrary to the men’s side where the future is anything but bleak, the women’s side has the powerful Serena Williams who is still the best player in the world. No one can match her power and she has made it a point to prove that at least women’s tennis in America won’t go down the drain without a fight.
American women’s tennis has been fortunate of late. With the Williams’ sisters end nearing closer by the day, it has seen the rise of the formidable Sloane Stephens. She has made it clear from day 1 that she isn’t the next Serena. She is Sloane Stephens. Stephens is going to be 20 in five days time and she is already in the top 20 of women’s tennis. Still sowing the seeds of a big career, Stephens has reached the semi finals of the Australian Open in 2013 where she beat Serena Williams. She has also reached the quarter finals of Wimbledon.
With women’s tennis looking nothing but formidable the coming years, it is surprisingly the men who have to catch up. And if they don’t catch up, it’ll be a hard few years for American tennis indeed.Published 16 Mar 2014, 13:27 IST