Mardy Fish’s loss in the third round of the French Open ended the chances of both his first Grand Slam title and the start of a U.S. tennis resurgence.
Fish, eliminated by France’s Gilles Simon on May 28, was the final American playing in the clay court tournament in Paris, the second major event of the tennis year. A few hours earlier, Vania King, the last U.S. woman in the third round, had also lost. That left no American players in the last sixteen of Roland Garros for the first time since tennis turned professional in 1968.
With the gap between U.S. men’s Grand Slam singles titles an unprecedented seven years and growing, and just one American in the top 10 on either the men’s or women’s tours, future success may have to come from experimental development programs or players emigrating from other countries, former players and agents say.
“We’ve been spoiled on some level: they just expected it to happen just because we had past success,” John McEnroe, a seven-time Grand Slam singles champion from the U.S., said in an interview. “You can’t count on that continuing to happen.”
In quarterfinals action in Paris today, Roger Federer, the 2009 French Open champion from Switzerland, faces France’s Gael Monfils. The winner of that match will play No. 2 Novak Djokovic of Serbia, who moved to the semifinals yesterday after his quarterfinals opponent, Fabio Fognini of Italy, pulled out with an injury. Women’s defending champion Francesca Schiavone of Italy faces Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova for a spot in the last four.
Big Shoes to Fill
“Unsuccessful,” Fish told a news conference after his loss, when asked to sum up the American participation in Paris.
There were nine men and nine women from the U.S. in the French Open singles draws.
“We come here every year sort of with the same question: When are we going to put somebody in the quarters?,” said Fish, 29.
No American man has reached the last eight at Roland Garros since Andre Agassi in 2003 and none has reached the semifinals since Agassi won his only French title in 1999.
Bethanie Mattek-Sands, ranked No. 34 on the WTA Tour, was the top American woman at Roland Garros. Mattek-Sands said after her second-round victory that the country’s past success makes her situation difficult.
“When you think of American tennis, you think No. 1 in the world, or top 10, and I am not there yet,” said the Rochester, Minnesota native, who was beaten by former top-ranked Jelena Jankovic of Serbia in the third round. “I am working on it, obviously that’s my goal, but being a good player for U.S. tennis, that’s big shoes to fill,”
No Williams Sisters
Three weeks ago, there were no American men or women in the top 10 rankings for the first time ever. Tampa, Florida-based Fish has since reclaimed the No. 10 spot on the ATP World Tour. Entering the French Open, there were no U.S. women in the WTA Tour’s top 15.
Andy Roddick, the second-highest ranked American man and last to win a Grand Slam trophy with the 2003 U.S. Open, missed the French Open because of a shoulder injury. Serena Williams and Venus Williams, sisters who have combined for 20 Grand Slam singles titles, were also absent. Serena hasn’t played since winning Wimbledon last July because of a foot injury and treatment for a clot in her lung, and Venus pulled out of the tournament with an abdominal injury.
Christina McHale, a 19-year-old from Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey, entered the top 100 in March. She said last month in Rome that though she is part of a new generation of U.S. players, she didn’t feel added pressure now that the Williams sisters weren’t competing.
“It’s more of an opportunity for the young Americans coming through,” said McHale, who lost in the opening round of the French Open to Sara Errani of Italy.
Longest Grand Slam Drought
There never has been a longer period in the Open era than the 30 consecutive Grand Slams, including this year’s French Open, that hasn’t included a U.S. male singles winner. From 1956 through 1962, the lone U.S. men’s champion was Alex Olmedo, a citizen of Peru who played under the American flag when he captured the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 1959, according to those tournaments’ websites.
Of the seven American men ranked in the current top 90, only Sam Querrey (No. 28) and Ryan Sweeting (No. 70), both 23 years old, are younger than 26.
Donald Young won the 2005 Australian Open Junior Championships and the 2007 Junior Wimbledon, and was labeled by some tennis commentators as the next great American hope. Now 21, Young didn’t receive an invitation to the French Open qualifiers this year and never has advanced past the third round of a Grand Slam.
Next Big Hope?
The future of U.S. tennis may lie in players like Sweeting, who was born in the Bahamas and switched nationalities after moving to the United States at a young age. The fourth-highest American woman is 25-year-old Varvara Lepchenko, originally from Uzbekistan and now living in Allentown, Pennsylvania.
Maria Shishkina is a 12-year-old playing under the American flag born in Kazakhstan who’s now training at the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy, training ground to former American Grand Slam winners Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Monica Seles and both Williams sisters. She recently signed a sponsorship deal with Under Armour Inc. founder Kevin Plank.
Max Eisenbud, Shishkina’s agent at IMG, said that he expects to see a lot of future American players coming from other countries, because the U.S. youth tend to focus on other sports.
“Our best athletes don’t play tennis,” Eisenbud, who also represents Russia’s Maria Sharapova and China’s Li Na, said in an interview this month. “If you look around the Eastern Europeans, their best athletes are playing tennis.”
Roger Federer, the 16-time Grand Slam singles champion who spent a record 237 weeks ranked No. 1 on the ATP World Tour from 2004 to 2008, said the lack of success from American youth is a trend seen around the world.
“There are not that many teenagers in the top 100, so I think many countries are going through a phase where they do not have the talent they hoped to have,” Federer, 29, said at a press conference in Rome two weeks before Roland Garros. “Those countries have to be patient and this creates a lot of pressure on the people working in the federations and the media.”
McEnroe said that if there is a positive to come out of the current American tennis drought, it’s that the sport’s athletes, marketers and executives can no longer ignore the issue. The U.S. Tennis Association this year launched a 10-and-under game, with smaller courts and different balls, aimed at promoting the sport to a younger U.S. audience.
“The good news is that more and more people are aware that we need to start thinking out of the box a lot more, and to really be aggressive and try to go after this a lot more that we have in the past,” McEnroe said.