The Australian Open tennis championship kicked off this week in Melbourne, which can only mean one thing: The last remaining U.S. men’s player will probably bounce out around the quarterfinals or so, if not sooner, and a streak that would have seemed unimaginable two decades ago will continue stomping on my poor poor pitiful Yank fanboy heart.
Two decades. That’s how long it has been since an American male player won a major tennis singles championship. Twenty years.
The last time it happened was at the 2003 U.S. Open, which American Andy Roddick won. Since then, not one male player from the USA has won a major singles title. Only four times since then has a male American player even reached a major championship final – all by Roddick, and the last time in 2009.
To put that in perspective, consider this: During the preceding 20 years, between 1983 and 2003, American men won 32 major singles titles, spread between Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, and Roddick. Thirty-two in 20 years!
I’m too lazy to look up how many times American men made a final during that span and didn’t win, but you can bet it’s a high number as well. In many years, American men were beating other American men in the finals.
Older generations were almost as successful. Between the start of the open era in 1968 and 1983, American men won 20 major titles in 16 years, led by players like McEnroe, Connors, Arthur Ashe, and Stan Smith. Before then, American male players like Pancho Rodriguez, Tony Trabert, Jack Kramer, Don Budge, and Bill Tilden ruled men’s tennis.
(BTW: Don’t pay attention to how many major tennis titles some of these older guys won. Many turned pro during a long period when pro players weren’t allowed to compete in the French Open, Australian Open, Wimbledon, and US Open. They dominated the pro ranks, and would have dominated the amateur ranks, too).
Here’s another fun fact: Since 2003, American women have won 24 major singles titles. Okay, Serena Williams won 19 of those all on her own (she also won four prior to 2003, for a total of 23). The others have gone to her sister Venus (3), Sloane Stephens (1), and Sofia Kenin (1).
You have to remind yourself that before the current drought, Americans were the dominant force in men’s tennis, led by the quartet of Sampras, Agassi, Courier, and Chang. I’m trying to think of any other examples of a team or country going from dominating a major sport to being an afterthought in such a short period of time.
The New York Yankees in baseball come to mind. Between 1947 and 1964 – a period spanning 18 seasons – the Yanks won 15 American League pennants and 10 World Series titles. But then they hit a wall. Over the next 11 seasons, from 1965 to 1975, they did not win a pennant or reach a World Series.
The NFL’s Green Bay Packers dominated the 1960s, then faded into mediocrity over the next 30 years or so, finally ending the drought with a Super Bowl title during the 1996-97 season. The NHL’s Montreal Canadiens were the league’s dominant franchise for much of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. But since 1979, they have won only two titles.
In college basketball, the UCLA men’s team won 10 NCAA titles between 1964 and 1975, but have won just one since then. The Tennessee women’s team won eight NCAA titles between 1986 and 2008 but haven’t won a title since.
But those are all team sports, influenced by the vagaries of coaches, owners, administrators, and money. In individual sports, decades-long patterns tend not to end almost overnight.
So, what happened to men’s U.S. tennis?
For nearly two decades, I have wondered that very thing. How could male American tennis players go from ruling the sport to fading from view in the snap of a finger?
One popular theory is that the best male American athletes just aren’t interested in tennis anymore. That might be partly true, but I’m not sure I buy it as the main reason for a 20-year drought. It too easily assumes that athletes who might otherwise have been tennis players have chosen instead to excel in other sports.
Think of some of the dominant American male athletes since 2003 – Lebron James, Steph Curry, Tom Brady, Mike Trout, etc. Would any of them have considered being tennis players in previous eras? I doubt it.
Of those four, the only one I could imagine being a world-class tennis player is Steph Curry, because of his size and skill set. Lebron is just too big and powerful. Same thing with Trout. They would knock tennis balls through walls. You wonder if they would have developed the finesse to compete at the highest level. Their body types are not tennis body types. Brady? I’m not sure he has the quickness.
Now, think of elite American male tennis players before the current drought started: Sampras, Courier, Agassi, McEnroe, Connors. Did they choose tennis even though they could have been elite in other sports? Again, that’s no sure thing. They simply aren’t big enough to have excelled in American football or basketball. They might have done well in soccer (McEnroe was an excellent soccer player as a junior) or baseball (Courier was an excellent baseball player as a junior). Who knows?
They gravitated toward tennis because of their specific body types, sizes, and skill sets. Similarly, Lebron gravitated toward basketball and Brady gravitated toward American football for the same reasons.
The one part that is true is that American male athletes have more choices for making good money in sports than in most other countries. In the USA, elite male athletes can choose between American football, baseball, basketball, hockey, soccer, tennis, and golf.
For most of the rest of the world, the choices come down to soccer, basketball, and tennis (golf is too expensive for the majority of the world’s population). Some countries also have professional cricket, hockey, and rugby. Most don’t.
While American male players were fading from view, here’s another thing that happened over the past 20 years: Europe took the fast train to domination – and it’s not even close.
Between 2003 and 2022, there were a total of 79 men’s major tennis championships (there would have been 80, but Wimbledon was cancelled in 2020 due to COVID). In those 79 championships, European men won 76. The only exceptions were Roddick at the 2003 men’s US Open, Argentinian Gaston Gaudio at the 2004 French Open, and Argentinian Juan Martin del Potro at the 2009 US Open.
Look at that number again: 79 major men’s champions, 76 from Europe. No other continent has been close to that dominant, ever.
Three Europeans – Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Novak Djokovic – won a combined 63 of those titles.
The gap between European men and the rest of the male tennis world is so wide and deep that there is nothing else to compare it to – with the possible exception of East African distance runners, who are similarly dominant.
Which leads me to wonder: Maybe the reason American men are no longer dominant (or even that competitive) isn’t because U.S. players got so much worse, but because European players got so much better. That might also explain why Australia, which used to be a global men’s tennis power, can barely place a player in the world’s Top 20 anymore.
The question then is why and how this came to be.
One theory I heard in an interview on YouTube was advanced by former World No. 1 Ivan Lendl. Lendl is uniquely qualified to chat about this. He is a native of the former Czechoslovakia who helped lead the European men’s tennis renaissance in the late 1970s and 1980s, along with Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, and Stefan Edberg.
Lendl also moved to the USA during his playing career, and has spent more than three decades as an American (his four daughters all became top American golfers). So, he’s had a front-row seat to what happened in Europe and the States.
His theory is simple: European athletes got a lot more exposure to tennis over the last 40-odd years because European athletic officials started building more indoor tennis facilities. This eliminated the weather factor in a region of the world where you might have four or five months of decent weather to play outdoor tennis.
With more access to the sport, a lot of European athletes dived into it – mainly as a way to stay in shape when soccer wasn’t in season. Once they got exposed to tennis, many found that they loved it.
Take Federer, Nadal and Djokovic as examples. I bet they all could have been elite soccer players – and probably would have been before European sporting authorities built more year-round tennis facilities. Suddenly, they had a choice.
What they probably learned is that soccer had too many other elite athletes trying to crack the top level. So, a whole bunch of young European boys gravitated toward tennis. And a bunch of tennis coaches found a ready market, which led to a rise in elite junior tennis programs.
And European coaches brought a different approach to the sport. They taught players how to win – not just how to hit the ball hard, but how to build points, how to think, how to strategize, how to grind, how to outsmart your opponent if they were on their best day and you were not.
Meanwhile, in the USA – where tennis was just another sport among many – elite young players followed the same old pattern of trying to outhit their opponents instead of outthink them. American coaches kept preaching the gospel of power rather than the strategic backcourt game that arose with changes in tennis equipment, surfaces, and training.
The two best young American men’s tennis players right now – Taylor Fritz and Frances Tiafoe – make their living by trying to outhit their opponents. They’re successful against most. But you can’t blow shots past top-tier players (Djokovic, Nadal, Medvedev come to mind) because they’re so quick and athletic. You have to master the art of drop shots, volleys, slices, changes of pace.
Another thing that’s important: Europe has a lot more men’s tennis tournaments than the rest of the world – not just at the top ATP level, but also at the lower Challenger and Futures levels
North America will host 13 ATP-level men’s tennis tournaments in 2023. Asia will host nine. Australia/New Zealand will host four, South America will host three, and Africa will host two.
Meanwhile, Europe will host 33.
Do you want to know why Europe is the dominant men’s tennis power, and the rest of the world – including the USA – are also-rans?
Because Europe wants it more.
I really don’t see that changing anytime soon. We shall see. (Go Taylor! Go Frances!)
Note: The collage accompanying this blog is of past U.S. men’s tennis greats. Clockwise from top left: Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, Bill Tilden, Arthur Ashe, Jack Kramer, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, and Pancho Gonzalez (center). I originally wanted to include Jim Courier and Don Budge, but the Google photo thingy only lets you put 9 photos in a collage, and I just had to include the handy American question mark. I did make a separate collage with Courier instead of Ashe, then did a comparison of their pro careers, and Ashe got the edge. So, his collage is included here. Budge is one of only two players to win a Grand Slam in a single year. The other is Rod Laver. Anyway, below are photos of Courier and Budge.