The question, whatever the venue, whatever the day, is always the same: “What’s wrong with American tennis?” No, that's not true, it’s not exactly the same, as I found out this morning when I was a guest on a sports radio program in Florida. This time the host asked, “What happened to American tennis?”
It’s still going pretty strong on the women’s side, at least for the moment. But it’s a valid question on the men’s, where Sam Querrey’s fourth-round exit today means there will be no American male in the U.S. Open quarters for the second consecutive year, and, putting the four Grand Slams together, this country’s ATP players just completed their weakest collective season of the Open era.
The relative and likely temporary decline of U.S. men’s tennis is the furthest thing from news, and we’ve heard all kinds of theories about what must be done to combat it, from corralling every kid with a 100-m.p.h. serve into a giant tennis farm to making them all play on little courts with nerf balls. The answer remains elusive, probably because it doesn’t exist. Take the case of Sam Querrey, the last American man left. The easygoing Californian and current No. 22 in the world defies all the stereotypes of the prodigy. He went to high school, ate dinner at home, and wasn’t on anyone’s radar screen until late in his teens. I can remember seeing him play at the Orange Bowl four or five years ago. The card-carrying members of the junior elite were stunned to watch him winning matches. Of the dozens of players who entered that event, the only guy ranked ahead of Querrey now is Marin Cilic. The point is, next great hopes, even multiple next great hopes, can come from nowhere. 1987 was a season of comparable weakness for American men. Two years later, Michael Chang won the French Open. Pete Sampras won the U.S. Open in 1990. Jim Courier won the French Open in 1991. Andre Agassi won Wimbledon in 1992.
For today, though, the U.S. had Querrey and Querrey alone. He spent five sets and more than four hours in Ashe Stadium battling the gusts and playing enervating, cat and mouse, error-strewn tennis against Stanislas Wawrinka. It was a match of long lulls and monotonous holds; with the air swirling, each player had to shorten their strokes and play cautiously, but it was still tough for them to keep the ball inside the baseline. Wawrinka, who said before the match that he wanted to be more aggressive because Querrey doesn’t like to play “on the defense,” spent long periods patiently floating his slice backhand deep into his opponent’s backhand side. Querrey, robbed of pace, was hesitant to let the ball rip.
It all made for choppy tennis. Each set unfolded in a similar way: After all of the monotonous holds, a mad scramble ensued. The first set ended with an 11-9 tiebreaker. On set point in the second, Wawrinka watched as a forehand of his hit the tape, popped forward, and was still pushed back onto his side of the court by the wind. He lost the set 7-5. The third set, which also ended 7-5, turned on a couple of botched volleys by Querrey. At the end of the fourth, Querrey capitalized on a sudden drop in play from Wawrinka to break. The Swiss returned the favor in the fifth, when Querrey couldn’t find a first serve.
After four hours of back and forth, very little daylight developed between the two; each gave and took in equal measures, and looked equally brilliant in spots and utterly vulnerable in others. Wawrinka’s new coach, Peter Lundgren—they started working together two months ago—said right off the bat that he wanted to make Wawrinka play more aggressively. This is what every coach says, of course, but they were pretty much the first words out of Lundgren’s mouth when they hooked up. Wawrinka did belt the ball with abandon against Andy Murray in the last round. In this one, hampered by the wind, he went to the slice with his backhand. But while he used that primarily as a change of pace for the first four sets, he was able to transform it into a match-deciding offensive play in the fifth. Up 3-2, he began to slide that slice down the line and follow it to net. It was a play he used the rest of the way, and which paid dividends in the final game. On his first match point, Wawrinka came forward, but ended up missing an overhead. On his second, he hit a superb approach and finished the point with his second volley. Lundgren, bellowing irritatingly throughout, must have been happy. It took five sets, but Wawrinka found his aggressive solution.
Afterward, Querrey was, predictably, barraged with questions about the absence of American men in the quarters, the general decline of American tennis, and the disgraceful incompetence his U.S. cronies—that last part was not explicitly stated, but the tone was there. Querrey could only muster one answer, the only answer possible: “We’re trying our best.” As I said, these things come in cycles, but looking at Querrey's loss next to Mardy Fish’s (to Djokovic), John Isner’s (to Youzhny) and Andy Roddick’s (to Tipsarevic), you can see that the U.S. lives a tier below the Europeans these days—only one of those defeats came to someone in the Top 10.
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In the past, U.S. men have excelled most of all at arrogance, the Connors-McEnroe-Agassi-Roddick brand of arrogance that looks ugly but wins matches. Roddick still has it, and a touch of that toughness survives in Isner. Querrey? When he wins, I like to say that his calmness helps him. When he loses, I usually write that he’s too calm, that he needs to show more fire at the crucial moments. The guy can’t win with me. This time, while Wawrinka made adjustments at the end, Querrey stuck with he what had and got tight in the final game. After all that time, I couldn’t believe he would let it end that easily. Sam lost in the fourth round at Wimbledon and the fourth round here, his two strongest results at the majors. Would a little more arrogance have helped? Maybe, or maybe that just isn’t him; maybe that isn’t American tennis at the moment. Like Querrey said, all he and his countryman can do is try their best. Too bad that’s never going to be good enough for us.
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