The 2021 Australian Open recently concluded with another European tennis player hoisting the trophy as Novak Djokovic of Serbia dropped to his knees after hitting an overhead winner to pass Daniil Medvedev of Russia on match point. Djokovic’s win marked the 68th consecutive tennis grand slam tournament without an American winner on the men’s side.
For tennis fans in the final decades of the 20th century, the likelihood of an American tennis grand slam drought seemed as preposterous as Wimbledon changing its all-white dress code. Though hard to believe today, America did, in fact, dominate the tennis world at one time.
The United States was a powerhouse for producing world No. 1-ranked players for three decades, generating players like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Jim Courier, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Andy Roddick. These legends combined to win 42 major singles titles, creating a boom in popularity for the sport back home. Since Roddick won the U.S. Open in 2003, however, no American male has earned the title.
What happened? The simple answer is that the competition got tougher –– a lot tougher. First came Roger Federer from Switzerland, then Rafael Nadal from Spain and finally Djokovic from Serbia. Federer spoiled Roddick’s career, defeating the big-serving American in four grand slam finals. The “Swiss Magician” was no friendlier to James Blake, eliminating the New York native in the U.S. and Australian Open quarterfinals, the furthest Blake would go at a grand slam in spite of his No. 4 ranking.
Since 2008, only five players besides Nadal, Federer and Djokovic have won a major title. Once Nadal and Djokovic reached their primes, hardly any player captured a grand slam outside of the Big Three. The three greatest tennis players of all time playing in the same era is just poor luck for the rest of the field.
There is little excuse, however, for only three Americans to be currently ranked in the top 50 on the ATP tour.
“For a country this big, with these resources, it doesn’t make sense,” said Rick Macci, the coach who helped develop Roddick, the Williams sisters and 2020 Australian Open champion Sofia Kenin.
American player Tennys Sandgren made the quarterfinals of the Australian Open in 2018 and 2020, and fellow Americans John Isner and Sam Querrey each reached the semifinals of Wimbledon in the past. None of these players, however, are household names outside the tennis world. Furthermore, they had no legitimate shot at winning the tournament as the toughest opponents in the draw waited in the rounds ahead.
American tennis fans long for the former glory of U.S. tennis players garnering trophies, yet things are unlikely to change.
Nowadays, many young athletes in the United States dream of becoming the next Lebron James or Tom Brady, not the next Roger Federer. There are various reasons why American youth are more attracted to the aura of football, basketball, hockey and baseball. The MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL have dominated the American sports landscape. These sports are rooted in American pop culture and are directly tied with fashion and music.
For example, hip-hop artists constantly reference football and basketball players. In “Nonstop,” Drake raps, “How I go from 6 to 23 like I’m LeBron?” Kanye West in “Facts” raps, “On the field I’m over-reckless, on my Odell Beckham.”
Additionally, team merchandise from these leagues has come to symbolize something greater than sports. For example, the Yankees cap is an iconic fashion item. The hat, with the logo that famously interlocks NY, represents a great history, a winning culture, personality and heritage. Ice Cube and Jay-Z are some of the many artists who reference the Yankee hat in the lyrics of their songs.
The ATP tour should consider adding more team events to the calendar and creating individual and team jerseys to market across the world.
Furthermore, joining a tennis team in America has become outrageously expensive, and championship-quality coaching is hard to find. Most Americans cannot afford to train their children to play at a competitive level.
ESPN coverage of tennis in the United States is also lacking. Tennis is rarely mentioned on any of the popular debate shows with big TV-sports personalities, and when it is, the analysis is short and amateur. Kids want to be like the athletes they see and hear about on television, and the subpar tennis coverage is not helping to generate any new fans.
“If I had LeBron James at age 10, there’s no doubt in my mind I could have gotten him to No. 1 in the world,” Macci said.
In comparison, in Europe, South America and parts of Asia, tennis enjoys high regional popularity. Top-ranked players are viewed as national heroes, and high-performance academies focus more heavily on player development than generating revenue.
Ultimately, subpar American tennis players are competing against the top athletes from other countries. It doesn’t take a mathematician to find a disconnect in the algorithm. Fortunately, we have the power to end the American grand slam drought.
Tennis needs to be made more accessible to lower-income children, academies need to stop acting like money factories and start prioritizing developing the next world No. 1, and tennis coverage has to improve and change the culture surrounding the sport. Until we implement these changes, Mackenzie McDonald, the last American standing in the fourth round of the Australian Open, might continue to perform the best of all American men in grand slams. Who’s that you may ask? That’s the point.
Robbie Werdiger is a first-year in the College. Causing a Racquet appears online every other week.