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American men's tennis drought not as bad as you think -- it's worse

When it comes to the appeal of American men's tennis, there is no set standard for the public. Over the course of the Open Era, we've embraced class (Arthur Ashe), petulance (Jimmy Connors), combustible genius (John McEnroe), rock stardom (Andre Agassi) and the monotonous (Pete Sampras). So I guess I should be excited that two young players -- any two -- are simultaneously on the rise after so much negative conversation.

Truth be told, though, I can think of better ways to spend a Sunday afternoon than watching Sam Querrey play John Isner in an ATP Tour 500. The two good friends contested the Memphis final in a real showcase of the future, and it made me yearn for something along the lines of Harold Solomon-Eddie Dibbs.

(Not really. That matchup was unspeakably horrid. Perhaps Roscoe Tanner-Brian Gottfried.)

There's nothing inherently wrong with Isner and Querrey, impressively ranked 21st and 22nd in the world, respectively, after Querrey's 6-7 (3), 7-6 (5), 6-3 victory. If you've seen enough of James Blake (now ranked No. 50, by the way) or endured too many of Andy Roddick's senseless temper tantrums, maybe it's refreshing to watch a couple of towering, big-serving players who play it cool as they draw respect from players around the world.

It's just that there's nothing ... there. The serves are massive, but the groundstrokes -- while perfectly decent -- pale in comparison to the Cilics, Del Potros and Murrays of the world (to mention Federer would be, as always, cruel). This match was utterly devoid of artistry, and while that isn't a prerequisite for greatness -- think Ivan Lendl or Chris Evert -- it does stir the soul. I wasn't at all moved by the sight Isner taking a 5-2 lead in the second-set tiebreaker, give it away on a couple of lazy groundstrokes, then fold up the tent in a sea of errors and discouraging body language.

It's probably a good thing that Isner and Querrey will comprise the heart of the American Davis Cup team scheduled to play Serbia in the first round March 5-7. That's the best way to get in tune with a player's passion, patriotism and sense of the occasion. It's just that, to me, the U.S. is no closer to a singles champion in the majors than it has been over the past six years, or since Roddick had his fleeting ascent at the 2003 U.S. Open.

Blake has tossed out too many disappointments, at all the wrong times, to be considered a serious contender. Give Roddick a ton of credit for his relentless competitiveness, absolutely battling his heart out in every single match when a lesser man, haunted by the spectre of Federer and some hard-to-fathom defeats, would be winding it down. But he's not going to win the French. Federer will take care of Wimbledon. There are way too many hardcourt threats for Roddick to win seven straight matches at Flushing Meadows. Then the cycle starts all over again, and at 27, Roddick and his rocket-serving right arm are running out of time.

In 1982, there were 43 American men in the top 100, and now there are eight, with Roddick on top at No. 8. The bottom four -- No. 68 Michael Russell, No. 73 Mardy Fish, No. 78 Taylor Dent and No. 82 Rajeev Ram -- won't ever be seen in a major semifinal, let alone a championship match, unless Dent just goes out of his mind with a serve-and-volley assault on Wimbledon.

Asked about America's bleak prospects recently, Roddick countered, "I would disagree strongly with that. Isner's been playing great recently, and he's shown in the last couple of Grand Slams that he's able to compete. Sam started a bit slow, but you see his ranking's moving up. And I have confidence in James to get back."

Sampras, interviewed at roughly the same time, countered, "It's a little thin. A down cycle right now. The game has spread all around the world, and players are showing up from everywhere. It might take five, 15, 20 years for the U.S. to get back -- hard to tell. I think people got pretty spoiled in the '90s, when there was me, Andre and Jim (Courier), a pretty rare group of guys."

Rare, for certain, and don't forget Michael Chang and his epic victory at the '89 French, but hardly unusual by American standards. Going back to the early 1920s and the worldwide popularization of tennis, the U.S. is experiencing an unprecedented drought.

First it was Bill Tilden and William (Little Bill) Johnston, who in 1919 had their first of six meetings for the U.S. Championships (now the U.S. Open) title. The great Ellsworth Vines was a force throughout the 1930s, and Don Budge -- one of the six men to have won all four majors -- became No. 1 in 1937. The 1940s meant Bobby Riggs and Jack Kramer, with Pancho Gonzalez scoring his first big win in 1948. Another great one, Tony Trabert, had his best years in the '50s. Right about the time Gonzalez had his last moments of glory, an ancient warrior in the late '60s, Ashe made his breakthrough. Then came Stan Smith in the 1970s, and the boisterous arrival of Connors and McEnroe. The latter pair both were still playing in 1990, when Sampras won his first U.S. Open, and in '92, when Agassi triumphed at at Wimbledon.

Put simply: As long as most of us have been alive, the United States has been a force in men's tennis, always with at least two unquestioned giants of the game. Today, we have none. Most insiders believe that among those who have played at least one professional tournament, there isn't a single man or boy capable of reaching that status.

By the way, on behalf of Bud Collins, Steve Flink, Joel Drucker and other noted tennis historians, I must take issue with Roddick's statement that Sampras, Agassi, Courier and Chang comprised "the best generation ever from one country." To put things in perspective -- and to fully understand the gravity of America's drought -- here's what Australia produced from players born between 1933 and 1938: Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad (Gonzalez called him the most talented man he'd ever seen), Ashley Cooper (won Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in 1958 before turning pro), Neale Feaser (won the 1959 and '60 U.S. Opens) and Fred Stolle, who aside from 16 major doubles championships won singles titles at the 1965 French and the '66 U.S. Open.

That, friends, is a generation.

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