U.S. men's struggles create vicious cycle; more mailbag

Wednesday August 7th, 2013

No. 26 Sam Querrey (pictured) and John Isner are the only American men ranked in the top 75.
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

Quick mailbag while I'm on vacation ...

Next week there will be no American men in the top 20 for the first time since 1973. I know I should probably feel bad about that, but I don't. Because it's not just about any American man achieving success, if we're concerned about making tennis more popular in this country, is it? If that's all it took, Michael Chang and Jim Courier would've been just as popular as John McEnroe and Andre Agassi. It's about personality AND country of origin. I don't think having John Isner, Sam Querrey, Jack Sock or Ryan Harrison in the top five would do much for the sport in this country. What we really need is a male version of Serena Williams to make a difference. Or an American version of Rafael Nadal or Roger Federer. Thoughts?
-- Michele, New York

• From your keyboard to the casual fans' ears.

Here's a take-it-to-the-bank guarantee for the U.S Open: Heading into the tournament, the dire state of American men's tennis will get plenty of attention, especially among the mainstream sports media. Zero American men in the top 20 is staggering, even with the U.S. women doing some counterbalancing, the recent retirement of Andy Roddick and the status of Mardy Fish, who has played sparingly over the last year because of a heart condition. We can debate how to apportion blame and which explanation gives us most comfort. We can try -- like Michele -- to root for players without considering their country of origin.

But in crass financial terms, it's truly a vicious cycle. Fewer Americans in the upper ranks means lower ratings/interest, means less revenue, means fewer events in the United States, means fewer Americans in the upper ranks. (Again: That so many events have left the country doesn't just mean fewer opportunities for fans to see tennis live and in person; it means fewer points available for U.S. players, which only inhibits their ability to climb in the rankings.)

Total candor: I struggle to find a balance between acknowledging the global nature of the sport and making apples-to-apples comparisons, and wondering why the U.S. male drop-off has been so pronounced and why the USTA talent development has so little to show for so much investment. This we know: This topic will get plenty of run over the next six or so weeks.

I will also refrain from sitting shiva for Roger Federer's career, but I have to admit I am a little bothered by his choices. If he wanted to choose a little tournament to test his new racket, wouldn't a hard-court tournament such as Washington, D.C., or Atlanta have been a better choice, so he could be racket-ready for, I don't know, the next major, which is played on a hard court? Yes, the cow he received at the Swiss Open was a cool addition to his awards, but match play against people on hard courts might be helpful, too, especially in light of his withdrawal from the Rogers Cup.
-- Shlomo, Passaic, N.J.

• I agree that it was a strange to choice to play two clay tournaments after Wimbledon and then pull out of a Masters Series hard-court event. But a) the European events were much closer to home (i.e., his family) and b) we are naive to overlook the role of appearance fees. Tennis players are rational actors -- especially later in their careers -- and it's not hard to see how they can be persuaded to adjust their schedules when there is a seven-figure payday in the offing. Two tangential points:

1. It will be interesting to see how the December "International Premiere League" plays out next year. Players complain throughout the season about schedule demands. But when there's lucre -- deep into seven figures, I'm told -- some of the biggest names can be lured to Asia in the scant offseason to play matches.

2. As usual, a rash of withdrawals has hit the Rogers Cup. To some extent, this is an unfortunate consequence of the Slams raising prize money. As the prize money differential between the majors and the other tournaments becomes a gaping chasm, you have to think that players have less incentive to risk injury (and intensify fatigue) playing other tour events, even if, technically, they are mandatory.

Samantha Stosur won the Southern California Open last week for her fourth career title.
Joe Scarnic/Getty Images

Sam Stosur is one of my favorite female players. I loved how she won the 2011 U.S. Open. I just realized that her win at the Southern California Open is just her THIRD career title! Is that the fewest number of titles for a Grand Slam winner?
-- Jan Kooijman, Rotterdam, the Netherlands

• Stosur now has four titles. But I'm totally with you. Stosur has been a fixture at the top of the game for quite some time. She has won more than 400 matches. In addition to winning the U.S. Open, she reached the final of the French Open. She has won 23 doubles titles and $12.5 million in prize money. But four singles titles? That is strikingly (appallingly?) low for player of her caliber and longevity.

We don't think of Stosur as a "fluke winner" or a "one-Slam wonder," in part because of her career record, in part because she beat Williams in that U.S. Open final and in part because she is so thoroughly pleasant. But let the record reflect: Four titles is half the total of both Iva Majoli and Marion Bartoli.

One comment about your then-vs.-now argument. Don't forget how training methods have evolved. To compare Roger Bannister to a modern-day NCAA athlete is to compare an amateur community theater actor to a full-time protagonist in the Royal Shakespeare company. A lot of the old-time athletes still had full-time jobs, unlike today's players. In fact, Mario Ancic is seen as an oddity because he took a few classes while still on the circuit.
-- Anthony, Ridgefield

• Lots of really thoughtful and passionate comments here. Full disclosure: You guys are probably 60-40 against my "recency-ism." We can continue this in coming weeks, but here's some equal time to the other side:

George of Chennai: "I think your assumption that current players will manhandle players of a previous era is deeply flawed. If a player is great in his era, he is most likely to be a great in other eras as well. There is no way Bjorn Borg will get blown off the court by Rafael Nadal. He will just adapt and adjust his game accordingly. We should compare greatness by how much a given player dominated his peers -- at least that is how we compare players across eras in cricket."

Michael of Alberta, Canada: "I think you're way off base that Serena Williams would destroy Margaret Court regardless of equipment. You said we just need to look at her serve and shot depth and draw our own conclusions, but that's not a fair comparison. I grew up playing with the good old-fashioned wood racket and natural gut strings, and now, 30 years, 40 pounds and a bad back later, I serve harder and have more depth on my shots than I did as a 20-year-old. I think baseball's got the right idea: Just look at how a person fared against his or her competition. Nobody's saying Babe Ruth couldn't hit modern pitching. Nobody cares; he dominated the competition like no other. That's the best way to measure."

I like Milos Raonic a lot. But he has lost before the quarterfinals in 13 of 15 tournaments this year while maintaining a top 20 ranking (thank goodness). What does he need to turn his game around? And will he able to do it as early as the Canadian Open/U.S. Open swing?
-- Joe Johnson, Easton, Pa.

• Raonic beat Jeremy Chardy 6-3, 4-6, 7-5 on Tuesday in the first round of the Rogers Cup, his 16th tournament this year. The 22-year-old Canadian is somewhat akin to Sloane Stephens. Lots of new pressures and obligations attend a surge in the rankings, especially when you are representing an entire country. He switched coaches. He has new sponsors to appease. It's frustration if you're a fan. But it's very much in keeping with the timeline for a player. Don't despair just quite yet.

It was reported on ESPN that tennis players were among those caught up in the Biogenesis doping scandal and there hasn't been a single call from tennis authorities to ask about the evidence. What's going on, and why aren't tennis reporters like you investigating? Do you and others love the sport too much to risk finding out that a star might not be clean?
-- Ozymike, Sydney

• I asked the ITF to comment here and eagerly await a response. While tennis players were indeed implicated in Biogenesis, there were allegedly a dozen athletes among six sports other than baseball and none were stars. That's an average of two per sport, obviously. We already know the identity of one tennis player linked to Biogenesis, Wayne Odesnik. (He has denied any involvement with the clinic.)

I'm not suggesting that this isn't worthy of further investigation and inquiry. But don't expect a big name to emerge.

Jiri Vesely of the Czech Republic sneaked into the top 100 without anyone noticing (he has all of one win against top 100 players). A case of superb scheduling or one to watch?
-- Andrew Miller, Cambridge, Mass.

• I vote: One to watch. He only turned 20 last month. And 20 is the new 16 in tennis.

Shots, miscellany

• From the good promotional solider department, join me Thursday at 4 p.m. ET for an @IBMcloud #cloudchat on sports and Big Data.

• Novak Djokovic enjoyed himself at the Rogers Cup on Monday.

• Peter Dombrowski of Charlotte: "Congrats to Lauren Davis for pulling out not one, but TWO consecutive tight three-set wins over Svetlana Kuznetsova, one in qualifying then again in the main draw at the Rogers Cup after Kuznetsova made it as a lucky loser."

• Lenny Kravitz will headline the opening ceremony of the U.S. Open on Aug. 26.

• Regarding our discussion about websites with good databases, CB of London recommends Tennis Abstract.

• The mighty Helen of Philadelphia: "I realize this has nothing to do with tennis, but it mentions David Foster Wallace, and hey, I'm an architect."

• Anne Dempsey of Baltimore: "Following up on the World TeamTennis discussion: I attended the finals in Washington, D.C. Lots of fun, but I think the hoopla has overtaken the tennis. Having the announcer try to rev up the crowd before EVERY point got to be very annoying. And there is no way to check the score between points because the scoreboard switches to rah rah-ism. Just one person's opinion!"

• John Y. of San Francisco has long-lost siblings: In honor of Martina Hingis' return to the tour, Hingis and actress Natalie Portman.

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