The Great American Disappearing Act

In qualifying for the Masters at Madison Square Garden, U.S. tennis came up empty—which is happening a lot these days
December 15, 1986

On one hand, if Tim Mayotte were, say, 7.1% better and Pam Shriver were 3.6% better, each would have won a major title by now, and maybe it wouldn't occur to anybody that American tennis has gone to hell in a hand basket. Or, maybe it's all just a cycle. A lot of people swear it's a cycle.

Then again, maybe it's the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps this is just the beginning. Perhaps tennis in America is being superseded by tennis elsewhere—especially in Europe—by nations that have learned from us and gone us one better.

Or worse, it's even possible that the sudden failure of America to produce tennis champions is symptomatic of something much deeper and broader. It's possible that culturally and spiritually we have grown fat and happy, yuppified as it were, and that we're now satisfied to sit back and let others produce champions. The plight of U.S. tennis could be telling us that it is no longer worth putting out for greatness when pretty-goodness can be comfortably settled for.

Since those sweethearts of yore, Chrissie and Jimbo, burst upon our consciousness in the early '70s, the U.S. has produced only two champions—even though during that same period tennis became more popular and lucrative here than ever. One of those two champions, Tracy Austin, remains as much enigma as comet, and her career suggests (especially in tandem with that of her lesser sister, Andrea Jaeger) that Americans can succeed on the court only by consuming themselves off it. The other, John McEnroe, is a mad genius who appears more the product of divine intervention than of any particular homeland. Whatever, the American system has stopped producing tennis champions...except that there isn't any American system. But there is an American way of life, and it has stopped producing champions.

A wealth of statistics illustrates this corrosion, so let us restrict ourselves to the most salient ones. The only American male currently ranked in the Top 10 is Jimmy Connors, who, at 34, is No. 8 and fading. Not counting our South African immigrants, only four Americans are in the Top 25, 13 in the Top 50. Not so long ago we regularly claimed 50% of these spots. Last week at Madison Square Garden, Ivan Lendl defeated Boris Becker to win the Nabisco Masters. For the first time in the 17-year history of the year-ending championship, no Yank qualified for the tournament. No one envisions any American—except the inscrutable Mr. McEnroe—as a serious challenger for a Grand Slam title any time soon, and no phenoms seem to be on the outside courts.

Despite not having to compete with baseball or football for talent, U.S. women's tennis is only marginally better. The aging Chris Evert Lloyd, 32 next week and injured, is the sole active native-born American who has won a Grand Slam event. Four Americans are in the Top 10, 13 in the Top 25, but the brightest challengers—Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini—are from overseas. Martina Navratilova, for one, says that the best comer is not any of the highly publicized U.S. hopes, such as Mary Joe Fernandez, but 18-year-old Claudia Porwik of West Germany. If it's only a trend, only a cycle, it shows no signs of stopping.

Navratilova is an American citizen now. Lendl wants to be one. A number of other top players from abroad keep residences here as well. The message is clear: For tennis players, the U.S. is a great place to live, but you wouldn't want to grow up here. Why?

For starters, the steward of the sport on these shores, the U.S. Tennis Association, has an annual budget of $38 million. However, unlike the overseers of tennis in many other nations, the USTA doesn't earmark any money solely for the development of promising junior players. The USTA still adheres to a wacky arrangement wherein a new volunteer leader becomes president every two years. The new man rushes in and tries to put his stamp on things—to hell with incidentals, like the future. To the credit of the outgoing president, Randy Gregson, the USTA has hired an executive director, a former banker named John Fogarty, and granted him (theoretically) strong powers. But at least for now, Fogarty is proceeding so gingerly that he responds to the subject of America's much-maligned junior program only with caution and gung ho platitudes.

So:

Without any national plan, most outstanding boy athletes drift into a team sport at school before they even have a chance to consider tennis. Says Drew Hyland, who teaches the philosophy of sport at Trinity College in Hartford, "The American system is so much more dependent on interscholastic and intercollegiate sport. If your sport is not part of this highly visible structure, you have a problem attracting good athletes."

Even the youngest boys think in terms of adult rewards. Butch Buchholz, a former top player and now the chairman of the Lipton International Players tournament, says, "We had the jump back in the early '70s, but then free agency came into team sports, kids saw that they could get just as rich playing baseball or football, and tennis lost the edge we had just for a moment." Moreover, notwithstanding a lot of Fourth of July-style rhetoric, American tennis has hardly ever reached into black communities.

So:
In a country in which tax-supported school sports are dominant, in which baseball and football are further buttressed by quasi-public Little League enterprises, a young boy or girl of modest circumstances who stumbles upon tennis ends up competing on his or her own against rich kids with private tutors. Hence, potentially superior athletes often are beaten at first by more privileged ones, and they hurry back to team sports, where they have an equal chance. "I didn't win a match that whole first summer I played," says Billie Jean King, "but immediate gratification is so important now in our society. How many kids today will hang in there?"

So:

The wealthier survivors are then handed over to entrepreneurs who teach a franchise game. "They go to camps on a conveyor belt, where all they're taught are a forehand and backhand by some guy out to make a buck," says Navratilova. Although Navratilova didn't single him out, the best known of the tennis-camp gurus is Nick Bollettieri, who continues to turn out kids who can crush a forehand but are clueless when it comes to serving and volleying. Three years ago three Bollettieri protègès, Jimmy Arias, Aaron Krickstein and Carling Bassett, looked to be on the verge of greatness. Now, however, all three seem to be going nowhere fast because they essentially play the same way they did when they were 14—a backcourt game of attrition.

American tennis sophisticates love to chortle about how the cookie-cutter Commie Czechs and bland, lifeless Swedes are all cut from the same mold. In truth, some of the best Czech and Swedish players have been encouraged to develop very personal, even idiosyncratic, styles. Democratic, heterogenous America is where all the best young players go in numbing lockstep. All too often, the yuppie parents and the entrepreneurs-cum-coaches want instant success, and there's no USTA leadership to intercede and direct the kids for the long haul.

So:

Says Jack Kramer, "All we develop anymore are kids good at winning the 12s and 14s [age groups] with funny grips and strokes. All our best talent gets locked into kids' games."

"They grow as better athletes in Europe," says Evert Lloyd. "You know how Jimmy and I were bad models? We never played other sports, and these kids today copy us. It worked for us, but it isn't good." Indeed, as youngsters Navratilova, Lendl and Becker all excelled at soccer, and most of the Swedes played soccer and hockey.

It costs $30,000-$40,000 a year for a kid to play the U.S. junior circuit, and often the price on precocity is even higher. Says Gladys Heldman, who was the real godmother of women's pro tennis, "The richer the junior players we get, the more they get sidetracked with all this extraneous stuff—jogging and physical fitness and special nutrition and getting it together with their guru—when the kids would be better off forgetting all that and just hitting the ball. Apart from Bill Tilden and Sidney Wood, American champions were not born with silver spoons in their mouths. They just played."

So:

The great irony in the demise of U.S. tennis is that it has happened precisely as the sport has expanded within our society. The cycle theorists overlook that when the U.S. was down before, in the late '50s and '60s, tennis was still an antediluvian shamateur game trying to compete in a pro world. Even then, American women's tennis never faltered. "It just kills me," says King, who now is commissioner of Domino's Team Tennis, "but the one equation that never occurred to me was that the more popular tennis became, the more upscale the players would become. It's even more ironic, because when tennis was supposed to be a game for the rich, the public-park players were the champions."

More specificially, it was the public-park players in California. For half a century, almost all U.S. champions came from California. And a majority of them played out of one place, the L.A. Tennis Club, wherein resided the manor lord, Perry T. Jones, who ruled the Southern California fiefdom until 1970. Suddenly, after King and Stan Smith, the line of California champions stopped as if a spigot had been turned off. Except for the momentary Austin interlude, California has ceased to matter in U.S. tennis.

The Southern California story remains illustrative. First, it shows while Jones may have been a curmudgeon and a dictator, a successful regional U.S. tennis program can be set up—one comparable with those in European countries and with what Harry Hopman created in Australia. The decline of California also reveals how little natural resources count in tennis. It's an indoor game now.

"The rest of the country caught up with California, and then, for the same reasons, the rest of the world caught up with us," says Kramer. It's fascinating to note that while Southern California still produces an inordinate number of baseball players, the number of Southern California pitchers is disproportionately lower than the hitters. Pitching, like playing tennis, is something you can practice indoors, so California has no edge on the mound. All the systems in God's heavens could not have made champions out of Bjorn Borg or Becker if indoor courts hadn't become readily available—and if jet travel were not available to bring isolated young talent to the competition.

So:

At the same time that the U.S. system worked to squeeze out its best potential talent, other countries were broadening their tennis base. Says Mike Davies, a native of Wales who was head of the Association of Tennis Professionals from 1983 until this summmer, "I know how popular soccer is in many countries, but here, fighting baseball, football and basketball, tennis owns an even smaller portion of sports interest. Tennis people don't like to admit this, but basically, tennis is still an ESPN sport in America."

Tom Gorman, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, makes the point that "Becker didn't come out of a program; he came out of a mold." But Becker likely wouldn't have even tried tennis had he grown up in Louisville instead of Leimen. At 6'2", 175 pounds, he would probably be a sophomore safety in Ann Arbor.

This dovetails into the next sad reality for American tennis: The modern game increasingly favors the more physical player, and that is precisely the sort of American kid who is drawn to a glamour team sport. "More and more, it's a power game, not a situational game," says Gorman. In the past it took years for a tennis champion to develop a sense of court strategy. Today, rushed ahead with their Kryptonite rackets, most foreign boys are reaching their tennis peak about the same time they reach their sexual peak. Meanwhile, most American prospects are going to fraternity parties.

Says Gregson, "Please, don't make me sound antieducation, but a college player tends to get into a comfortable existence, and four years of tennis development are wasted." At the U.S. Open junior championships in 1983, Stefan Edberg of Sweden was seeded No. 1, and Billy Stanley of Rye, N.Y., was No. 2. En route to the title, Edberg beat McEnroe's little brother, Patrick, 7-6 in the third set. Stanley lost a three-setter to a 15-year-old named Becker. Last week, as Edberg and Becker headed toward a semifinal meeting at the Masters, Stanley was representing Harvard at a collegiate tournament in Florida, and McEnroe, who plays for Stanford, was studying for exams.

So:

By the time a U.S. player leaves college, he frequently is at a disadvantage. He feels he must produce quickly or be branded as another loser. Further, if the typical upper-middle-class American college player has no great drive to start with, his incentive can be further dissipated by a life that is so seductive. Why knock yourself out to move up in the rankings when, at 25 or 35 in the world, there's no pressure, prize money and endorsements earn you a nice six-figure income, and you meet lots of future business contacts and present sweetie pies?

The problem isn't just in tennis, either. George Allen, who's chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sport, says that the American lifestyle is eroding our physical prowess across the board. Look at golf, the other traditional upper-crust game. The unbroken line of American champions, 65 years worth, from Hagen to Sarazen, on to Jones, Nelson, Snead, Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus and Watson, suddenly seems to have ended. Now the best players are all those chargers from abroad—Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer and Greg Norman. The greatest triumph of style over substance is, surely, Payne Stewart, the American golfer who has a terrific TV shtick—knickers—and who earned $835,000 this year without winning a single tournament. The new American way.

In track events we used to dominate—the pole vault, high jump, discus and shot—Europeans have surpassed us as well. Only in swimming, which is, essentially, analogous to age-group tennis for teens, and in boxing, the sprints and basketball, which are dominated by the hungrier black athletes, does the U.S. continue to prevail in international competition. Damn, we can't even beat New Zealand in boats.

"Our kids are being lifted along today," says Kramer. "We used to have to pull ourselves up."

No, I don't think it's just cycles.

PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINThe guest list at the Garden party comprised seven Europeans and one South American. PHOTOGERRY CRANHAMEvert Lloyd says that she and Connors were bad models. PHOTOMANNY MILLANAustin is one of only two champions produced on these shores in the last decade. PHOTOWATER IOOSS JR.Krickstein went from hot stuff to ho-hum in two years. PHOTOMANNY MILLANForeign athletes like Becker (above) may be hungrier than Americans like Stewart, who earned $835,000 but no wins in '86. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISIN[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)