Where is she? The arrival of the next great American woman is an age-old tennis tradition, as much a part of the sport as Wimbledon rain. From Helen Wills in the 1920s to Serena Williams in the '90s, the U.S. has churned out Grand Slam champions so effortlessly that one could presume the run would last forever. But now, with Jennifer Capriati and world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport pushing 30 and the longevity of the Williams sisters constantly in question, anyone looking toward the future of U.S. women's tennis confronts a jarring new reality.
"There's just no one," Davenport says. "Go down the list of players; there's no one [of whom] you say, 'That girl's going to make the top 10 or top five.'"
"I have three of the best 12-year-olds in the world, but none of them is from America," says Nick Bollettieri, who runs the premier tennis academy, in Bradenton, Fla. "We do not have an outstanding American girl."
The U.S. Tennis Association is not as pessimistic. USTA executive Paul Roetert notes that the U.S. is tied with Russia for the most girls (14) in the junior top 100. But there is no American in the top 10, and the most accomplished U.S. junior, 17-year-old Jessica Kirkland of Miami, is, in tennis terms, barely a junior. Last year she lost the final of the junior U.S. Open to Michaella Krajicek of the Netherlands 6-1, 6-1; this year, at the age at which Maria Sharapova won the 2004 Wimbledon, Kirkland is still playing Wimbledon juniors. Alexa Glatch of Newport Beach, Calif., a 5'11" 15-year-old who is the world's 11th-ranked junior, may be the best U.S. hope in the near future, but the clock is ticking. In women's tennis the great ones reveal themselves early. "If a girl hasn't done anything at 15 or 16, she's never going to be Number 1," says famed coach Robert Lansdorp, whose protégées include Davenport and Sharapova.
Even Roetert admits that the U.S. probably faces a drop-off over the next five years, but there's little agreement on why. Some point to the increase in international competition, especially out of Eastern Europe; others note the attraction of school-supported games such as soccer, softball and basketball. Davenport says the Williams sisters merely put "a Band-Aid" on the problem. "My mom runs junior volleyball [in Southern California], and there are 10 times more girls playing volleyball than there were 10 years ago," she notes. "We've had Americans on top in tennis the last 10 years, and nothing's really happened. I don't know why the sport has lost its luster."
Here are two theories. First, the USTA hasn't figured out how to introduce the game to kids widely and at ground level. Getting into tennis is less fun and more costly than getting into other activities; a girl can take up soccer, ballet or gymnastics with far less work. Second, the 1990s were tennis's darkest era, with one lurid story after another: the stabbing of Monica Seles, Capriati's arrest for drug possession, the abusive behavior of Mary Pierce's father. Give parents other options, and they ask, Why would I want my kid to play that?
The USTA has money to throw at the problem but is still mulling its role. It allocated $10 million earlier this year to fund grassroots programs and market the game, and it brought in Jack Kramer, Billie Jean King and Michael Chang to advise on player development. But after two decades of trying, the organization can claim only partial credit for one great player: Davenport. Whether the USTA should (or even can) lead the effort to overhaul U.S. tennis--or whether it should just provide aid to private coaches, academies and clubs--remains unclear.
"Will it help or get in the way?" asks King, who is chairing the USTA's High Performance Committee. "I am totally confused." But she's sure of one thing: A drought is nearly upon us.
The next great American woman? "I think she's 10 or 11," King says. "Somebody we don't even know about."