The state of American tennis: how to get out of the doldrums?

By Xavier Forneris.

Followers of the blog may be surprised to see a post about sports in general and tennis in particular. Well, tennis is one of my passions, it is a business as well as a sport and form of entertainment, and don’t forget that my blog has “eclectic” in its name. I need to live up to this reputation.

Now, if you are a US-based tennis fan I suspect that the last thing you want to read is yet another article or blog post on how and why US tennis is in the doldrums. I apologize in advance but…have you looked at the ATP/WTA rankings lately [i]? Not our finest hour.

 On the men’s side here’s what the top 20 rankings look like on 10 Oct. 2012:

 ATP Single Rankings (1-20)

1. Federer, Roger (SUI)
2.  Djokovic, Novak (SRB)
3.  Murray, Andy (GBR)
4.  Nadal, Rafael (ESP)
5.  Ferrer, David (ESP)
6.  Tsonga, Jo-Wilfried (FRA)
7.  Berdych, Tomas (CZE)
8.  Del Potro, Juan Martin (ARG)
9.  Tipsarevic, Janko (SRB)
10.  Monaco, Juan (ARG)
11.  Almagro, Nicolas (ESP)
12.  Isner, John (USA)
13.  Gasquet, Richard (FRA)
14.  Raonic, Milos (CAN)
15.  Nishikori, Kei (JPN)
16.  Cilic, Marin (CRO)
17.  Wawrinka, Stanislas (SUI)
18.  Simon, Gilles (FRA)
19.  Kohlschreiber, Philipp (GER)
20.  Dolgopolov, Alexandr (UKR)

What do we see in terms of countries and regions represented (knowing full well that tennis players do not represent their country but themselves –except in the Davis Cup, the Fed Cup and the Olympics- and that many of them move and often live and train outside their country of birth)? The following observations can be made:

-A first, sad observation [sad for those, like me, who love the US and consider it home] is that there is no American in the top 10. The first American is #12 John Isner. He actually is the only American male in the top 20 players at the moment.

-The top 5 players are from Europe (I’m referring to the continent not the European Union; I’m thus including countries such as Switzerland, Serbia or Ukraine). In fact 15 out of the top 20 players are from the “old continent”.

-Of the European nations, Spain and France are the countries with most players in the top 20, with 3 each: Nadal (#4), Ferrer (#5), Almagro (#11) for Spain; Tsonga (#6), Gasquet (#13),and Simon (#18) for France. Switzerland and Serbia have 2 players each: Federer (#1) and Wawrinka (#17) for Switzerland; Djokovic (#2) and Tipsarevic (#9) for Serbia.

-It’s worth noting that 5 of the top 20 players stem from Central/Eastern Europe: in addition to the 2 above-mentioned Serbs, there’s a Czech (Berdych #7), a Croat (Cilic # 16) and a Ukrainian national (Dolgopolov #20). Some might be tempted to add Raonic to this list (born in Montenegro and residing in Monaco) but owing to his Canadian citizenship he will join John Isner in the North American contingent.

-There’s only one player representing the entire Asia-Pacific region: Nishikori from Japan (#15).

 -Finally, one South American nation deserves to be mentioned: Argentina, which counts 2 players in the top 20 (in fact both are in the top 10): Del Potro (#8) and Monaco (#10), continuing the legacy of Guillermo Vilas and José Luis Clerc.

One may object that maybe the Americans are just behind the 20th ranked player, and on the verge of entering the ‘first tier’ of the rankings. Unfortunately, if we look at the list of players from #21 to #40, we see that there are only 2 to 3 Americans there: Querrey (#22) is the best ranked in that second tier, followed by Roddick (who retired from professional tennis after the US open but it still in the list at #27), and Mardy Fish (#28).

Other than them it’s mosly -again- a European-dominated field: 2 German players (Haas and Mayer), 4 Spaniards (Verdasco, Granollers, Lopez, and Andujar) -which in my view confirms Spain’s position as the lead nation in the world of tennis today-, one Italian (Seppi), one Russian (Youzhny), two Frenchmen (Chardy and Benneteau), one Serb (Troicki)…I could go on and on..The final count is that 15 of the players between ranks 21 and 40 are from Europe; 2 from the US, and 1 from Latin America (Belluci, the only Brazilian in the top 40).

ATP Single Rankings (21-40)

21.  Haas, Tommy (GER)
22.  Querrey, Sam (USA)
23.  Verdasco, Fernando (ESP)
24.  Granollers, Marcel (ESP)
25.  Mayer, Florian (GER)
26.  Seppi, Andreas (ITA)
27.  Roddick, Andy (USA)
28.  Fish, Mardy (USA)
29.  Lopez, Feliciano (ESP)
30.  Youzhny, Mikhail (RUS)
31.  Chardy, Jeremy (FRA)
32.  Troicki, Viktor (SRB)
33.  Benneteau, Julien (FRA)
34.  Klizan, Martin (SVK)
35.  Melzer, Jurgen (AUT)
36.  Baghdatis, Marcos (CYP)
37.  Nieminen, Jarkko (FIN)
38.  Anderson, Kevin (RSA)
39.  Bellucci, Thomaz (BRA)
40.  Andujar, Pablo (ESP)

And if you have the patience of looking at the next 20 (from 41 to 60), you’ll see more Europeans and South Americans and only 1 US player (Harrison). To be fair we should mention the domination of the men’s doubles circuit by the Bryan brothers, ranked #1 and #2 in the world (though the only Americans in the top 20).

But perhaps, one hopes, the situation is different on the women’s side. I don’t want to depress you but here’s how the top 20 looks like on 8 October 2012:

WTA Singles Rankings (1-20)

1. AZARENKA (BLR)
2. SHARAPOVA (RUS)
3. WILLIAMS (USA)
4. RADWANSKA (POL)
5. KVITOVA (CZE)
6. KERBER (GER)
7. LI    (CHN)
8. ERRANI  (ITA)
9. STOSUR  (AUS)
10. BARTOLI (FRA)
11. WOZNIACKI (DEN)
12. IVANOVIC (SRB)
13. CIBULKOVA (SVK)
14. PETROVA (RUS)
15. VINCI  (ITA)
16. KIRILENKO (RUS)
17. KANEPI  (EST)
18. SAFAROVA (CZE)
19. GOERGES (GER)
20. LEPCHENKO (USA)

Not a great success either: only 2 US players in the top 20: Serena Williams (#3) and Lepchenko (#20 and who was born in Uzbekistan). Otherwise, we see, again, a large majority of Europeans, both from the former Eastern bloc (Belarus, Russia, Poland, Czech republic, Serbia, Slovakia, Estonia) and from ‘Western’ Europe (Denmark, France, Germany, Italy); as well as 2 from the Asia-Pacific region (Li Na from China and Sam Stosur from Australia).

So what does this say about US tennis? Why a country like ours, with 315 million inhabitants,  does not ‘produce’ more champions, more players in the top 20 than Croatia (4.5m inhabitants) or Switzerland (8m)? Why can’t we go back to the ‘golden age’ of Agassi, Sampras, McEnroe and Connors, when the US was the dominating force in tennis?

There must be something that the Europeans or the Argentines are doing better to identify and support their young players and bring them to this level. Can’t we take some cues from the tennis federations or tennis schools in Spain, Serbia, Switzerland, France or Argentina?

I would really be interested in hearing your views on what may explain this disappointing performance, what these other nations do better, what we could learn from them. Some of the contributing factors that I have heard or read about include the following:

–               The ‘hunger’ factor: players from poorer countries from the former Eastern bloc would be more hungry, more motivated, than those in richer countries.

–               The ‘clay’ factor: some explain that European players grow up playing -mostly but not only- on clay and argue that clay experience gives them an hedge in 2 or 3 ways: 1) a greater ability to patiently ‘construct’ a point than hard court players, 2) better footwork, dexterity or balance, 3) greater endurance (think longer games and frequent 5-set matches). In a 2010 interview in ‘The Independent’ [ii], Jose Higueras, himself a former top player from Spain who has been helping the USTA, confirmed that the Spanish players’ ability to move in all directions is one of their great strengths but he also mentioned another factor, which is that the Spanish “school” of tennis places less emphasis on developing junior champions. They only use junior tournaments as a way to develop.

–               The ‘infrastructure’ factor: others credit the tennis infrastructure in these more successful countries. For instance, RPT (an outfit founded by Luis Mediero that certifies coaches in the Spanish techniques) explains that Spain has ‘more than 1,000 tennis schools distributed all over the country, 100 competition tennis teams, 53 ATP and 33 WTA tournaments and hundreds of national tournaments in different categories’[iii]. Youzhny, the Russian player said of Spanish tennis: ‘They have a lot of courts and good facilities to practise…It’s not really expensive to practise in Spain for Spanish people.’

–               The ‘training technique’ factor: for yet other people, the differences in training techniques between Europe and the US, on what academies and coach teach and emphasize would play an important role in their respective performance.

–               And of course, the ‘success breeds success’ factor: it’s clear that the lack of (male) American players in the top 3, top 5 or top 10 generates less interest in the sport in the US (granted, it has never been one of the major sports – baseball, football, basketball), which in turn brings less sponsorship and TV coverage, which attracts fewer young people to the sport, and fewer young practitioners generate less champions…

Are we trapped in a sort of vicious circle? I hope not and that the up-and-coming players- Ryan Harrison, Jack Sock, Christina McHale, Sloane Stevens, Coco Vandeweghe among others- will prove in the coming months/years that US tennis is back. The excellent performance of the US tennis team in the Davis Cup 2012 (only eliminated in the semis by Spain) is also very encouraging.

So what do you see as the possible solutions for US tennis? Do you think any of the following are viable options?

–       Make clay more prominent (and hard court less uber-dominant)?

–       Have a well-funded tennis program in primary and high schools to ‘cast a wider net’ (as recommended in a recent New York Times article [iv]?

–       Make tennis more affordable and accessible to everyone, less exclusive as a sport?

–       Open the doors even more widely to foreign coaches and players? This would entail granting them visas to work and study in this country as well as fellowships to colleges/universities, so they would bring with them their techniques/skills and help rise the level of tennis. Many of the young foreign players who will come here to study and play will likely want to stay in the country and become citizens, which could also help increase the number of US champions over time.

Is there anything else we are not doing or not doing enough? I hope this post sparks a constructive debate and not a negative one. Our objective, as US-based tennis fans should not be to point fingers at the USTA, or at this or that person, but to find solutions to make tennis a bigger, more visible sport in this country, where more champions keep the interest growing and not declining as seems to be the case now. I’ll see you on the court.


Sources used and credited:

[i] You can retrieve the men’s rankings covered in this post on the ATP World Tour website at: http://www.atpworldtour.com/Rankings/Singles.aspx. You can retrieve the women’s rankings covered in this post on the WTA website at http://www.wtatennis.com/page/RankingsSingles/0,,12781~0~1~100,00.html

[ii] Read the article about the domination of Spanish tennis and the interviews of Higueras and Youzhny in “The Independent” at: http://www.independent.co.uk/sport/tennis/how-the-us-open-turned-into-the-spanish-masters-2074063.html

[iv] Read the New York Times article about the state of US tennis and the role that public schools could play: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/10/sports/tennis/to-excel-in-tennis-united-states-should-look-to-high-schools.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

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4 thoughts on “The state of American tennis: how to get out of the doldrums?

  1. I think it has a lot to do with pushing kids into tournaments at too early an age. The terrific American ski racer Mikaela Schiffrin, who won two World Cup slaloms last season at age 17, is notable for having entered relatively few races as a junior. Instead, she spent her time practicing, and in an interview noted that in a race you get to ski only two runs, while on a practice day you could easily get in 15. This translates into more gates skied and more focus on fundamentals, which often translates into better performance. Too early a focus on winning matches or races can be counterproductive. I’d like to ask the same question about Australian tennis. Australia used to be a world power, back in the days of Ken Rosewall, John Newcombe, Rod Laver, Evonne Goolagong, et. al. In the past 30 years only 3 Australian men have won a Grand Slam title and the last was Lleyton Hewitt in 2002. Of course, the U.S. has 15 times the population of Australia, but still…

    At the same time, the U.S., which used to be an also-ran in World Cup ski racing, has become a major, if not the dominant, power on both the men’s and women’s sides. They used to advance the same arguments about hunger for victory: Swiss and French and Austrian skiers were boys and girls from alpine farm villages, for whom skiing was the only way to escape a life of milking cows or similar drudgery (Hermann Maier was a bricklayer) while American skiers tended to be the children of well to do families that had second homes in the mountains.

    It’s hard to know, but I favor the first argument: pushing kids into competition at too young an age comes at the expense of mastery of fundamentals, and can also contribute to premature burnout and a loss of enthusiasm.

    • Data suggests that USTA has been very successful in “identifying and supporting young talent” between the ages of 14 and 18. From 2000 to 2008, USTA produced 2x more top ITF junior players than any other country. Here is a graph showing the breakdown.
      https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B31Zl54df79oWl9mVVJCOTBCZFU/edit?usp=sharing

      I used the dataset from ITF (http://www.itftennis.com/) and timeframe between 2000 and 2008 with a rational that junior talent during this time is what makes up the bulk of ATP top 100 right now in 2013. 2008 was a natural cut-off since that vintage produced Tomic and Raonic, but the 2009 vintage has not yet produced an ATP top 100 thus far. The other end of the cutoff (2000) was due to data availability issue though considering that the physical prime of tennis players is between ages 22 and 30 (Federer at 32, Robredo at 31, F. Lopez at 32 and Haas at 35! are the 4 exceptions in ATP top 25), I felt that the data maintains some integrity.

      Correlation between ITF junior competition performance and outcome on the ATP Tour is exceptionally strong; Notable ITF junior top rankers within the last 15 years include the likes of Federer (Number 1 in 1999), Nalbandian, Tsonga, Baghdatis (Number 1 in 2003), Gasquet (Number 1 in 2002), Del Potro, Djokovic, Murray among others. USTA produced a great vintage in 2000 with Roddick (Number 1) and Ginepri. Mardy Fish, another successful American, was a top American junior in 1999 (Number 11).
      Which invites some questions.
      What happened to the top American prospects from 2001 onwards?
      Brian Baker, Ytai Abougzir, Chris Kwon, Brendan Evans, Scott Oudesma, Donald Young, Ryan Sweeting, Kellen Damico, Sam Querrey. These Americans were TOP performers (out of over 100 American juniors in ITF top 100 from 2000 to 2008) in ITF junior competition, but only Young and Querrey have had mild successes on the Tour. Ryan Harrison, Bradley Klahn and Jermere Jenkins can be considered to be “still in development”. John Isner’s development sequence is a deviation from the past as he focused on college tennis at Georgia from 2004 to 2007 though Klahn (Stanford) and Jenkins (Virginia) have elected the similar paths. Is USTA identifying and supporting the wrong young talent?
      This is very unlikely for multiple reasons – American juniors perform exceptionally well at ITF junior levels against their foreign peers. Other countries, including Spain, France and Germany all use ITF rankings to determine financial support levels to players and their families as well as equipment providers and management companies (such as IMG) who offer sponsorships and development deals.

      No answers in sight.
      But playing around with data yielded an interesting statistic. Spanish players get into the ITF competition later and also compete in significantly less matches in “top junior competition” than their peers.
      https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B31Zl54df79oRU0zQW80aHhyMTg/edit?usp=sharing
      This is interesting because it says American top talent has a chance to engage with tennis at a very early age, USTA identifies and supports juniors to play top competition earlier and more often (costly!) than other countries.

      Okay – so we want an American super star. Agassi. Sampras. Chang. Courier.
      This raw data is a bit depressing.
      https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B31Zl54df79oSDMtaGctWkIxdTg/edit?usp=sharing
      Upon casual observation, it says that most super stars (Federer, Djoko, Nadal, Ferrero, Hewitt – all past Number 1’s) break into ATP Top 50 on or before they reach 19. If this were to hold true, we won’t have an American number 1 anytime soon since we like to send our top players to school (Isner, Klahn, Jenkins) instead of having them compete in gruling satellites and futures like their European peers.

      One parting thought.
      So the USTA seems to be doing the very best they can but where are the American stars?
      Well, we shouldn’t immerse ourselves in despair – Great Britain’s got it worse.
      This chart attempts to show each country’s ROI in developing young talent (ie: paying their ITF years) and positive outcomes on the ATP Tour.
      https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B31Zl54df79oMFhlX0ZLSHQxaEk/edit?usp=sharing
      This is a ratio of:
      Number of ATP 100 players as of today devided by ITF top 100 junior talent produced between 2000 and 2008. Rationale is that each ITF talent carries a sponsorship cost for the countries’ tennis governing body.
      This chart says that Spain’s ATP stars for the most part, bypass ITF (if not ITF, where are they developing? Are they sun bathing in Mallorca with Nadal’s uncle?) or underperforms as a junior.
      Argentina is inconclusive due to geography; there are less ITF events in South America and travel costs to Europe are significantly high.
      So to our neighbors across the big pond, our USTA is better than LTA. Oh wait – you do have Mr. Andy Murray.

      Some of the raw data:
      https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B31Zl54df79oc0hWUFF1aGN5Nzg/edit?usp=sharing

  2. I really pay very close attention to this topic and am over the moon for spanish tennis. Firstly, they teach from an early age, respect (for each other, the sport, competition and hard work. From that dynamic comes a strong mental game and strong yet humble characters which restore my faith in the sport altogether. The coaches I encounter have a tremendous passion and love for what they do. I don’t find that often in the states with teaching pros (and I am a teaching pro). When I watch the coaches there – the contagious feeling for the sport trickles down to the juniors. They learn how to control a ball much better. They learn how to properly move. They learn how to balance and they learn how to anticipate. They fall in love with a game where all the emphasis isn’t solely on the technique as I find in the states. And quite honestly if I had children I’m not sure I would want them entering tennis as the adults place way to much pressure on getting our namesake restored and not about enjoying the sport. Adults have come to bully establishments – point fingers – place emphasis on aspects that don’t draw young people to enjoy a sport. It’s very sad. I find it a battle ground for and against the establishments while Europe is simply participating and constantly competing, getting that much more ahead. Spanish tennis is all about the legs – it’s true! On clay they are pushed to the test and they are ok with that. Here young people pushed it seems – pushes them right into the arms of a new sport. Tennis is a mental game. You are out there on your own. I’m not so sure Americans DNA is made for the mental toughness that tennis requires these days. The drive and passion must be there and it’s not. Spain learns how to use intellect on the court and they must since they are in a point longer. Americans seem to want to continue to rely on a power game, one that doesn’t stand the test of time let alone a match.
    You pointed out every aspect of Spain & France and their dominance correctly. One of my Barcelona coaches is being asked to spend 6 mths in Florida training the coaches – junior development in Naples coming up. So, we are starting to ask for help and that’s a good thing. But I even push college kids here to play spanish players for spring break or summer break for the exposure alone. Because American players have no international playing experience – and believe me, they need it. We should be playing & learning from the best if we want to be close to the best ever again.

  3. Access to the game is something that most of the coaches in our area complain about. We have 6 tennis clubs in a 50 mile radius. These clubs will run most families of 4 $300 plus a month. When you look at the cost factor of the clubs, not the equipment you have priced 90% of the families out of the market. I know I am trying to open up our local town’s courts to lessons through the park board. We need more of the public courts with certified pros giving low cost lessons to get the players in the game. Most of my new players are starting in their junior year of high school.

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