A decade has passed since an American male tennis player last won a Grand Slam tournament. That’s right, a 10-year drought for the country that produced Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Michael Chang and Andy Roddick.
Who would have imagined as the overjoyed 21-year-old Roddick climbed into the stands to hug his parents after winning the 2003 U.S. Open that the next 39 majors would go by without an American winner? By comparison, Serena and Venus Williams have won 13 Slams during that span.
On the eve of the 2013 U.S. Open, there is reason for hand-wringing at the U.S. Tennis Association. Although they are giddy about plans to build a roof over Arthur Ashe Stadium, putting an end to rain-delayed Opens, there is no covering up the lack of American elite players in the men’s game.
When the men’s tour rankings began on Aug. 23, 1973, there were six Americans in the top 20. Two weeks ago, for the first time in 40 years, there were none. In fact, there were only two in the top 80. At Wimbledon last month, no American man reached the third round for the first time in a century.
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But there is a sliver of hope for star-spangled tennis fans. A towering sliver, actually. He stands 6-10, wears size-15 shoes and his serve is one of the most lethal weapons in the game. John Isner jumped from No. 22 to No. 14 in the rankings last week following a fantastic showing at the Western and Southern Open outside Cincinnati.
He beat three top-10 players there — No.1 Novak Djokovic, No. 6 Juan Martin del Potro and No. 10 Milos Raonic — and then gave Rafael Nadal fits in the final before the Spaniard pulled out a 7-6 (10-8), 7-6 (7-3) victory. Isner has been making life miserable for opponents for the past several weeks and seems to be peaking just in time.
He won the Atlanta Open at the end of July and reached the final in Washington. Since July, he has won 16 of his 20 matches and the fact that he beat two former U.S. Open champions in Ohio cannot be dismissed.
Despite the American’s success, Nadal, Djokovic, Andy Murray and Roger Federer remain safer bets to win the U.S. Open. Isner and Nadal would meet in the fourth round. But the tall American with the booming serve (he clocked 140 mph last week) has the type of game that makes even the world’s best players uncomfortable. If enough things fall into place, he could make a deep run.
“I have the belief that I could beat anyone, and I know no matter who I’m playing, I’m not the type of guy that’s going to go out there and lose [6-1] and [6-1] or [6-1] and [6-2], just because of my serve,” he said. “If I’m dialed in and I’m focused, I’m very tough to beat, no matter who I’m playing. It doesn’t matter the surface I’m playing on, I’m sort of a pain in the [butt] for a lot of these players.”
Isner, 28, is a late bloomer. He spent four years playing at the University of Georgia before unleashing his serve on the pros. He leads the tour with 749 aces in 48 matches, and he wins 90 percent of his service games, more than any other player.
Just ask Nadal what it feels like to be across the net from a serve that appears to be launched from out of a tree.
“He’s very tall, so his angles are impossible to return sometimes,” Nadal said. “The speed is high, but at the same time, the spin is very difficult because, if I go to turn inside, it’s very difficult to read how the ball is coming. Then if I go four meters, five meters behind — and that’s what I tried for a lot of moments — I’m still hitting the ball one meter over my shoulders.”
Said Del Potro: “His serves are unbelievable, and nobody wants to play against him.”
But Isner has struggled with his return of serve. He has won just 12 percent of his return games this season, which ranks 72nd. It is why his matches often turn into marathons and end in tiebreakers.
He is, after all, the man whose 2010 Wimbledon match against Nicolas Mahut was the longest in tennis history. It stretched 11 hours 5 minutes over three days, with a final score of 6-4, 3-6, 6-7 (7-9), 7-6 (7-3), 70-68 for a total of 183 games. He leads the tour in tiebreakers with 46.
“No one wants to play this guy,” CBS analyst Mary Carillo said. “He gives you no rhythm.”
“He has one of the best serves in history, and he’s a great competitor,” said John McEnroe, who is working in the booth for ESPN and CBS. “But to win a major, he’d have to string together seven matches and probably beat two of the three top guys. That is extremely difficult to do.”
Nadal, who will face young American Ryan Harrison in the first round, is the favorite.
He is on an amazing run since returning in February from a seven-month injury layoff. He has reached 11 of 12 finals and has won nine titles. His season record of 53-3 is a career best. Once known as mainly a clay-court specialist, Nadal is 15-0 on hard courts this summer.
On the women’s side, American fans have plenty of reason for optimism. Top-ranked Serena Williams is aiming for Grand Slam title No. 17, and outside of No. 2 Victoria Azarenka there isn’t a whole lot standing in Williams’ way.
Maria Sharapova, who considered changing her name to “Sugarpova” to promote her gummy candy line, pulled out with shoulder bursitis.
Though Azarenka is 3-12 lifetime against Williams, she beat her in the Cincinnati final last week and had her 5-3 in the third set of last year’s U.S. Open final.
“I think Victoria Azarenka is the one player that doesn’t fear Serena,” Chris Evert said. “Victoria is like a street fighter out there. She’s hungry. Hard courts are her best surface. It’s a good matchup. What she does better than anybody else against Serena is the moving and court coverage. She can run down Serena’s power and defuse it with her own power.”
John and Patrick McEnroe are hoping someday to find the male equivalent of Williams, an American world-class athlete who could play any other sport and chooses tennis. Preferably, an NBA-sized athlete.
“I think that you could see a 7-footer come along,” John McEnroe said. “We’ve been trying to encourage some kids that were going to play basketball or American football to get out on a tennis court. It’s not that some of these guys aren’t good athletes, but we need truly great athletes.
“We both want to be part of turning this around and getting America to dominate. We could get back on top. Doesn’t look good right now, but that doesn’t mean it won’t in five years.”
Patrick McEnroe is the director of player development for the USTA.
“No one wants to see more Americans more than we do,” he said. “The fact is that you got to look at it from a couple angles. The obvious ones are more of the rest of the world is playing tennis now. That’s number one. That’s just a fact. So no one country is going to have half the top 100 players.
“Obviously, France and Spain on the men’s side have the most at the moment. We have the most on the women’s side. But the reality is that it is tougher to get there. As John [McEnroe] has been talking about, we need better athletes and we need them to push each other, [a] lot of times it’s greatness, and great players come out of nowhere or develop on their own. But we’re certainly trying to do everything we can to make the overall level of play in the pipeline stronger.”