American tennis could use some fresh aces

June 7, 2012

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As we head into the final weekend of the French Open, I can’t help but notice the lack of Americans left out on the clay. The early exit of the Williams sisters came as a shock to tennis fans who have grown accustomed to seeing Venus or Serena—or both—in any given Grand Slam final in the post-Y2K era. The slamming siblings have more than 30 Grand Slam titles between them but injuries and autoimmune issues have recently plagued the pair. Less shocking than Serena’s recent first-round loss was Andy Roddick’s. Once ranked No. 1 in the world, Roddick has made a habit of hasty tournament exits in recent years (in the interest of stating the obvious, I too, will note, that most would hurry home if Brooklyn Decker was part of the equation).

That said, going into the French, there were only two U.S. women ranked in the top 50 in world tennis and no American man has won a Grand Slam singles title since Roddick at the 2003 U.S.Open, the longest drought in history. Patrick McEnroe, brother of John and the head of player development for the USTA since 2008, says there’s plenty of talented kids in this country—the failure, he told the NY Times, is that too many young Americans have learned to strike the ball but not to play the game. That may be true, but one thing that is for sure, they certainly know how to play on the other side of the pond.

Plenty of people whine about the inevitability of face off between some combination of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novac Djokovic in a final—but those people must not be paying attention. No matter how many times the triumvirate convenes on the court, I’m amazed by their ability to redefine athleticism, competition and the laws of physics. The New Yorker’s Reeves Wiedeman wrote a compelling piece earlier this year which argued that men’s tennis is the most entertaining sport around—and I completely agree.

If you’re still not sold on the sheer beauty of tennis, I have an additional reading assignment for you: Dearly departed writer David Foster Wallace’s classic essay, “The String Theory.”

The realities of the men’s professional-tennis tour bear about as much resemblance to the lush finals you see on TV as a slaughterhouse does to a well-presented cut of restaurant sirloin. For every Sampras-Agassi final we watch, there’s been a weeklong tournament, a pyramidical single-elimination battle between 32, 64, or 128 players, of whom the finalists are the last men standing.

Since Wiedeman and Wallace have done the heavy lifting on the men’s side, I’d like to take a moment to lift the ladies up by the bootstraps. The key to turn women’s tennis around, I think, is to turn down the volume on the grunts. I get it, you’re excited, you’re working hard out there, you’re trying to intimidate your opponent; I get it. But you’re also tremendous athletes hitting a fuzzy yellow ball at another gladiator at more than 100 mph—I feel like the horrifying scream is tacky, or showy if you will. It’s the difference between Elvis in gold lame and fat Elvis in a rhinestone-encrusted leather jumpsuit…eating a loaf’s worth of peanut-butter-and-bacon sandwiches. Don't be fat Elvis.

Be the inheritors of the sport that celebrated trailblazing champions like Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis and Katrina Adams. That last name may not be familiar to everyone but it’s one the Chicago Tennis Hall of Fame recognized in 2008. Adams was raised in Chicago and went on to compete on the Women’s Tennis Association Tour for a dozen years. While attending Northwestern University, she became the first African-American NCAA Doubles Champion in 1987 with partner Diane Donnelly. And she’s still making her mark on the game—Adams now serves as the Vice President of the USTA. Afternoon Shift asked her to take a time out from all the action at Roland Garros to weigh in on the past, present and future of professional tennis.