Andy Roddick has hung up his tennis shoes and put down his racket.
So where does U.S. men’s tennis go from here?
The sad truth is Roddick did not spearhead a golden age in U.S. men’s tennis. His 2003 triumph at the U.S. Open was the last time any U.S. male has won a major tennis tournament. For a country accustomed to seeing its citizens win majors with great regularity, the U.S. is experiencing a drought now stretching a decade.
U.S. tennis needs to do many things to reinvigorate and reinvent itself:
1. Promote tennis in the schools. More needs to be done to introduce tennis to kids at a young age and to provide proper coaching and instruction to these young players. Schools often have the infrastructure in place to take the lead in encouraging kids to take up tennis.
2. Democratize the sport. Tennis is still too much an elitist, country club sport. It needs to be spread to the masses so we can utilize more of the available talent. In particular, greater efforts should be made to reach out to minority children. The Williams sisters have carried U.S. women’s tennis for many years, but their access to tennis came about only through the unusual intervention of their father, who happened to see a tennis match on television and thought it might be a good pursuit for his two youngest daughters. We don’t have the luxury of relying on such random occurrences, and we should have structures in place to expose minority youth to tennis. And it’s not enough to just provide a court. These kids need proper coaching or they will fall behind their peers in other nations.
3. Get America’s young people up and moving again. For many reasons, obesity among America’s youth has become a growing concern (pardon the pun). Part of this involves kids eating oversized portions of junk food and consuming large amounts of soft drinks. Part of it is not getting enough exercise, as young people are increasingly preoccupied with video games, smart phones and other gadgets. By providing lots of motion and a good cardiovascular workout, tennis could be quite an antidote to this trend toward a sedentary lifestyle. . All efforts should be made to get young folks up and moving again, and tennis could be one of the inducements.
4. Build more clay courts. Most American kids who play tennis grow up on hard courts and learn a power game that relies on a big serve, aces, service winners and quick points. But it would be far better for their skill sets if they grew up playing on a slow surface like clay. The ball stays in play longer on clay and players have to learn how to construct points by use of strategies and tactics. It was wonderful watching Chris Evert maneuver her opponent around in a 30-shot rally until that opponent was finally out of position and lost the point. Evert grew up on clay and was one of the few Americans, male or female, who could compete successfully on the clay surface at the French Open. In fact she won a record seven French Opens. Most American male players who qualify for the French Open don’t even make it beyond the first or second round because they don’t have the complete range of skills needed when the ball stays in play for many shots. If someone masters playing well on clay, then they are equipped to compete on any surface. It is true that clay courts can be more expensive and more difficult to maintain than hard courts. However, the investment will be more than worth it if the U.S. can turn out polished, fully developed players.
At the outset of the open era of tennis, the U. S. was well represented by champions like Stan Smith and Arthur Ashe. Then Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe came along and each won several majors. They were followed by the outstanding American contingent of Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. That generation of players won over 20 majors. They were followed by the Roddick generation that has won just one major. Is there anyone on the horizon waiting to take the baton from Roddick?