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Changing of the guard looms in men's tennis

Posted: August 30, 2011 11:23 a.m.
Updated: August 31, 2011 5:00 a.m.

With the U.S. Open starting this week, tennis fans are reminded once again of the long winless streak facing American players in the men’s draw.

Two decades ago, Americans dominated the event winning six out of nine U.S. Opens during the 1990s, including a stretch of four straight from 1993 to 1996. The country’s efforts were led by two-time U.S. Open champion Andre Agassi and five-time champion Pete Sampras. Even though American success had some bumps along the way, the streak seemed on good standing when then rising American star Andy Roddick took home the trophy in New York in 2003.

Celebrating in the red, white, and blue, however, didn’t last too long as a new streak began in 2004. This time it was not one country, but just one man. From 2004 to 2008, Roger Federer was king of the hard courts in New York as he became the first player in 80 years to win five consecutive U.S. Open titles. In fact, during that five-year stretch, he won 13 Grand Slams overall including three Australian Open titles and four consecutive titles at Wimbledon.

While Federer was dominating in New York, Melbourne and London, his European rival Rafael Nadal, of Spain, was racking up four straight French Open titles on the clay courts in Paris.     

So what exactly happened to U.S. tennis? Are U.S. players not as good as American players of the past? Are the talents of Federer and Nadal simply miles above everyone else?

The latter is certainly true as Federer and Nadal have won 25 of the last 31 Grand Slams. But the first seems to have some validity as well since the two haven’t won every Grand Slam they’ve entered. Novak Djokovic, of Serbia, managed to win a second Australian Open championship last January after winning there in 2008 and added a championship at Wimbledon this year as well. Juan Martin del Potro of Argentina was also crowned U.S. Open champion in 2009.  

Few American players even got close to Grand Slam success. Roddick, considered by most to be the best American player over the past few years, had some runs at Grand Slam titles, including three finals appearances at Wimbledon and a finals appearance at the U.S. Open in 2006, but was ousted each time by Federer. Could Roddick’s career have been more prolific if Federer would have chosen soccer over tennis as a young boy growing up in Switzerland? The tennis world will never know, but while others, like Djokovic and del Potro, have been able to get by Federer and Nadal, no American really has.     

At age 29, it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that Roddick will break through and win another Grand Slam. Even if he can pull off an upset and win another title in the near future, it’s virtually impossible that he or any other notable American player will ever match Federer’s 16 career championships or Nadal’s 10.

Currently, Roddick isn’t even considered the best player in the country. That title falls on Mardy Fish, the California native, who is pushing 30 as well. He is currently ranked eighth in the world, but has never even reached the semifinals of a Grand Slam. The easygoing Fish put his chances for late career success best when he said in an interview that he wants to “do some cool things” while he can because “it’s not going to last too long.”

Fish’s sensibilities ring true in every sport as success can’t last forever. Every legend of the game eventually breaks down. allowing younger talent to emerge. Switzerland and Spain undoubtedly wished for a future star along the lines of great European players like Bjorn Borg and Mats Wilander during the glory days of Agassi and Sampras. They eventually got Federer and Nadal -- if only Americans could be so lucky.     

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