Mac Engel: Wimbledon Shows, Again, Men’s Tennis in the United States Is Irrelevant

By Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
Tribune News Service
July 10, 2021 Updated: July 10, 2021

By Mac Engel
From Fort Worth Star-Telegram

DALLAS—While the American women clean up in tennis, their male counterparts look decidedly Canadian.

It has been so long since an American man has broached the pinnacle of sport, we have literally forgotten about tennis, and that’s a disaster for the state of the game here.

You need one name, and we don’t have any.

The last highlight by an American tennis player that you may remember is Dallas resident John Isner’s first-round 2010 Wimbledon match against Frenchman Nicolas Mahut that spanned three days and lasted for 11 hours and five minutes.

“I can recall a lot about that match,” Isner told me in May. “When we got into the 20s [games] we knew something big was happening. The third day, I woke up that morning after playing eight hours without a result and I was amazed how good I felt. I still had all of this adrenaline. After I won, and when I woke up the next morning, to play my second-round match, I had never felt worse. Completely miserable.”

John Isner
John Isner of USA (L) celebrates winning with John Inverdale (C) on the third day of his first round match against Nicolas Mahut of France on Day Four of the Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Championships at the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club in London, England, on June 24, 2010. (Hamish Blair/Getty Images)

It was all an organic, irresistibly appealing moment. It was a match that changed tennis, or at least the rules at Wimbledon to prevent such an event from happening again.

“I couldn’t escape that match for years to come,” Isner said. “If you are a tennis fan, you might know me for my wins. But if you are a casual tennis fan, you probably know me more for that match.”

For a while, Isner was the face of the U.S. men’s tennis. He is basically a 6-foot-10 basketball player who happens to have a serve that turns him into an ace machine.

The rest of his game just never quite all came together for him to become a consistent top-10 player.

He’s played for a long time, won a lot, made plenty of money, but he never won a Grand Slam, or cracked that top tier with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic.

The 2021 edition of Wimbledon is nearing its conclusion, and no American male was close, thus extending a streak that makes it look like Siri, Google or Alexa are all wrong when you ask who is the last American to win a Grand Slam in men’s tennis.

Andy Roddick is the last American to win a tennis Grand Slam when he won the U.S Open … in 2003.

Andy Roddick
Andy Roddick of the United States raises the trophy after defeating Juan Carlos Ferrero of Spain, 6-3, 7-6 (7/2), 6-3, in the men’s final match at the U.S. Open tennis championships in Flushing Meadows, N.Y., on Sept. 7, 2003. (Stan Honda/AFP via Getty Images)

When Roddick won that title, Naomi Osaka was 5 years old.

With the amount of money we spend on sports in this country, how is this possibly right?

Andre Agassi reached the U.S. Open finals in 2005, and lost to Federer.

Roddick played in four more Grand Slam finals after 2003, and lost them all … to Federer. Their five-set finals match at Wimbledon lasted 30 games, but, of course, the Swiss won.

The next time an American would reach the semifinals of a Grand Slam would not be until Sam Querrey of California did it at Wimbledon in 2017.

That semifinal match is essentially the peak of U.S. men’s tennis for the last decade.

“[The state of men’s tennis in the U.S.] is just not nearly as good as it used to be,” said Isner, currently the 33rd-ranked player in the world by the ATP.

“In the ‘90s and early 2000s, American tennis fans were really spoiled. We had four or five of the top-ranked players in the world. We had [Pete] Sampras, Agassi, Michael Courier, Michael Chang, and it’s just not the case now,” he said.

“Europeans dominate the sport. Tennis is just super popular in Europe, and it’s probably the second-most popular sport there behind soccer and still ahead of basketball. The U.S. women are fantastic, and the men are lagging behind, for sure.

“The landscape is so tough. It’s so global now. We have a lot of people in the top 100, but you need to be in the top 10 or 20.”

The highest ranked American is Reilly Opelka, 32nd. Out of the top 100, only eight are Americans.
And if you aren’t in the top 15 or so, the gap is so big you aren’t going to contend for a Grand Slam title.

Conversely, on the women’s side, America has had Serena and Venus Williams to point to for two decades. Osaka, who was born in Japanese, was raised in the States.

The American women regularly find themselves in the top 15, but the top end of the women’s rankings are also trending to become heavily European, too.

You don’t need several to keep the sport relevant, but you at least need one.

Right now, the state of men’s tennis in the U.S. is so bleak we have none.

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