Monday, September 7, 2009

Isner Can't Keep American Tennis From Hitting New Low

It's finally come to this. John Isner's magical albeit brief run at this years U.S. Open was ended by Fernando Verdasco on Monday, and the 4th-round loss means that 2009 will be the first time that there hasn't been an American man in the quarter finals of the tournament since the open era began in 1968.

But don't blame Isner. His performance this year was definitely a giant step in the right direction, and he'll move into the top 50 when rankings come out next Monday for the first time in his career.

While it is disappointing for many American tennis fans, who've been spoiled by the likes of Connors, McEnroe, Sampras, Agassi, and Courier, I have a theory on why hitting a new low might actually be good for the Americans who are currently moving up the ladder on the ATP tour.

First, American tennis has been languishing for several years, with Andy Roddick doing everything he can to carry the workload, but really an alarming dearth of talent beneath him. Roddick's early exit this year has exposed the weakness behind the approach of American coaches and players who've chosen to forego versatility and consistency for the allure of being a "power player." In the past, the American style of tennis had payed dividends on the super fast hard courts at the Billie Jean King USTA National Tennis Center, but this year has been a different story.

Perhaps these desperate times will force the USTA to rethink it's development philosophy. Power is an integral part of today's tennis, but it shouldn't have to come at the expense of other equally important traits such as guile, finesse, versatility, and patience.

A quick glance at the American players in the draw says a lot about the American tennis philosophy. Taylor Dent and Jesse Witten tried to blast through the draw. They had to play perfect tennis to get as far as they did. James Blake is like a pitcher with a 100 M.P.H fast ball but no curve or change up. His strategy was good enough to get him into the top-10 when he was in his prime, but now at the age of 29 his methodology seems woefully inadequate. Roddick, Querrey, and Isner seem to understand more of the nuance of the game, but with such phenomonal serving acumen, each seems to be performing a little beneath his potential at the moment.

Second, perhaps the lack of tennis icons in the current crop of Americans to live up to will actually lessen the pressure on our young talent. It hasn't been easy for Andy Roddick to be compared to the 26 combined Grand-Slam titles that Sampras, Agassi, and Courier provided in the previous era. Maybe the Querrey's and Isner's of today will benefit from the fact that there isn't an impossibly tall mountain between them and success in tennis.

Third, everything is cyclical. The Americans have had a great run, and like all great runs, it has come to an end. While it's hard to accept, actually looking in the mirror and seeing a tennis program that isn't on par with the top powers in the world might be a good thing. We've got legions of ex-phenoms that may look at this as a call to arms. We've got a lot of young players in the U.S. who should be taking this personally. Great tennis comes from great desire. If American tennis wants to avoid the 72-year-Grand-Slam drought that Great Britain is currently enduring, then today's players and coaches need to build a fire in the belly of the program, and collectively ensure that it doesn't go out.

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