Think American Tennis Is in Trouble? Look at Australia

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There's no question that American tennis has hit a particularly rough patch these days. For the second consecutive year (and the only two times ever) no American men made it into the quarter finals of our national championship (the U.S. Open since 1968, the amateur championship before that going back to 1881). Top-ranked American Andy Roddick is barely holding onto a top 10 ranking, with the next three American men (John Isner, Mardy Fish, and Sam Querrey) holding down the 20th, 21st, and 22d slots—and none keeping the likes of Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic. Robin Soderling, let alone Roger Federer, up at nights. As for the women, only the Williams sisters are keeping the stars and stripes flying at the sport's top level.

But for any American tennis fan bewailing his compatriot's current lackluster showing on the world stage, remember that it could be worse. Think Australia.

Time was when that island nation of about 10 million people ruled the world of tennis as no nation has ruled any sport before or since. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, an era when international tennis was pretty much the private property of just two countries, Australia and the United States, there was no question about the identity of the senior partner. Australia won the Davis Cup fifteen times (1950-1953, 1955-1957, 1959-1962, 1964-1967), its supremacy punctuated by the occasional American win (one of which, in 1958, required the controversial recruitment of Peruvian Alex Olmedo to the American squad). Not bad for a country with a population less than one fifteenth that of its routinely vanquished rival.

Player after top ranked player rolled off what appeared to be a seamless Australian assembly line of tennis talent: from Frank Sedgman to Lew Hoad to Ken Rosewall to Ashley Cooper (who he? only the winner of the three Grand Slam tournaments in 1958) to Mal Anderson to Neale Fraser to Rod Laver to Roy Emerson to John Newcombe). Australian men won the U.S. championship in 1951, 1952, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1959, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1966 , 1967, and 1969 and Wimbledon in 1952, 1956, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1961, 1962, 194, 1965, 1968, 1969, 1970 and 1971, with Rod Laver completing two grand slams of all four majors in 1962 (as an amateur) and again in 1969 (as a professional). In 1956, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1962, 1964, 1965, 1968, 1969, and 1970 the Wimbledon final was an all-Australian match-up; and the same was true in the U.S. championships in 1956, 1957, 1958, 1960, 1961, 1962, 1964, 1966, 1969 and 1970. In 1969, even as the era of Australian tennis dominance was beginning to ebb, six of the 8 quarter-finalists in the U.S. Open were Australians.

And today? There is only one Australian in the men's top 100—Leyton Hewitt with a ranking of 34—no Davis Cup title for Australia since 1999, and the last grand slam win for an Australian man that of Hewitt at Wimbledon in 2002. No Australian has even won the men's Australian Open championship since Mark Edmondson in 1976. Two things upended the Australian juggernaut. The advent of open tennis triggered a worldwide growth in the game that broke up the American-Australian duopoly. Perhaps even more important -students of the "great man school of history please note"—Australian coach and Davis Cup captain Harry Hopman who had led his countrymen to all those Davis Cup victories in the two decades after assuming the Australian team captaincy in 1950—emigrated to the United States in 1969 where he counted Vitus Gerulaitis and John McEnroe among his charges. Tennis down under never recovered.

And so American tennis may today be in the dumps. But Australia has fallen further, and from a much greater height—if that's any consolation.

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Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball and has written widely about the business and politics of sports. More

Henry D. Fetter is the author of Taking on the Yankees: Winning and Losing in the Business of Baseball (WW Norton). He has written about the business and politics of sports, the American left, Jewish and Israeli history, and legal affairs for publications including the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, the Times Literary Supplement, the Journal of Sport History, Israel Affairs, The Public Interest, American Communist History, The National Pastime, and the Encyclopedia of American Jewish History, and his work has appeared in several baseball history anthologies.

His article "Revising the Revisionists: Walter O' Malley, Robert Moses and the End of the Brooklyn Dodgers" was awarded the Kerr History Prize for the best article published in 2008 in the journal New York History; an earlier version of that article was presented at the Columbia University symposium "Robert Moses: New Perspectives on the Master Builder" (March 2007) and received a McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award. He is the recipient of research grants from the Society for American Baseball Research and the Harry S. Truman Library Institute.

Fetter is a graduate of Harvard Law School and also holds degrees in history from Harvard College and the University of California, Berkeley. A native New Yorker, he attended his first major league baseball game at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field on Memorial Day 1955 and some years later followed the Dodgers to Los Angeles where he has practiced business and entertainment litigation for the past 30 years.

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