American Tennis Has Not, in Fact, Reached a 'Low Point'

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There are no men or women from the United States ranked in the top ten for singles, for the first time in four decades. Why this isn't as much of a nadir as it sounds like.

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Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Yesterday, according to the New York Times, was "a historic day for United States tennis.... In the nearly 40 years since the inception of computer rankings, it [was] the first time first time that no man or woman from the United States is ranked in the top 10 in the world in singles." Veteran tennis commentator and historian Bud Collins was quoted saying that "It certainly looks like a low point. The world has developed more tennis players. It used to be us and the Australians, a couple British guys and the odd French or Italian. But the rest of the world has progressed."

Yet to anyone who came of age in the late 1950s or early 1960s (as I did, and with a United States Lawn—as it then was—Tennis Association certificate of "beginner proficiency" dated August 10, 1961 to prove it) this may not really be the low point in the history of American tennis—at least so far as the showing of American men in the sport's major championships is concerned. To say that once upon a time it was "us and the Australians" implies some kind of rough competitive balance that simply didn't exist back then.

Item: In 1951, Dick Savitt of the United States won the Australian singles title (not yet the Open since, as in the the three other "Grand Slam" tournaments, only amateurs were then—and until 1968—eligible to play). No American would repeat that feat until Arthur Ashe in 1970. In the interim, every Australian championship was won by an Australian, with the exception of Peruvian Alex Olmedo's win in 1959, and American players would even reach the reach the semi-finals only six times during that time span.

Item: After 1955, when Tony Trabert won the French Championship, no American even reached the semi-finals until Pancho Gonzalez in 1968. Like the Americans in that era, the Australians surface of choice was grass but eight Australians managed to conquer the red clay of Roland Garros during those years. No American would win the men's title again until Michael Chang in 1989.

Item: Between 1955, when Tony Trabert won the Wimbledon title, and the onset of the Open era in 1968, every Wimbledon champion was an Australian except for Chuck McKinley (the lone American to win in that period) in 1963 (with the asterisk of not having to play a seeded player en route to the championship, a Wimbledon first) and Spain's Manolo Santana in 1966. Apart from McKinley, only two Americans even reached the finals during that era, and the next American to win would be Stan Smith in 1972.

Item: Saving the best (worst) for last, in the United States National Championships (Forest Hills), following Tony Trabert's win in 1955 (certainly a great year for him, winning every major except for the French) no American even reached the finals until Frank Froehling III did so in 1963, when he lost to Mexico's Rafael Osuna. No American would win until Arthur Ashe in 1968. By then, Australian men had won 10 of the 12 titles since 1955, and eight of the finals were all-Australian affairs. Apart from Osuna, only Spain's Santana in 1965 had been able to dent the Australian monopoly on America's own Gland Slam event.

Item: Add to all this that the only American victory in the Davis Cup between 1955 and 1963 was due to the clever manipulation of national eligibility rules that permitted Peruvian Alex Olmedo, who was attending college in California, to play for the United States. Olmedo accounted for all three points (two singles, one doubles) in the 3-2 upset of—who else—Australia in 1958. Need one say that the Australians promptly recouped, winning the Cup back the next year and holding it thereafter until 1963 (a setback which was then once again promptly avenged)?

So for those distressed by the spectacle of America's top male tennis talent being outplayed by the combined forces of the rest of the world, remember that it is one thing to be trailing the rest of the world. It is another to be losing a two-team race in which (as in the inaugural America's Cup yacht race in 1851) "there is no second," and to a country with a population that was only about one fifteenth as large. But that is just where the United States stood in the league table of men's international tennis a half-century ago. Whatever is wrong with American tennis today, it could be worse.

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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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