Yes, U.S. Men's Tennis Is Slumping, but Was it That Great in the First Place?

Take a good look at the real history of U.S. tennis before getting too nostalgic for its supposed "golden era."

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American singles player Sam Querrey reacts after losing a point to his compatriot Brian Baker at the 2013 Australian Open. (AP / Andrew Brownbill)

This year's first tennis Grand Slam event—the Australian Open in Melbourne—is underway, and so it's time for more laments about the current state of American tennis. "We got spoiled over the years," John McEnroe said Monday. "Accustomed to great things happening to us, with Connors, Sampras, Agassi, myself. It was a great history and now we're struggling."

The struggles are obvious. No American man ranks in the top 10 (John Isner at No. 13 is the highest ranked, and he is out of action with an injury). Only Sam Querrey (No. 22)—the only American among the 32 seeded men players in the tournament—is in the top 25. True, Serena Williams (ranked third) is on hand to raise the hopes of American tennis fans—which led Querrey to joke that "Serena's probably the real leader" in response to a question if "he had emerged as the leader of the American men at this tournament." No one was laughing, though, when the (bad) luck of the draw slated the two top-ranked American men—Sam Querrey and Brian Baker (No. 57)—against each other in the second round, a match that came to an abrupt end when Baker, after winning the first set in a tie-break, had to retire with a knee injury in the second set.

But one way to make things today seem even worse than they are is to misremember American tennis's "great history" as greater than it ever really was—to claim as a "sign of the times" that "the meeting of the top two Americans in the second round—instead of in the final—as so often happened in decades past," as The New York Times did.

"So often happened"? Not really. In fact, there have only been threeall-American finals at the Australian Open (Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras in 1995, Sampras and Todd Martin in 1994, and Johan Kriek [a South African who had just become a naturalized US citizen] and Steve Denton in 1982) which hardly sounds like "so often." And there were precisely none before the open era when the tournament was limited to amateurs. Nor have all-American finals exactly been fixtures at the other grand slam events played outside the U.S. with just one (Jim Courier and Andre Agassi in 1991) at Roland Garros during the open era and five at Wimbledon (1975, 1982, 1984, 1993, and 1999). Whatever ails American tennis today, it's a mistake to paint the past as more golden than it ever was. And let's not forget the decades when U.S. tennis hopes were regularly frustrated, not by the rest of the world—as is the case today—but by just one smallish (in terms of population) rival, Australia.

There is, however, a more positive spin that can be placed on the state of U.S. tennis today—at least where the women are concerned. Officially, it's only Serena Williams who carries the American colors at the game's top level. But Russian world No. 2 Maria Sharapova is actually a longtime resident of Florida as is her compatriot Nadia Petrova, ranked No. 12 (at least before her loss in Melbourne in her opening match)—which gives Florida de facto, if not de jure, dibs on three of the top 12 women in the game today. Add fellow Floridians 25th-ranked Sloane Stephens and 26th-ranked Venus Williams, and the women of Florida lead the pack.

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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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