Think U.S. Men's Tennis Is in a Slump? Look at Post-WWII France

France was a force in international tennis until political instability weakened its grip on the sport—and French tennis has yet to recover. 
John Isner of the U.S. returns the ball during the second round of the French Open against Kazakhstan's Mikhail Kukushkin at Roland Garros in Paris, France. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)

With every major tennis tournament come the lamentations over the sorry state of American men’s tennis.

With the French Open getting underway this week, right on cue came the all but inevitable “pre-mortem” inquest into the lowly rankings of the American men: No American has won a Grand Slam event singles title since Andy Roddick in 2003 at the U.S. Open, and with no American men ranked in the ATP’s top 10 (Switzerland and Spain each have two) and only one—John Isner, ranked number 11—in the top 60, Christopher Clarey’s status report in The New York Times was appropriately headlined "Once a Force in Tennis, Now Enduring a Grand Slam Drought.”

It made for especially dispiriting reading on the 25th anniversary of Michael Chang's upset French Open victory in 1989, one of the true highlights of the American experience on the red clay courts of the Stade Roland Garros. And the reasons given for the American fall from the top ranks of men’s tennis suggest that a quick recovery is not likely. (Serena Williams aside, the picture is not much brighter for American women—and Williams herself lost her second-round match this week.)

As Clarey wrote, coaches and former players, including Jim Courier, winner of the French Open in 1991 and 1992, “see a lack of world-class work ethic and toughness in too many of the young Americans. … ‘There are plenty of talented players who are not getting the most out of their talent,’ Courier said.” Jose Higueras, a Spanish player who won 16 tour titles and reached two French Open semi-finals, and who now is involved in player development work for the United States Tennis Association, has expressed similar sentiments:. “We are lacking competitiveness in our players,” he said. “They’ve got good backhands and forehands and serves, but they lack an understanding of how the game needs to be played. We have good coaches, but the culture of our players needs to improve.”

And The Los Angeles Times reported having a conversation with a former American pro player on the same topic: “He didn’t exactly say that today’s players are soft and coddled, but said he has been told by coaches that some of the young U.S. prodigies refuse to partake in practice sessions longer than 45 minutes.”

But it’s hardly the first time that a tournament at Roland Garros triggered soul searching about the dire prospects for a nation’s tennis—and the extent to which asserted deficiencies in the character and culture of the players themselves are to blame. Consider the following: 

Tennis has passed through a very prosperous year. Large crowds have flocked to Roland Garros. ... However, no young players were able to break through and compete at the highest level. ...The truth is that today’s young people are adverse to prolonged effort. They see with their own eyes the virtuosity and mastery of the champions but they don’t comprehend the hard work that was needed to acquire that skill or the perseverance necessary to maintain it.

That’s more or less what Courier and Higueras are saying about today’s younger American players. But the passage above was actually written about the condition of French tennis, and it appeared under the title “The Causes of the Tennis Crisis” in a 1943 issue of the Journal des Debats, a collaborationist French newspaper.

That the French sport was said to be in “crisis” was considered especially disappointing in light of what was described as an intensive effort by the French Tennis Federation to stimulate tennis activity among the young.

Some have wanted to blame the Federation. Nothing could be more wrong. Since the armistice [in 1940], the Federation has, to the contrary, focused all of its efforts on the youth. The Federation has established schools for young players and particularly for beginners throughout France. Tennis balls [in short supply in wartime] have been distributed to clubs in proportion to the amount of attention devoted to young players. Established champions have been encouraged to practice with the best hopefuls, all of which has been going on for years but without any result.

The “reason for holding tournaments in this difficult time was to provide the crucible out of which French tennis would be prepared for the international matches of the future,” but that was not happening. Instead, the paper sadly concluded, it was the veteran players from pre-war times, including Yvon Petra and 42-year-old Henri Cochet, hero of France’s six consecutive Davis Cup triumphs from 1927 to 1932, who continued to dominate any younger challengers.

As I have previously written, postwar amnesia to the contrary, France maintained a lively tennis scene throughout the Second World War. The courts at Roland Garros were busy even throughout the “dark years” of defeat and occupation. In July 1942, the national junior championship was played out on its red clay courts while thousands of Jews were being rounded up and held in the infamous Velodrome d’Hiver just across the Seine. Two years later, in August 1944, Petra was defending his French singles title before large crowds even as Allied and German armies battled in Normandy less than 150 miles from Paris.

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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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