Explaining the U.S. Tennis Slump

Taylor, for example, believes that top-tier players are developed more effectively in smaller and tighter communities and in kids who have more-balanced lives. “The most important thing,” he says, “is having the proper team of people who are knowledgeable, honest, and constantly instilling belief.” Andy Murray seemed to agree with this contention when he spoke to The Guardian about his two years at Sanchez-Casal Academy in Barcelona. “It was a big sacrifice,” he said, “to move away from your family, and spend money training over there when you're not making any back.”

Europe has not emulated the academy model, instead building a network of regional training centers. Maria Sharapova, who was born in Russia but moved to the United States at age seven in order to train at IMG Academy in Florida, said about Europe to USA Today, “Now you have so many coaches [and] facilities… I wouldn’t need to leave.” In the same article, Croatia’s Ivan Ljubicic, who was at one point ranked third in the world and who now coaches Milos Raonic, attributed Europe’s tennis dominance to the high number of Futures and Challengers events on the continent. All of this means that across Europe, people have access to top-quality coaching and competition.

Patrick McEnroe, the USTA’s general manager of player development, has acknowledged the need for more national training centers across America. A 2013 Forbes article explains, “Part of the problem here is U.S. demographics and geography. 314 million people spread across 3.79 million square miles make it incredibly difficult to develop a centralized, consistent coaching system for junior tennis players.” To combat this problem, the USTA has developed 17 regional tennis centers around the country, and, in May of this year, it revealed plans to build a new headquarters in Orlando with more than 100 courts, including 24 clay ones, by 2016.

Coaches

The U.S. has top-level coaches, but, Kleger says, it does not have enough of them. “In many tennis playing countries, coaching candidates have to go to school to be licensed to teach tennis. Sometimes the schooling takes years! In the U.S., if you can get someone to pay you for a tennis lesson, you’re a tennis pro.” In France, in particular, it takes 18 months of training to become a certified tennis pro, and giving a lesson without a license is a misdemeanor.

The Talent Pool

Of the 10 men’s singles players who have been ranked in the top five over the last five years, nine are European. None of the 10 guys, however, trained at the same academy, or even in the same city, as any of the others. This relative geographic randomness underscores the notion that it is the continent as a whole, not a particular city or academy, that is responsible for Europe’s recent dominance. It also demonstrates that, first and foremost, top-five tennis players must be extremely naturally talented. A six-year-old Novak Djokovic was described by Jelena Gencic, the person who discovered him, as the “greatest natural talent I have seen since Monica Seles.” Nadal and Federer have been described as similarly precocious pre-adolescents.

“If you look at the top five players in the world, they are pretty special,” Taylor explains, “You start with them being athletically gifted, which everyone talks about and is true. If Nadal, Murray, and Ferrer went with soccer from a young age, they would have probably played in last month’s World Cup.” 

Diaz agrees with this sentiment and goes on to speculate that the United States might have better luck in tennis if the sport drew the country’s best athletes. But the socioeconomic and geographical barriers keep it from doing so. In America, the sport is for the elite: In a 2009 New York Times article, Doug MacCurdy, the director of player development for the United States Tennis Association (USTA) from 1998 to 2001, explained that if a kid becomes serious about tennis, his parents are likely to spend between $25,000 to $30,000 a year on the sport.

In Europe, on the other hand, top-quality coaching and competition is accessible to kids of varying socioeconomic status. None of the top European players come from impoverished backgrounds, but all come from modest ones. Djokovic’s story is the most extraordinary. His parents ran a fast-food restaurant, and he started playing on war-torn courts and in empty swimming pools. Stan Wawrinka grew up on a farm in Switzerland, and Robin Soderling learned the sport in a Swedish town with 10,000 residents.

This bigger, related problem for America’s ability to groom tennis talent is that the sport just isn’t very popular here. 

In 2013, ESPN estimated that tennis was the seventh most popular sport among American adolescent boys, as only eight percent played it. Ahead of tennis were football, basketball, baseball, soccer, track, and wrestling. A similar study has not been done in Europe, but tennis is believed to be the continent’s second most popular sport, behind, of course, soccer. The more popular the sport, the more people play. The more people play the more likely an especially talented kid will pick up a racket and develop that talent.

Observations such as these, however, are purely based on the current generation. We will only know if the U.S. has learned how to train kids that can compete with the best Europeans when the next generation of U.S. juniors joins the ATP tour. With Noah Rubin winning the Wimbledon Juniors, with Jared Donaldson ranked in the world’s top 300 at 17, and with Francis Tiafoe winning the 2013 U18 Orange Bowl at age 15, college coaches are optimistic about a U.S. resurgence in the top ranks over the next decade. Maybe soon, Americans will get to cheer for their own again at tennis's top competitions. 

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Philip Sopher writes for and produces The Atlantic's Business Channel.

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