Think American Tennis Is in Trouble? Look at Australia

By Henry D. Fetter
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Keith Allison/flickr


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.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2010/09/think-american-tennis-is-in-trouble-look-at-australia/62836/