The Loop

Rock Bottom

American men's tennis has (somehow) hit a new low

May 07, 2021

Early Friday morning, in Madrid, American lumbering servebot giant John Isner somehow took the first off Dominic Thiem on clay. And folks, if you're a fan of American men's tennis, that's about as good as the news gets. Obviously, Thiem came back and beat Isner—of course he did—and with that loss, the state of the men's game in this country hit a staggering new low:

That is bananas, but if you're at all familiar with this particular, dreadful march of history, you won't be surprised to hear the phrase, "it gets worse":

Clarey, because he's a Times reporter and doesn't want to completely insult the people he covers, hastens to say that there's "talent on the rise," but in fact even that feels very optimistic. America's young or young-ish up-and-comers in the top 100 include Taylor Fritz, Reilly Opelka, Sebastian Korda, Tommy Paul, Frances Tiafoe, and Marcus Giron. Charitably, none of those guys have shown they have what it takes to win a grand slam. Uncharitably, they don't have much of a prayer as things currently stand. Tiafoe, one of the most talented, seems to have entrenched his place as a career underachiever, Opelka is a mini-Isner but more limited, Giron simply doesn't have elite talent, and while you can squint your eyes and possibly see a future in which Fritz or Paul break through at a slam, one day...well, it takes a lot of squinting. Sebastian Korda is the exception here, but it's entirely unclear whether he can one day win a slam.

Maybe Clarey knows about newer, younger guys most of us haven't heard of yet, but while somebody from this crop will definitely break the top 30, ending the nearly 20-year grand slam drought seems more far-fetched than ever. The situation has become so bad that it appears our toughest player, and the one most likely to have a flukey grand slam win, is the under-talented but gutsy but hugely unlikeable Tennys Sandgren.

Clarey's historical context is the most powerful evidence of American decline you can find, but it's also worth pointing out that before the current 18-year slam drought, the longest an American had ever gone without winning one, dating back to 1881, was five years in the late '60s.

The great unanswered question is "why?" How can a country this big, with such an athletic culture, be so inept at a sport it has dominated in the very recent past? How can Ashe/McEnroe/Connors/Sampras/Courier/Agassi give way to...nothing? How can the men fail so reliably when the women continue to be among the best in the world, with new, young stars emerging all the time? It's one of the biggest under-reported institutional failures going, and it's a vicious cycle, where the lack of success kills interest in the game and makes it harder to develop future top-level pros. I will confess to knowing next to nothing about the inner workings of the USTA, but somebody somewhere has to be doing something very, very wrong.

You could make an argument that the reign of the big three has snuffed out the bulk of grand slam challengers for two decades and counting, and maybe there's something to that. But no American men in the top 30? For the greatest tennis power in the sport's history, that's a scandal, and it's worse than embarrassing.