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SI FOR KIDS
Wanted: Young Americans
Posted: Sunday September 05, 1999 10:17 PM
By Jon Wertheim, Sports Illustrated
NEW YORK -- After he beat Christian Ruud in straight sets Friday, Chris Woodruff , the pride of Knoxville, Tenn., was asked if we were witnessing a renaissance of great, young, American tennis players. Unable to stifle his skepticism and keep a stiff upper lip, he responded: "Like who?"
Let today's discussion be about disappointments and unfulfilled potential. The Phantom Menace, the opening of Al Capone's vault, U2's Rattle and Hum, and the recent fate of American junior tennis. With its abundance of wild-card berths, the U.S. Open is always a good barometer for assessing the progress of young racket-wielding Yanks. After just two rounds, it's abundantly clear that the news ain't good. Twenty Americans gained spots in the men's singles draw. When Andre Agassi beat Justin Gimelstob Saturday, only four were left. None is younger than 25.
Yes, we were spoiled by a gullywasher of talent in the mid-1980s. Agassi, Pete Sampras, Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Todd Martin -- all probable Hall of Famers, all born within two years of each other -- formed the biggest bumper crop of talent from one country in the sport's history. But since that concentrated harvest more than a decade ago, there has been nothing resembling a future champ to come down the pipeline. Vince Spadea, the closest thing, is already 25 and has precisely zero titles to his name. Gimelstob has a booming serve and is a great interview, but his ranking is perilously close to 100. Jan-Michael Gambill, last year's next big thing, has receded into obscurity. What about James Blake, who left Harvard to turn pro this summer? Endowed with a fat Nike endorsement and a wild card (read: a guaranteed $10,000 first-round loser's check from the USTA), he lost to Woodruff 6-2, 6-2, 6-1 in his opening match. Taylor Dent, meanwhile, is just a teenager, but he looks as though he has to be dragged to the practice court. And the gym is totally out of the question. Paul Goldstein is the kind of guy you'd love your daughter to date, but it will be a testament to his will if he can crack the top 30.
Some of this dropoff is clearly cultural: As Woodruff is quick to point out, "My tennis club used to be packed and now you can get a court whenever you want. Kids with [athletic talent] in my neighborhood are playing basketball, or baseball or golf." And some of this is simply cyclical: The enduring popularity of Sampras and Agassi and the new popularity of the women's game might get kids hip to a sport they couldn't countenance when Steffi Graf and Ivan Lendl were chart-toppers.
Still, the USTA shoulders some of the blame. All those $40 nosebleed seats, all those obscenely priced souvenirs, all that television scratch will net the organization -- a non-profit organization, I hasten to add -- some $130 million this year at the Open alone. With a windfall like that, you'd think more programs to recruit young athletes would be feasible. The USTA talks a good game -- witness its breathless eagerness to pass Alexandra Stevenson off as a "minority phenom" -- but the fact is, entirely too much money goes to a small cadre of players that look alike, play alike, and flame out alike.
On the last match on the grandstand court Friday, two little-known American teenagers, Levar Harper-Griffith and Andy Roddick, played doubles against two veterans. The veterans won handily, but the Yanks, both among the world's top 30 juniors, made a good accounting of themselves. As the fans filed out, a man behind me informed his friend that "those are probably the two best American prospects." The friend's response: "Jeesh, that's depressing."
In just her second Grand Slam event, serving for the match against seventh-seeded Serena Williams, Kim Clijsters promptly lost 14 straight points -- and with them, the match. That said, Clijsters had nothing to be embarrassed about. To borrow one of the oldest cliches in tennis, "We'll be hearing plenty more about her." ... Agassi is the only defending male champ left in the draw. ... In a silly contest staged by the USTA Friday, "tennis star" (it's a relative term) Paul Haarhuis and Mets' third baseman Robin Ventura both tried to hit a tennis ball out of Arthur Ashe Stadium. Neither could do it, further proof that the venue is entirely too gargantuan for tennis. ... Further evidence that Friday was a slow day: The tennis poohbahs organized a touchy-feely photo-op with Martina Hingis and Richard Williams. After Hingis gave her rivals' dad an autographed shirt, she said, "It should fit you. It's extra large." ... Need more proof that men's tennis is fraught with parity? Four qualifiers -- Frederik Jonsson, Peter Wessels, Nicolas Escude and Xavier Malisse -- made the third round. ... Pity Gambill. The young American has had an unremarkable year, but all signs pointed to a successful Open. Had he beaten Fabrice Santoro Friday, he would have faced little-known Jiri Novak and then the winner between Slava Dosedel and qualifier Jonsson. Couldn't ask for a cleaner path to the quarters. Alas, after breaking Santoro and forcing a fifth set, Gambill was beset with cramps and had to retire at 4-all. ... Today's celebrity prognosticator is Ron Mercer, the disgruntled swingman for the Denver Nuggets: Kim Clijsters. Just kidding. "Serena Williams. It's time for the little sister."
Jon Wertheim is a Sports Illustrated staff writer.
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