Tennis's Cassandras had ordered the pine box, and they were poised to administer last rites. This, they predicted, would be the year that U.S. men's tennis would, for all practical purposes, the. After all, Andre Agassi, 32, and Pete Sampras, 31, are well into their sunset years, no U.S. player under 30 has made the finals of a Grand Slam in 2� years, and last month the U.S. was bounced out of the Davis Cup by that formidable tennis power... Croatia.
But wait. At last week's Pacific Life Open in Indian Wells, Calif., one of the ATP's premier events, the American men served notice (at 147 mph in Andy Roddick's case) that reports of their demise are greatly exaggerated. Despite the truancy of both Agassi and Sampras—the former beset by a bum shoulder, the latter racked by indecision over whether to retire—five Americans ( Roddick, James Blake, Vince Spadea, Brian Vahaly and Robby Ginepri) infiltrated the quarterfinals. "With Pete and Andre and [Jim] Courier all coming up together, we may never see another generation like that again," says Roddick. "But we think we have a good thing going here ourselves."
They do. Scan the Top 50 in the ATP Champions Race and, excluding the top-ranked Agassi, you'll find eight U.S. players. Their average age? Twenty-three. And that tells only half the story. At a time when many players venture to the net only to shake hands after a match, most of the top young Americans have adaptable, all-court games and the ability to serve and volley. They're also exploding the myth that there's one best way to cultivate a successful career. Armed with a pump-action serve and forehand, Roddick went pro at 18 and now, at 20, is ensconced in the Top 10; Blake, 23, spent two years at Harvard before turning pro in 1999 and is on the cusp of the Top 10; Vahaly, 23, a former academic All-America at Virginia, graduated with a degree in finance and business management, then spent two years on the minor league challenger circuit before turning pro in 2001. "I just wasn't ready earlier," says Vahaly, who's ranked No. 27. "I'm proud that I'm the only college graduate in the Top 100. Besides, all my friends on Wall Street are getting fired right now."
For all the virtues of the Agassi-Sampras-Courier axis, it was never marked by camaraderie. The current corps share scouting tips, train together and chat via e-mail. "You get tired of hearing 'Where's the next Pete and Andre?' " says Blake. "It's really gratifying that we're all starting to make some noise." And it sounds nothing like a death rattle.