The great irony in the demise of U.S. tennis is that it has happened precisely as the sport has expanded within our society. The cycle theorists overlook that when the U.S. was down before, in the late '50s and '60s, tennis was still an antediluvian shamateur game trying to compete in a pro world. Even then, American women's tennis never faltered. "It just kills me," says King, who now is commissioner of Domino's Team Tennis, "but the one equation that never occurred to me was that the more popular tennis became, the more upscale the players would become. It's even more ironic, because when tennis was supposed to be a game for the rich, the public-park players were the champions."
More specificially, it was the public-park players in California. For half a century, almost all U.S. champions came from California. And a majority of them played out of one place, the L.A. Tennis Club, wherein resided the manor lord, Perry T. Jones, who ruled the Southern California fiefdom until 1970. Suddenly, after King and Stan Smith, the line of California champions stopped as if a spigot had been turned off. Except for the momentary Austin interlude, California has ceased to matter in U.S. tennis.
The Southern California story remains illustrative. First, it shows while Jones may have been a curmudgeon and a dictator, a successful regional U.S. tennis program can be set up—one comparable with those in European countries and with what Harry Hopman created in Australia. The decline of California also reveals how little natural resources count in tennis. It's an indoor game now.
"The rest of the country caught up with California, and then, for the same reasons, the rest of the world caught up with us," says Kramer. It's fascinating to note that while Southern California still produces an inordinate number of baseball players, the number of Southern California pitchers is disproportionately lower than the hitters. Pitching, like playing tennis, is something you can practice indoors, so California has no edge on the mound. All the systems in God's heavens could not have made champions out of Bjorn Borg or Becker if indoor courts hadn't become readily available—and if jet travel were not available to bring isolated young talent to the competition.
At the same time that the U.S. system worked to squeeze out its best potential talent, other countries were broadening their tennis base. Says Mike Davies, a native of Wales who was head of the Association of Tennis Professionals from 1983 until this summmer, "I know how popular soccer is in many countries, but here, fighting baseball, football and basketball, tennis owns an even smaller portion of sports interest. Tennis people don't like to admit this, but basically, tennis is still an ESPN sport in America."
Tom Gorman, the U.S. Davis Cup captain, makes the point that " Becker didn't come out of a program; he came out of a mold." But Becker likely wouldn't have even tried tennis had he grown up in Louisville instead of Leimen. At 6'2", 175 pounds, he would probably be a sophomore safety in Ann Arbor.
This dovetails into the next sad reality for American tennis: The modern game increasingly favors the more physical player, and that is precisely the sort of American kid who is drawn to a glamour team sport. "More and more, it's a power game, not a situational game," says Gorman. In the past it took years for a tennis champion to develop a sense of court strategy. Today, rushed ahead with their Kryptonite rackets, most foreign boys are reaching their tennis peak about the same time they reach their sexual peak. Meanwhile, most American prospects are going to fraternity parties.
Says Gregson, "Please, don't make me sound antieducation, but a college player tends to get into a comfortable existence, and four years of tennis development are wasted." At the U.S. Open junior championships in 1983, Stefan Edberg of Sweden was seeded No. 1, and Billy Stanley of Rye, N.Y., was No. 2. En route to the title, Edberg beat McEnroe's little brother, Patrick, 7-6 in the third set. Stanley lost a three-setter to a 15-year-old named Becker. Last week, as Edberg and Becker headed toward a semifinal meeting at the Masters, Stanley was representing Harvard at a collegiate tournament in Florida, and McEnroe, who plays for Stanford, was studying for exams.