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The Great American Disappearing Act
Frank Deford
December 15, 1986
In qualifying for the Masters at Madison Square Garden, U.S. tennis came up empty—which is happening a lot these days
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December 15, 1986

The Great American Disappearing Act

In qualifying for the Masters at Madison Square Garden, U.S. tennis came up empty—which is happening a lot these days

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By the time a U.S. player leaves college, he frequently is at a disadvantage. He feels he must produce quickly or be branded as another loser. Further, if the typical upper-middle-class American college player has no great drive to start with, his incentive can be further dissipated by a life that is so seductive. Why knock yourself out to move up in the rankings when, at 25 or 35 in the world, there's no pressure, prize money and endorsements earn you a nice six-figure income, and you meet lots of future business contacts and present sweetie pies?

The problem isn't just in tennis, either. George Allen, who's chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sport, says that the American lifestyle is eroding our physical prowess across the board. Look at golf, the other traditional upper-crust game. The unbroken line of American champions, 65 years worth, from Hagen to Sarazen, on to Jones, Nelson, Snead, Hogan, Palmer, Nicklaus and Watson, suddenly seems to have ended. Now the best players are all those chargers from abroad—Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer and Greg Norman. The greatest triumph of style over substance is, surely, Payne Stewart, the American golfer who has a terrific TV shtick—knickers—and who earned $835,000 this year without winning a single tournament. The new American way.

In track events we used to dominate—the pole vault, high jump, discus and shot—Europeans have surpassed us as well. Only in swimming, which is, essentially, analogous to age-group tennis for teens, and in boxing, the sprints and basketball, which are dominated by the hungrier black athletes, does the U.S. continue to prevail in international competition. Damn, we can't even beat New Zealand in boats.

"Our kids are being lifted along today," says Kramer. "We used to have to pull ourselves up."

No, I don't think it's just cycles.

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