On one hand, if Tim Mayotte were, say, 7.1% better and Pam Shriver were 3.6% better, each would have won a major title by now, and maybe it wouldn't occur to anybody that American tennis has gone to hell in a hand basket. Or, maybe it's all just a cycle. A lot of people swear it's a cycle.
Then again, maybe it's the tip of the iceberg. Perhaps this is just the beginning. Perhaps tennis in America is being superseded by tennis elsewhere—especially in Europe—by nations that have learned from us and gone us one better.
Or worse, it's even possible that the sudden failure of America to produce tennis champions is symptomatic of something much deeper and broader. It's possible that culturally and spiritually we have grown fat and happy, yuppified as it were, and that we're now satisfied to sit back and let others produce champions. The plight of U.S. tennis could be telling us that it is no longer worth putting out for greatness when pretty-goodness can be comfortably settled for.
Since those sweethearts of yore, Chrissie and Jimbo, burst upon our consciousness in the early '70s, the U.S. has produced only two champions—even though during that same period tennis became more popular and lucrative here than ever. One of those two champions, Tracy Austin, remains as much enigma as comet, and her career suggests (especially in tandem with that of her lesser sister, Andrea Jaeger) that Americans can succeed on the court only by consuming themselves off it. The other, John McEnroe, is a mad genius who appears more the product of divine intervention than of any particular homeland. Whatever, the American system has stopped producing tennis champions...except that there isn't any American system. But there is an American way of life, and it has stopped producing champions.
A wealth of statistics illustrates this corrosion, so let us restrict ourselves to the most salient ones. The only American male currently ranked in the Top 10 is Jimmy Connors, who, at 34, is No. 8 and fading. Not counting our South African immigrants, only four Americans are in the Top 25, 13 in the Top 50. Not so long ago we regularly claimed 50% of these spots. Last week at Madison Square Garden, Ivan Lendl defeated Boris Becker to win the Nabisco Masters. For the first time in the 17-year history of the year-ending championship, no Yank qualified for the tournament. No one envisions any American—except the inscrutable Mr. McEnroe—as a serious challenger for a Grand Slam title any time soon, and no phenoms seem to be on the outside courts.
Despite not having to compete with baseball or football for talent, U.S. women's tennis is only marginally better. The aging Chris Evert Lloyd, 32 next week and injured, is the sole active native-born American who has won a Grand Slam event. Four Americans are in the Top 10, 13 in the Top 25, but the brightest challengers—Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini—are from overseas. Martina Navratilova, for one, says that the best comer is not any of the highly publicized U.S. hopes, such as Mary Joe Fernandez, but 18-year-old Claudia Porwik of West Germany. If it's only a trend, only a cycle, it shows no signs of stopping.
Navratilova is an American citizen now. Lendl wants to be one. A number of other top players from abroad keep residences here as well. The message is clear: For tennis players, the U.S. is a great place to live, but you wouldn't want to grow up here. Why?
For starters, the steward of the sport on these shores, the U.S. Tennis Association, has an annual budget of $38 million. However, unlike the overseers of tennis in many other nations, the USTA doesn't earmark any money solely for the development of promising junior players. The USTA still adheres to a wacky arrangement wherein a new volunteer leader becomes president every two years. The new man rushes in and tries to put his stamp on things—to hell with incidentals, like the future. To the credit of the outgoing president, Randy Gregson, the USTA has hired an executive director, a former banker named John Fogarty, and granted him (theoretically) strong powers. But at least for now, Fogarty is proceeding so gingerly that he responds to the subject of America's much-maligned junior program only with caution and gung ho platitudes.
Without any national plan, most outstanding boy athletes drift into a team sport at school before they even have a chance to consider tennis. Says Drew Hyland, who teaches the philosophy of sport at Trinity College in Hartford, "The American system is so much more dependent on interscholastic and intercollegiate sport. If your sport is not part of this highly visible structure, you have a problem attracting good athletes."