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It was almost six local time last Sunday evening when Russia's Dmitry Tursunov collected himself before his fourth match point and pasted a backhand to defeat Andy Roddick of the U.S. in an epic match, 6--3, 6--4, 5--7, 3--6, 17--15. The ball had barely strafed past Roddick when the jubilant Russians stormed the court at Moscow's Olympic Indoor Stadium, transforming it into a clay-covered mosh pit. About three hours later Henrik Stenson potted the clinching putt in Straffan, Ireland, and before long the clubhouse at the K Club was overrun by more dancing Europeans than an Ibiza disco. And so it was that teams from the United States managed to surrender a claim to two cups--one Davis, one Ryder--in the course of a single afternoon. It was not a good day to be a fan of American teams. "Bloody Sunday," one U.S. tennis official put it.
Truth is, it could have been any given Sunday. Parity has never been a more voguish concept in international sports, and almost as a matter of routine we're reminded that America's global hegemony in sports is no more. Just last Thursday, the U.S. women's basketball team was upset by Russia, snapping a 50-game international winning streak and forcing the Americans to settle for the bronze medal at the world championships in S�o Paulo. That was the same hue won last month in Japan by the meticulously selected, impeccably behaved, no-I-in-team U.S. men's consortium, unable as they were to get past Greece. This after a summer that saw no American man or woman reach the Wimbledon quarterfinals for the first time since 1911 and the dispiriting U.S. World Cup team fail to win a solitary game. Not long before that, at the World Baseball Classic, the Americans got cuffed by Canada, Korea and Mexico. (Hey, that's our pastime!) Say, whatever happened to those noncompete agreements we'd always seemed to have with the rest of the world?
All this unseemly losing has, at least in some corners, provoked enough self-flagellation to induce a torn rotator cuff. The failure of our teams is, you see, an expression of American complacency. Their kids are running extra wind sprints, while ours have a PSP in one hand and a chalupa in the other. Another theory: Our national embarrassment of riches has thinned the herd, as kids who once gravitated to a few major sports are now playing lacrosse and riding BMX and snowboarding. Worse, our futility is somehow linked to American foreign policy. As one British columnist observed last week at the Ryder Cup, "Maybe [the failure of the American teams] is not wholly unconnected with what's happening on the streets of Baghdad and round the mountains of Afghanistan."
But it's not really about us. The inexorable force of globalization has made the world immeasurably smaller and made sports an easily exportable and importable commodity. Technology has only hastened this; after all, it's easier to be like Mike when it requires only a browser to see him. Last week Sprint announced a breakthrough that enables subscribers to receive a highlights show on their phones. When, from Prague to Perth, anyone with cell service can watch the latest scores and highlights, your sport won't be balkanized for long. And it's hard to exaggerate the impact of geopolitics. As markets and political systems have opened, it only stands to reason that new sports powers--say, former Soviet republics, birthplace of all four of boxing's current heavyweight champions and home of half the WTA's top 10 players--will emerge.
We should, ultimately, be celebrating the idea of America coming back to the pack. For one thing it underscores the universality of sports. And when the talent pool for athletes is no longer national but global, the heightened competition yields a superior product. "Now the battleground is even, [and] world basketball is at its best," Raptors forward Chris Bosh said after the U.S. lost to Greece. "We have to try to come back to dominance now." Not only is he right, but any lesser sentiment would be, you know, un-American.
As for some compensatory comfort, consider that while our homegrown talent might win fewer cups and medals, our sports culture has never been richer. The best athletic talent often comes to America to join our leagues and tours, play for our colleges, train at our facilities, learn from our coaches. If a few gold medals are the tradeoff for getting to watch Nowitzki or Ichiro or Ovechkin Stateside, so be it.
If anything, it all makes the concept of international competitions a bit, well, dated. And what exactly is a "foreign athlete" anyway? After Russia's Davis Cup defeat of the U.S., Tursunov, a 23-year-old Moscow native, joined his teammates in joyous celebration. When the last toast had been made and the last bottle of vodka drained, Tursunov made preparations to get to his next event in Mumbai and then return to the place he's called home for the last half of his life: Roseville, California.
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