It was a superb win, Andy Roddick's felling of Roger Federer at the Sony Ericsson Open on Monday night — a hard-fought battle that saw the American scrapper beating the odds to finally get another win against the tennis great.
After losing to Federer 21 times in the 23 official matches they've played, Roddick prevailed 7-6 (4), 1-6, 6-4 in the same event where he’d gotten to Federer once before, in 2008. The win was Roddick in his classic form, including an ace and two more elephant-gun serves to finish off the victory.
But anyone looking to draw hope or signs that the future for U.S. tennis may be changing shouldn’t get too excited about Roddick upending Federer. If anything, Roddick's win was a last hurrah, a reminder of what could have been before American tennis began its slide into oblivion.
The U.S. domination of tennis has been as American as anything since the sport's professionalization in 1968. Just as the U.S. was the team to beat in basketball, the country that spawned the world's best in golf, the home of baseball and the monopoly-holder on (American) football, tennis was ruled by the Yanks through its first decades. Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi continued the tradition into the turn of the century. Then, when a young American won the U.S. Open in 2003, no one guessed it would be the last time an American men’s tennis player would win a major until … well, until who knows when. It hasn't been done since.
Roddick, who won that 2003 title, was always the next great hope to keep American success going, and that's why his victory over Federer on Monday gathered so much interest. Few tennis fans forget when Roddick and Federer tangled in the last match that had an American close to major greatness: Wimbledon, 2009.
Roddick had little success against Federer headed into that Wimbledon final, but he held his own, fighting his way to five sets. The gut-wrenching epic ended with Federer ripping the title away in a 16-14 final set. The match was possibly Roddick's finest, but the slumping figure that accepted the runner-up trophy that day only furthered the evidence that, even on their best days, Americans are no longer the class of the men's tennis world.
The death knell began to ring for American tennis in May 2011, when, for the first time since rankings began (1973 for the men), no U.S. players were ranked in the top 10 in world singles play. In the 1970s, more than half of all players in U.S. Open singles draws were American. In December 1990, 23 American men were in the top 100. In May of last year, just nine men were in the top 100.
When the U.S. fell out of the top 10 (a position from which it has since recovered), Roddick — who had long been America's representation in men’s tennis — took the brunt of the questions.
"We’re kind of a victim of our own success over the years in the sport," he said, the expectations framing what has for him been a sterling career, but not enough to mark him as great, since he's fallen short in the majors as the world’s talent continues to rise.
"If you stack us up against more countries," he added, "we're coming out ahead."
He was right — in 2010, players from the U.S. won more ATP World Tour singles titles than any other country.
But Tiger Woods isn't known for his ridiculously long No. 1 ranking or (what used to be) his pocketing of event after event on the PGA Tour. He's known for his hunt for the majors. And tennis is measured by the same mark.
No one could have known it in 2003, but tennis was about to be officially overtaken by a rush of foreign talent that would not just put together strong tour wins, grab a few majors and represent well in the top 100 but also completely upend the pecking order of the sport. Federer led the way, providing tennis equal to the murmurings of "best ever," and rival Rafael Nadal came on strong as well, winning what Federer didn’t and pulling his foe up to a higher level of play.
Novak Djokovic's ascension this past year was a burst built on a long climb of strong performances. And Andy Murray of Britain, as well as handfuls of excellent players from Germany, France and the Czech Republic, have made the complexion of professional tennis much more international.
The reasons for the changes are easily suggested by tennis experts. John McEnroe has long bemoaned the lack of tennis training and the expenses of learning the sport in the U.S. Other countries, especially the European ones, where tennis is much more popular among the everyday folk, pour plenty of time and attention into training the new generation.
In America, tennis has become a niche sport over the years. Many are happy to cheer on the U.S. players, but few are involved in the grassroots methods needed to hone new legions of great tennis players. America has also been crippled by its fascination with force over finesse — it loves the hard-hitting Roddick but has few resources to teach upcoming players skills such as patience, endurance and repeated specialty strokes.
Success begets success, and not enough of the American tennis establishment saw the wave coming to fight it soon enough. Now, with the United States still pretty good in tennis but not dominating, the sport also has to fight the typical backlash that comes whenever Americans find out they're merely competitive, not the greatest ever (see: Olympics, basketball failures at; soccer, U.S. introduction to; cricket, lack of interest in).
Roddick (No. 34 in the ATP rankings) is by far the top player the U.S. will have for a while. Even while fighting through recent injuries, his game is still superior to that of Americans Mardy Fish (now No. 8), John Isner (No. 10), Donald Young (No. 46) and James Blake (No. 69). Wimbledon was the last gasp for him and American tennis to capture the attention of the U.S. before fans and the country's limited youth training receded for good. Not even a gutsy win over Federer can change that.
Now, with only an aging Roddick and somewhat no-names to help the cause, American tennis must limp among the performances of those who will go down as some of the all-time best instead of producing the best itself. U.S. tennis is officially in another era.