Scott Cavanagh
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US tennis needs new superstar

Saturday, September 8, 2007

This year marked the 30th anniversary of the United States Open tennis championships being played at the National Tennis Center in Flushing Meadows, New York.

(View Bark Back News' exclusive photos from the 2007 Open)

The Center, now called the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, was built during a period of time known as the "tennis boom" -- a time when tennis dominated the international sports landscape and American stars named Connors, Evert, McEnroe, Ashe, Austin and
Gerulaitis dominated the world rankings.

Those days seemed more like a hundred years ago this week, as both the men's and women's finals were played without an American participant. It has now been four years since an American man has raised the trophy of our national tournament and five years since an American woman has even reached the final.

While those results don't seem to have affected the popularity of the Open itself (the tournament drew a record 700,000 fans) they do reflect the state of American tennis at the professional level since the retirements of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and the recent injury problems of both Serena and Venus Williams.

Entering this year's Open, only two American men -- 2003 champion Andy Roddick and James Blake -- were ranked in the top 40 players in the world, while only the Williams sisters held places in the women's top 50.

"We can look at things from a positive view if we wish to," U.S. Junior Tennis Coach Steve Harris said. "The Williams sisters are the current title holders at both Wimbledon and the Australian Open, we should not forget that. But they are veterans now and fully admit they don't see themselves playing for that long, and it's hard to consider Blake, and to a certain extent Roddick as real contenders for major championships. What we need to worry about is what's coming up throughout the system. Can we still build American-born champions?"

There are many roadblocks to that goal. Fiscal concerns have led to the elimination of tennis programs in hundreds of public high schools, taking the game even further away from average Americans and re-enforcing the image of tennis as an elitist, country club game -- an image the game does not have in other parts of the world -- particularly Europe and South America.

In addition, the massive growth of youth soccer programs over the past 20 years has
siphoned off a large number of athletes of both sexes that were not inclined to play football and basketball.

"There was a time when tennis was a real option for kids that were athletic, but not football or basketball players," Harris said. "Now kids start with soccer first, so when the time comes to choose a sport, those that don't gravitate to our big sports choose soccer."

There are bright spots however. Donald Young, the top-ranked american junior for the past three years, who has struggled playing professional tournaments over the past two years, won two rounds at this year's Open, gaining his first wins in a Grand Slam event. At the same time, John Isner, a 6' 9" mountain of a man, slammed his way into the fourth round only months after completing an outstanding college career at Georgia.

"There are so many options out there for kids to both play and watch now," said Harris. "Everything from NASCAR to ultimate fighting get much more air time and unfortunately higher ratings than tennis, so it's a little bit like the chicken and the egg. We need to develop strong players with compelling personalities to increase interest and exposure for the sport, but if no one sees them, it doesn't matter. What we need is a champion like Federer
that just wins so much you can't help but pay attention, of course that's easier said than done."

Copyright 2007 Midland Avenue Communications. Reprints without permission violate Federal Law.