Sally Jenkins
Sally Jenkins
Columnist

In tennis as in golf, Americans might find route to success is the harder road

There’s nothing wrong with American tennis and golf that a double-dip recession can’t cure. The USA’s decline in club and racket sports is undeniable; we’re in a competitive slump, our national championship trophies carried off to Europe, Ireland and Australia.

The U.S. Tennis Association’s answer is to try to spend its way back to greatness with its multi-million-dollar “player development program.” But something tells me American youth could do with a little less funding, and a little more clawing. You want to build kids into champions? Deprive them. Make them uncomfortable.

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Novak Djokovic, who defeated Rafael Nadal in four sets Monday to claim his first U.S. Open title, didn’t become the top-ranked tennis player in the world because he was well-funded. He’s the hard-swinging son of a restaurant owner from a mountainside town in Serbia, a wildflower talent who’s ravenous for pride and success. It’s not like the Serbian tennis federation has “a lot of highly sophisticated infrastructure,” CBS analyst Mary Carillo points out.

You know what passed for a “youth development” facility in Belgrade when Ana Ivanovic was growing up there? An empty swimming pool. Her local club couldn’t afford to heat the pool in winter, so instead the managers drew tennis court lines on the bottom, and that’s where she practiced. The walls were just 18 inches from the sidelines, which is why she’s got such a killer backhand down the line. Tennis, for these players, “is not a reflection of wealth; it’s a way to [earn] wealth for them,” Carillo says.

The statistics are startling: In 1990, there were 23 American men in the top 100 tennis rankings; now there are just nine, led by Mardy Fish at No. 8. No American man has won a grand slam title since Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open, the longest gap in history. It’s not much better on the women’s side, despite the achievements of Serena and Venus Williams. American women in the top 100 over the past 20 years have dwindled from 27 to eight.

There is a disturbing echo in men’s golf: The United States just underwent its longest major championship drought in the modern era, six straight majors without a victory, until 25-year-old Keegan Bradley won the PGA in Atlanta. Promising Americans have been surpassed by a succession of less advantaged Irishmen (Graeme McDowell, Rory McIlroy, Darren Clarke) and South Africans (Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel).

Tiger Woods has upheld the honor of American golf virtually alone in majors.

When I asked Stanford University golf Coach Conrad Ray why international players are winning majors while young Americans are not, he suggested I check out the Web site for the Sage Valley Invitational. It’s the most prominent tournament for juniors in America, and it’s a lovely event — maybe too lovely. It’s held on a beautifully groomed course designed by Tom Fazio.

This year’s field of 54, who ranged in age from 14 to 18 and included 15 foreigners, got personalized lockers in the clubhouse, and top caddies to carry clubs and tend their pins. The sponsor Electrolux paid for all of their travel and expenses, and they were showcased by CBS in a taped hour-long broadcast. The winner’s trophy and blazer were presented by PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem.

Basically, they were treated like they had already arrived.

“It’s amazing to see how much they are given, and what the experience is at a young age,” Ray says. “If you go down that road, that’s what you start to expect, and want.”

Champions aren’t born from comfort. They’re born from deficits, tensions, sometimes even abrasions. I’m beginning to wonder if we’ve actually over-developed junior sports in this country — and the casualties are ambition, and long-term development. Instead of hard-scrabbling, too many American kids play like they have something to protect, like they’re worried more about their junior rankings than becoming great. They don’t seem to be the resourceful competitors they once were.

This is especially noticeable in tennis. Most of the courts in this country are hard courts, and we’ve seen a wave of players with big banging strokes, who seek fast ends to rallies. They’ve never learned movement, or mastered other surfaces.

“A lot of them think of it as a hitting game instead of a running game,” Carillo says.

Patrick McEnroe, who heads the USTA’s player development effort, implores juniors to play on clay, because it teaches movement, how to rally, and vary strokes. On clay, “you have to learn to run, attack, and defend,” Carillo says.

Anyone who has driven a car in Europe has noticed that virtually every small town has a local club with clay courts the color and texture of dried blood. It’s no accident that nine of top 10 men in the world are European.

There is, of course, a danger in sweeping generalizations; you don’t have to grow up poor or disenfranchised to become a champion. But one general statement seems worth making: Countries experience great sports eras when games are taught as cheaply and accessibly as possible — when a promising kid in Ireland or Australia can grab ahold of a rusting club or racket and try to make something out of him or herself in a local park.

Think about it. The golden age of American tennis in the 1970s was dominated by self-styled champions who learned to play in town parks: Arthur Ashe, son of a public park policeman; Billie Jean King, fireman’s daughter and a public park champion; Chris Evert, daughter of a teaching pro from a public park; Jimmy Connors, son of a toll booth attendant, taught by his mother in a back yard.

The golden age of American golf in the 1930s and ’40s was dominated by bitterly poor kids who were self-schooled: Ben Hogan, son of a widowed seamstress, who never finished high school and delivered newspapers to support himself; Byron Nelson, another poor dropout who snuck on to the Glen Garden Country Club course at night to practice in the dark; Sam Snead, still another self-taught caddie, who went to work at the age of seven.

For some reason, lately we’ve been telling kids in this country that golf and tennis are hard to teach, and expensive to learn. They aren’t. What we should be telling them is that it doesn’t cost a dime to imagine greatness, and they don’t need many tools to invent themselves. All they need is the ground under their feet, and some sticks.

 
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