Eleven years ago, the annual Wimbledon champions dinner might just as well have been an American college prom. The first dance, which traditionally goes to the two singles champions, paired James Scott Connors and Christine Marie Evert.
Connors was 21, Evert 19. They were young, they were champions and they were in love. Their story, their breakup and their subsequent marriages to other people now are part of tennis lore.
That tournament marked the beginning of an era in which the United States dominated professional tennis. Throughout the history of the game, countries have taken turns in the dominant position. For the last 11 years, it has been the United States.
True, Bjorn Borg won five straight Wimbledon titles during this period. But he was surrounded by U.S. challengers: Connors, John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis, Roscoe Tanner. Evert succeeded Billie Jean King and Margaret Court (Australia) as the top woman player. Her challengers were Evonne Goolagong (Australia), Tracy Austin and Martina Navratilova who, shortly after becoming a U.S. citizen, supplanted her as No. 1.
Beginning in 1974, Wimbledon has been won by U.S. men six times and by Borg five times. Four of Borg's victories in the final were over U.S. players. The U.S. Open has been won nine times by U.S. men. U.S. women have won Wimbledon six times, the U.S. Open nine times.
But now that era may be drawing to an end. At the French Open, Connors, 32, and McEnroe, 26, were the oldest quarterfinalists. There are six U.S. men among the top 15 in the world. Among them, only Aaron Krickstein, 17, is under 25. And he is a one-surface (hardcourt) player with so many holes in his game that it may be hard for him to advance beyond his current No. 11 ranking.
"Where," asked U.S. Davis Cup captain Arthur Ashe, "is the next McEnroe?"
The answer may lie in Sweden, where Mats Wilander, 20, already is No. 4 in the world with four Grand Slam titles; where Stefan Edberg, 19, is No. 14 and rising rapidly. It may lie in Australia, where Pat Cash, 20, is No. 7. It may lie in West Germany, where Boris Becker, 17, has jumped to No. 20.
Americans? Other than Krickstein, names that appear in the top 50 are people like Tim Mayotte, who is 18 months younger than McEnroe; Scott Davis, 23, improved but not a top 10 threat; Paul Annacone, 22, just now in the top 25; Jimmy Arias, 20, already ranked 20 spots lower than two years ago, and Greg Holmes, 21, who might make the top 10 someday but probably not the top five.
The women looked to as successors to Evert and Navratilova are Helena Sukova, 20, of Czechoslovakia; Steffi Graf, 16, of West Germany, and Gabriela Sabatini, 15, of Argentina, who already are ranked Nos. 7, 11 and 14, respectively, on the women's computer. None of the younger U.S. women -- Bonnie Gadusek, Kathy Rinaldi, Kathleen Horvath -- are in their class.
"I think a lot of it has to do with the money," said Connors. "When I was coming up, if you wanted to get noticed, if you wanted to make money you had to win tournaments. Now, if you're making the fourth round or the quarters at tournaments, you can get rich. If you are in the top 50 in the world, you're doing very well.
"If you are an American and in the top 50, you have every endorsement you could want and a great living. When I was young, if you were ranked No. 50, you were nowhere. You need the incentive to win tournaments, not just matches."
Others point to "The Evert Influence," as a reason for fewer U.S. women at the top.
"For a long time everyone's copied Chris," said Pam Shriver. "Now, it's catching up with us. The Europeans are being coached and are playing with far more imagination than Americans. I'm probably the youngest American woman (23 this Thursday) playing serve and volley.
"Everyone has tried to copy Chris, but what they don't realize is that somebody like her comes along about once every 100 years. You can't win these days just staying back."
Navratilova agrees. "First, there was Chris, then there was Tracy (Austin) and then (Andrea) Jaeger. People thought that was the way to win. When players start very young, they can't serve and volley. All they can do is hit ground strokes. If you work very hard at that, you can build a very adequate game, a competitive game. But when you get older, you're very limited."
There are perhaps no better examples of this phenomenon than Krickstein and Arias. Both are products of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy. Arias was ranked No. 6 in the world at 18 and reached the U.S. Open semifinals shortly after turning 19 in 1983. Last year, he dropped to No. 14. Now, he is No. 27 and will drop further after losing in the first round here.
Krickstein reached the fourth round at the U.S. Open in 1983, one month after turning 16. He finished last year ranked No. 12 in the world. Now, he is struggling. They started very young and learned ground strokes -- and little else.
Shriver puts it this way: "I have yet to see a Nick Bollettieri player who can serve."
Bollettieri believes in building a player, starting with the ground strokes while working on competitiveness and demeanor. He insists that Krickstein's serve is improving and his volleying will come along.
"Aaron's still learning every day," Bollettieri said. "We just have to keep him eager."
Eager may not be enough against the likes of Wilander, Cash, Edberg and Becker. Wilander is a changed player since first arriving on the tennis scene with his stunning French Open victory in 1982. Then, he was strictly a base-line player. Now, his serve has improved and, at the French Open, his volleying beat Ivan Lendl.
Wilander plays his best tennis at the Grand Slams and admits he often gets bored the rest of the time. McEnroe has wondered openly if Wilander wants to be No. 1.
"I don't know if John is right or not," Wilander said. "I know I don't want to work eight hours a day on tennis if that's what it takes."
That laid-back attitude is the reason some people think Edberg, 19, eventually might surpass Wilander. Edberg plays serve and volley, even on clay, and does seem willing to work eight hours a day.
Six months ago, it appeared the next McEnroe would be Cash, both in ability and temperament. Recently though, it has been only in temper. He lost in the second round Saturday to Ricardo Acuna of Chile, but his potential seems limitless. He can serve and volley with anyone outside of McEnroe and his ground strokes are very good.
"Tennis changes," McEnroe said. "Americans have so many sports that a lot of the good athletes never think about tennis. In places like Australia, in Europe, in South America, a lot of good athletes, the best ones, play tennis. That's not so with us. Tennis still costs a lot of money to learn and to play as a kid. Maybe we need more free programs, more organization."
Still, the United States is not going to fade from view as a tennis power any time soon. Forty-seven percent of the players entered here are from the United States. Twenty-four of the top 50 men in the world are from the United States, as are 21 of the top 50 women.
But No. 1 is a different story. As Ashe says, the next McEnroe is nowhere in sight. And the next Connors may be Brett, Jimmy's son. He is six.