While the world tennis community exulted over Boris Becker's victory in the Wimbledon men's final Sunday, the U.S. community fretted. No players or teams reared in the United States won any of the titles here. Future prospects are not promising.
"It's clear we've got our work cut out for us," says David Markin, U.S. Tennis Association second vice president and former chairman of the Junior Tennis Council.
Becker's success reflects three problems facing the USTA. One, the U.S. game needs to attract better athletes. Two, young Americans in the last decade have avoided clay courts. Three, while tennis is not the socially elite pastime it once was, it still is economically prohibitive for most U.S. families.
Becker is a splendid athlete. Standing 6 feet 2 and weighing 175 pounds, he is fast and quick, can play on any surface and has every shot. One easily can imagine him on the starting five on an NCAA Division I basketball team. Said Vitas Gerulaitis, who lost to him at the French Open, "He can backpedal faster than any big guy around."
Any list of the top 10 players on athletic ability alone would include only two born in the United States -- John McEnroe and Kathy Jordan. By her own admission, Chris Evert Lloyd does not have the athleticism of Martina Navratilova, a U.S. citizen who learned to play in Czechoslovakia.
Becker first showed the world his true abilities on the slow clay at the French Open just a month ago. Although he lost in the second round to Mats Wilander, the eventual champion, his talents were obvious. But of 28 U.S. men who entered, 17 lost in the first round. Tim Mayotte and Scott Davis, both ranked in the U.S. top 10, did not even enter the world's third-most prestigious event because they had little chance to do well on clay.
In almost every other country, the best juniors are forced to play on all surfaces because their national associations pay the bills. This economic leverage, plus government assistance, enables them to steer young stars in a manner that is difficult for their U.S. counterparts.
Except for the Junior Davis Cup and Junior Wightman Cup teams, the USTA pays no bills.
What of our university system of athletic scholarships? William Jacobson, founder of Computennis, thinks the influence of college competition is diminishing. "The problem is that too much of the talent is concentrated at too few schools," he says. "You have over 100 schools with good football squads and twice that for basketball. But only a half-dozen colleges have dominated tennis for 30 years. And they all play on cement courts. That means there has been very little growth, if any."
Becker is a high school dropout.
"Becker and (15-year-old Gabriela) Sabatini are superior talents, but the USTA will never pull kids out of school," Markin said. "We know Americans are at a disadvantage in this respect but that is a decision that is entirely up to the parent."
Hundreds of thousands of dollars now are being designated for our public school systems. The USTA National Schools Program and the USTA/NJTL program, it is hoped, will begin to address the issue of providing quality instruction and competition at a much lower cost.
"We are also giving serious consideration to a national training center that will be available at little or no cost to our most talented youngsters," Markin said. "It's no secret that with the best teaching professionals charging upwards of $60 per hour, it's an impossible situation for most people."
I shudder to think of a Danny Ainge, Michael Jordan or a Rickey Henderson with a tennis racket. They would produce incredible exchanges because of their superior body control, speed and determination. But they probably never gave tennis a thought.
Boris Becker has given the game a good lift at an opportune time and a new challenge to McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors and Wilander. But the greater challenge is to U.S. tennis. Until the game is accessible to the best of our athletes at a cost comparable to that of other sports, we will watch more foreign-born athletes play in the Wimbledon final.