American tennis has taken a tumble. Whether it's the Davis Cup or Wimbledon, computer rankings or cash winnings, Americans aren't what they used to be -- a dominant force in the game.

This is the reality of American professional tennis today: Over the weekend, the U.S. Davis Cup team lost to West Germany, was eliminated for 1988 and relegated to zone play to qualify for the 1989 competition. One of the country's hottest players, Jimmy Connors, who didn't play for the U.S. team, won his first Wimbledon shortly after Peter and Heidi Graf's daughter turned 5 in Bruehl, West Germany, in 1974.

And now that Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert show signs of releasing the stranglehold they've held on the women's game during the last decade, who looks like the heir apparent?

Steffi Graf, now 18, the French Open champion and Wimbledon runner-up.

At last year's U.S. Open, four Czechoslovakian-born players fought for the men's and women's singles titles: Navratilova beat Helena Sukova and Ivan Lendl beat Miloslav Mecir. Andres Gomez (Ecuador) and Slobodan Zivojinovic (Yugoslavia) beat Sweden's Joakim Nystrom and Mats Wilander in the men's doubles. To top it off, Raffaella Reggi (Italy) and Sergio Casal (Spain) won the mixed doubles. Navratilova, who, like Lendl now lives in the United States, and Pam Shriver won the women's doubles.

"There are no real obvious bright hopes. That's the thing that's really alarming at this point," said two-time U.S. Open champion Stan Smith, who serves on a special U.S. Tennis Association Committee on Player Development formed last March.

The committee, co-chaired by J. Howard Frazer, a regional vice president of the USTA, and U.S. Open and Wimbledon champion Arthur Ashe, has two mandates: to bring more players into the U.S. tennis pipeline from more areas and to make the United States No. 1 again in world tennis. The committee's seven task forces will present initial recommendations to the USTA during the U.S. Open in September.

In the last four Grand Slam events (1986 U.S. Open and 1987 Australian Open, French Open and Wimbledon), three American men -- two American-born, one a naturalized citizen -- have reached four quarterfinals: Connors (French and Wimbledon), Tim Wilkison (U.S. Open) and Johan Kriek (Wimbledon). Only Connors, ranked sixth in the world, went any further. And Connors is 34. John McEnroe, 28, is ranked ninth, but hasn't won a Grand Slam event since the U.S. Open in 1984.

U.S. women did better. Aside from Navratilova and Evert, they reached one semifinal (Shriver at Wimbledon) and five quarterfinals (Shriver at the U.S. Open and Australian; Mary Joe Fernandez at Wimbledon, and Zina Garrison and Lori McNeil at the Australian).

Since seven American men were in the top 10 in 1979, there has been a gradual drop: six in 1980, five in '81, four in '82 and '83, three in '84 and two in '85. Only Connors and McEnroe are in the top 10 now.

"If the weight of American tennis is on my shoulders, then that's a pretty sad situation," Connors said during the French Open. " . . . It's way past the time when I should be carrying that weight. The younger guys should be doing it, guys like {Jimmy} Arias, {Aaron} Krickstein and {Brad} Gilbert."

Exactly what's ailing the U.S. program? Most of the problems can be traced to the junior level, where development of U.S. players is considered woefully inadequate. Other factors, cited in interviews with players, coaches and officials, range from improvement of foreign athletes who become tennis players and inferior U.S. coaching, to lack of a national development program and overemphasis on winning at a junior level. Increased prize money has attracted the foreign player who might previously have had no interest in tennis. Although other countries always have produced outstanding players, the number and type of player they produce today is superior.

"The prize money is so great now that there is a tremendous incentive for a top athlete in a foreign country to go into tennis. And that incentive wasn't there 10, 15 years ago," said Stanford Coach Dick Gould. "When you look at the money-winnings these guys are making, it's got to be a tremendous incentive, especially in Iron Curtain countries."It should also be noted that increased prize money makes it financially acceptable for any player -- U.S. or foreign -- to be satisfied if he or she makes it into the top 30. Last year's No. 30, David Pate of Las Vegas, earned $170,927 in winnings.

"We're not selecting some of the top athletes to play," said Eddie Davis, former tennis coach at Howard and George Washington universities. Many top athletes, Davis said, are unable to afford the prohibitively high costs of private coaching, equipment, registration and travel.

"These kids are drawn by other sports, which they have access to. In basketball, you have a great amount of coaching, free coaching," Davis said. The instruction given to today's developing players, many said, leaves much to be desired.

"I think coaching in the U.S. is at a much lower level than that of the rest of the world," said former tour player Harold Solomon, a player representative on the Men's International Professional Tennis Council and former Association of Tennis Professionals president.

"Fundamentals are not being taught well to the juniors," said Smith, who sees players today with "shots that are really strange. Their potential is not going to be reached with those strokes."

Jack Schore has coached in the Washington area for 15 years, looking at 150 to 200 players a week. As the coach of the Bullis High School team in Potomac, he worked with Dan Goldie, now ranked 62nd in the world and one of the United States' top prospects.

Schore does not believe in the tennis academies that have multiplied in the last decade, the most prominent run by Nick Bollettieri, head of the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Over the years, players who have come through his academy include Arias (now ranked 36th), Krickstein (29th) and Canadian Carling Bassett.

"When I get these kids {who have attended the academies}, I have to teach them all over again because they don't know a basic thing," Schore said. "They don't know how to volley. Show me a serve from any of them. Show me footwork from any of them. I will match my players' skills of what they know about the game with any of those kids. It's just a crime and a shame."

Smith also is no fan of the academies. Players like Arias, Krickstein and Bassett have not developed, he said. "They came out without knowing {how} to volley very well or increase their repertoire of shots. I don't think it's been too effective," he said. The academies don't bring players to "one stage higher than they've been before."

Bollettieri said he is used to such criticism. "I'm condemned. But at least I'm a pioneer, trying something," he said. "I've developed a kind of callus to the critics."

Academies are "good to a certain extent," said Bollettieri, although he acknowledged the schools "have bad points" as well. But he pointed to the number of his students his program helped get college educations.

"By actual records and statistics, in the 11 years we've been here, 98 percent of our kids have received partial or full scholarships," he said.

Bollettieri said public impatience with a still-maturing Arias was partly responsible for Arias' rankings slip -- from fifth in June 1984 to 48th by the end of last year.

"When Arias was No. 5, he was 5 feet 9," Bollettieri said. "He weighed about 135 pounds. When people began saying the word 'volley' . . . maybe this was the wrong way to attack it. . . . I think perhaps had people looked a little and been patient, I don't think he would have gone from five to 56 and fighting for his life to stay in the ballpark.

"Remember, with Arias and Krickstein I inherited those boys, and they did pretty well. Having $2 million in the bank, that's not too bad."

Bollettieri said he has made some changes in his coaching methodology in response to the U.S. tennis drought. "Sure, we're making adjustments. If you don't, you're crazy. But you don't have to panic," he said.

Mike DePalmer, tennis coach at the University of Tennessee and Bollettieri's original partner in the Bradenton camp, said the camps should not take the brunt of the blame.

Other young players such as Paul Annacone (currently ranked 41st) were rising, DePalmer said, until they became successful. "Paul was making a dramatic move up {No. 12 in March 1986}. Then all of a sudden, all of the things that make up the American dream -- the car, the wife -- start to take his time. . . . I'm not saying the guy shouldn't get married. But did Lendl? Did Becker? Did Connors?"The USTA has not been involved enough in financing development of young players. Most interviewed said they would like the USTA to pay for more coaching at the local level, and develop a regional program so promising young players aren't forced to travel great distances, at great expense, to improve.

"We don't have to build any facilities. There are a lot of facilities available today," Smith said. The USTA could become involved at the regional level by "investigating various sites to see whether it would be appropiate for a regional center," he said. The USTA could also hire the instructors who would teach.

Randy Gregson, former president (1985-86) of the USTA, acknowleged the USTA has placed "too much emphasis on tournaments," and not enough on developing younger players. "When {a player} got to the world-class level, he was a sitting duck for the guy who comes to the net," Gregson said.

Connors told the Denver Post last week he wants to help develop young U.S. players, and so do other pros. "There are a lot of guys out there that I grew up with and they have all been in the top 10 in the world and they would love to get involved and help bring out the talent and work to be a part of that operation," Connors said.

"Other countries take tremendous pride in the players they develop. Here, we seem to take it for granted that our athletes are the best in the world, and don't seem to be too concerned about developing players," said Solomon, a Silver Spring native who won $1.8 milion in a 12-year pro career before joining the Grand Champions (35 and over) tour this year.

Gregson said the USTA's junior program was a good one that simply "ran out of gas" in the past few years.

The USTA has developed a USTA/Schools program in each of the USTA's 17 geographic areas. The program introduces the sport to youth from grades 4 through 8 in physical education classes. Last year, according to Schools Program Assistant Coordinator Maggie Lawliss, more than 2 million youngsters in more than 400 cities took part in the program.

Ashe is looking for a combination of monies from the tennis industry and the USTA, and increased efficiency in existing USTA junior programs to pay for the committee's mandate to make the United States No. 1 again.

"We're looking at ways of revamping our ranking system at earlier ages . . . and changing venues and surfaces of junior tennis tournaments," Ashe said.

The USTA committee also will reemphasize developing public parks talent, something University of Minnesota Coach Jerry Noyce said was at the heart of previous U.S. success.

"Look back in time," Noyce said. "The best players we had 10 years ago -- Ashe, Smith, Lutz -- came out of local programs in their regions. Yet they went on to college and became some of the top players. {Connors} was a guy out of the public parks system in Belleville {Ill.}."

Bollettieri is working in conjunction with Ashe on a new program for training minority coaches. The program will begin Sept. 1 at Bollettieri's academy. Upon completion of their training, coaches will be sent to between 150 and 200 locations nationwide for instruction of both youth and older players.

Nike and Prince sporting goods firms already are committed to supporting the program, and a "major beverage company" is showing great interest in joining, Bollettieri said. The sponsors will pay 60 to 70 percent of the fees.

"The key to the Green Bay Packers and the Boston Celtics has always been the farm team, the reserves," Bollettieri said. "Let's not base our game on the Davis Cup, let's base it on getting people playing again."