The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For American men’s tennis, this is as bad as it has ever been

The French Open begins Sunday at Roland Garros. (Yoan Valat/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)

The French Open will begin Sunday at Roland Garros in Paris, and the draw was announced Thursday. Three American men were among the 32 seeds. Taylor Fritz was No. 30, John Isner was No. 31, and Reilly Opelka was No. 32. If all of the world’s top 32 players were taking part, here’s how many American men would have been seeded: zero.

Fritz is the highest-ranked American man in the world — at No. 33. A new low came earlier this month: For the first time in the 48-year history of the computerized world rankings, no American man was in the top 30.

By contrast, seven of the top 30 women in the world are Americans, led by No. 5 Sofia Kenin. Serena Williams, who has hardly played this year, is No. 8. Ten Americans are in the top 50, and that doesn’t include Sloane Stephens, the 2017 U.S. Open champion, or seven-time major champion Venus Williams. Kenin is also a major champion; she won the Australian Open in 2020. There’s also 17-year-old Coco Gauff, who is ranked 25th and may be the next big American tennis star.

The current crop of American men has won zero major championships. It has played in zero major finals. Only Isner, who is 36, and Sam Querrey, who is 33 and ranked 67th, have reached a major semifinal.

After two knee surgeries, Roger Federer says, ‘I just feel like the story’s not over yet’

Being seeded means a player doesn’t have to face another seed any earlier than the third round. If Fritz can win two matches, he’s likely to play Roger Federer, who has played little this year and might be beatable in a long clay-court match. It’s a long shot but not impossible. Isner and Querrey drew each other in the first round. If the winner prevails in his second-round match, he probably will face fifth-seeded Stefanos Tsitsipas in the round of 32. Opelka would get second-seeded Daniil Medvedev should he get that far. If any of those four Americans reach the round of 16, it will be an accomplishment.

The last time an American man claimed a major title was 2003, when Andy Roddick won the U.S. Open. Roddick is also the last American man to reach a major final; he lost a classic five-set match to Federer at Wimbledon in 2009.

It is still almost impossible to comprehend the notion of American men being irrelevant during the second week at a major, but it has been a fact for 11 years and counting. This is the country that produced Arthur Ashe, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Vitas Gerulaitis, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang. All were major champions — and all but Gerulaitis and Chang were multiple major champions, led by Sampras, who won 14.

How is this possible?

“I wish that was an easy question to answer,” said Patrick McEnroe, younger brother of John and the captain of the last American Davis Cup team to win the premier team event in men’s tennis — in 2007. “We’ve had guys who are good tennis players, even very good tennis players. But we haven’t had guys who are great athletes. The guys who win majors are very good tennis players and great athletes. You have to be both — especially now when so many great athletes in Europe have become tennis players.”

The men who have dominated this century are Switzerland’s Federer (20 major titles), Spain’s Rafael Nadal (also 20) and Serbia’s Novak Djokovic (18). Stan Wawrinka, also Swiss, has won three majors. So has Great Britain’s Andy Murray. That list doesn’t include young Europeans such as 2020 U.S. Open champion Dominic Thiem of Austria, Alexander Zverev of Germany, Medvedev of Russia or Tsitsipas of Greece.

McEnroe was general manager of the USTA’s player development program for six years, and it was never difficult to find up-and-coming female players — Gauff is just the latest example. In 2017, all four semifinalists in women’s singles at the U.S. Open were Americans.

“A lot of it, honestly, has to do with money,” he said. “Great athletes from here often want to play basketball, football or even baseball. Women athletes don’t make nearly as much in team sports, but they can make a lot in tennis — even more than in golf, the other major individual sport. The more youngsters who want to play the game — and I mean really want to play it — the better off you’re going to be.”

Naomi Osaka, citing mental health concerns, says she won’t do press at French Open

While McEnroe doesn’t believe someone who comes from a comfortable financial background can’t become a star — he and his brother were the sons of a New York lawyer — he thinks the sport needs to find and recruit more players who would need financial help to compete.

“When I was running the USTA junior programs, I called one of the coaches working for me who was at a junior tournament and asked him what he was seeing,” he said. “His answer was direct: a lot of Rolex watches in the stands. His point was, we need more kids whose parents don’t own Rolexes.”

Mary Carillo, the distinguished longtime tennis commentator (and 1977 French Open mixed doubles champion with John McEnroe as her partner), answered with one word when asked to explain why American men have had so much trouble competing for the past decade-plus.

“Oy,” she said.

After a pause and a sigh, she continued: “This isn’t just a passing thing. Europeans dominating has been going on for a hell of a long time now. A lot of it goes back to the fact that the Europeans learn to play on clay most of the time. Clay is like the classroom for a young tennis player. You have to learn that a big serve isn’t enough. When you play on clay, the ball’s coming back at you no matter how hard you serve. The rallies are going to be long. The matches are going to be long. Agassi, [Jim] Courier, Chang all knew how to win on clay.

“It’s a lot easier to learn to play on a faster court [such as hard courts or grass] than it is to learn how to play on a slower court. American women have always been able to play a more varied game. Even Serena and Martina [Navratilova], who were more comfortable on faster courts, have been able to win the French.”

A couple of years ago, Frances Tiafoe, who grew up in Prince George’s County, was the Great American Hope. At 21, he reached the 2019 Australian Open quarterfinals and was ranked as high as 29th. He has slid to 73rd. The current Great American Hope is 20-year-old Sebastian Korda, son of Petr Korda, the 1996 Australian Open champion from the Czech Republic who was ranked as high as No. 2. If Sebastian Korda, ranked 63rd, wins his opening match in Paris, he probably would play Tsitsipas, who is two years older and ranked 58 spots higher.

Korda’s older sisters, Nelly and Jessica, are fourth and 12th in the women’s golf rankings. He is 6-foot-5 and — according to Patrick McEnroe — athletic enough to compete with the world’s best players eventually.

“He has a chance,” McEnroe said. “I haven’t said that about a lot of guys the last few years, but I think he’s got the physical ability to be a great player. The question will be — as with anyone — how does he handle it when he starts to compete against the very top guys? There are just so many good players right now, it isn’t going to be easy.”

The McEnroe brothers run a tennis academy on Randall’s Island in New York. They try to encourage minority kids to learn the game, and both believe the sport needs more minority representation — especially on the men’s side. As John McEnroe once said, “I worry that the greatest player in history may never pick up a racket because he won’t have the opportunity to play the sport.”

Right now, the McEnroes — like everyone else involved in U.S. tennis — would like to see an American man show something approaching greatness.

Until then, as Carillo so eloquently put it, “Oy.”

Read more from The Post:

Phil Mickelson, a champion of comebacks and transformations, now has his greatest triumph

Fans and athletes are together again, but the honeymoon’s already over

Golf thrives on the ocean’s edge. What happens when the oceans rise?

How do Americans feel about the anthem at sporting events? It depends which Americans you ask.