WIMBLEDON, England — For a glorious stretch from 1981 to 2000, American men won 12 Wimbledon titles, with John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras taking turns hoisting the coveted trophy.
This year’s fleet of 11 U.S. men managed something their predecessors hadn’t in more than a century. For the first time since 1912, when no American men entered the tournament, not one advanced past the second round.
American women fared better. But their campaign ended Tuesday, with 20-year-old Sloane Stephens, who exceeded expectations in reaching the quarterfinals, falling in straight sets to veteran Marion Bartoli of France.
The dismal showing by U.S. men has raised anew the confounding question of why a nation of 314 million can’t produce a consistent or even occasional male Grand Slam champion. And it has reopened the debate over the best way to cultivate world-class contenders — particularly on the men’s side.
One school of thought is to increase the total pool of youngsters playing tennis and hope that a few gems emerge. The other is to take a more strategic approach, identifying the country’s best young athletes and focusing on developing them as successors to Sampras, Agassi and Andy Roddick, the last American man to win a major title and hold the No. 1 ranking, an achievement that’s now a decade old.
Hall of Famer John McEnroe, who won seven Grand Slam titles, believes it’s essential to focus on exceptional young athletes.
“[American] girls are much more likely to play tennis than boys,” said McEnroe, 54. “The greatest American athletes play football or basketball. [Tennis] is lower down on the totem pole.”
Imagine how popular tennis might be in the United States if a young Robert Griffin III, LeBron James and Bryce Harper had fallen in love with tennis rather than football, basketball or baseball? How many Grand Slam titles might they have won? How many American boys might be slugging away on neighborhood tennis courts with dreams of taking on RGIII at Wimbledon or King James at the U.S. Open?
But indulging in a pipedream isn’t going to produce American’s next male Grand Slam champion. Nor is fixating on promising athletes alone, argues Patrick McEnroe, who’s in charge of player development for the U.S. Tennis Association.
“I know exactly what John is saying: We need to get athletic kids playing tennis. That’s obvious,” Patrick McEnroe says. “But for the overall health of tennis, we want more kids playing. The more kids that are playing, the more kids will start playing competitively.”
Ray Benton, CEO of the Junior Tennis Champions Center in College Park, agrees.
“We have to dramatically increase the number of people playing tennis in this country, and we have to hope that some of them are not only great athletes, but also are highly motivated and willing to go through the hard work it takes,” Benton says. “We need both quantity and quality.”
A sharp-eyed tennis pro can spot exceptional hand-eye coordination and quick feet in children as young as 6 or 7. Those are some of the qualities coaches look for in youngsters who show up for tennis clinics and festivals that the USTA and JTCC stage in public parks and community centers, rather than relying on country clubs to churn out top prospects.
That’s how Arlington’s Denis Kudla, 20, among four American men to qualify for Wimbledon this year, came to train at the JTCC years ago.
But even if that child blossoms into a strapping athlete and masters the essential tennis strokes, that’s not enough to ensure success in the hard-hitting ranks of men’s tennis today.
A few decades ago, Michael Chang, Mats Wilander and Boris Becker won their first Grand Slam titles at age 17. But there are no teenagers among the top 100 in men’s tennis today. That’s because the level of power and physicality is far higher than it was then. And reaching the top 10 requires a year-round commitment to grueling training and extraordinary mental toughness.
Many feel that’s where the current crop of American men fall short.
Connors was recently quoted as calling today’s U.S. men’s tennis players “lazy.” Martina Navratilova told the BBC they lack the “hunger” to become champions.
Benton believes that’s a real issue that separates champions from also-rans.
“All players want to win; the great players have to win,” Benton says. “To them, going out there and hitting 20 strokes every single point may be painful, but it’s not as painful as losing.”
Patrick McEnroe concedes there may be some truth in the claim that young Americans aren’t willing to sacrifice as much as their counterparts around the world. But to stop there isn’t enough, he adds.
“Blaming our players is not the answer,” he said. “We need to educate them at a younger age about what it takes, so they learn the right things to do early.”