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American Men’s Tennis and the Cycle of Ages

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Consider the following as an addendum, or second part, to the previous blog in which I looked at the decline of American men’s tennis. In this entry we’ll look at the big historical trajectory of men’s tennis, and from a slightly different perspective: that of mythology.

Various mythologies throughout the world – such as Greek, Indian, and Mesoamerican – hold that the world passes through great ages of time. While there are differences between these myths, they are also remarkably similar in that all start with some kind of paradisiacal “Golden Age” from which there is a “fall” and further decline into successively lesser ages. The Golden becomes the Silver, then the Bronze, and finally the Iron or Dark Age. Some of these mythologies hold that this process is cyclical, so that the Dark Age will eventually transition into a new cycle, even a new Golden Age.

It struck me how American men’s tennis has gone through its own cycle of ages over the last four decades (and perhaps before).

The Golden Age (1974-1984) had its beginnings in the early 70s with the elder statesmen Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith, but did not truly arrive until the peak of Jimmy Connors, the first truly dominant American male player since Pancho Gonzales. American men dominated the rankings from the mid-70s into the mid-80s. Perhaps the most dominant year was 1979 when the #2-5 players were all American (Sweden’s Bjorn Borg was #1), and seven of the top 10 were American. From 1974 to 1984, an American held the #1 ranking for all but two years, in 1979-80 when the great Swede was at the top of the game.

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There was a slight lull as the ages shifted when the two greatest players of the Golden Age, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, were in decline, and before the next generation of American greats arose. 1985-1988 saw no American man win a Grand Slam event, the first time since 1973 that at least one American man hadn’t won a Slam. While Connors and McEnroe were both in the top 5 in 1985, Connors was the highest ranked American in 1986 at #8, and no American male finished the year in the top 2 until Jim Courier in 1991.

The Silver Age (1989-1999) began when 17-year old Michael Chang won his first and only Grand Slam event in 1989 at the French Open. American men began another streak of years with Grand Slam winners. Chang was joined by Sampras in 1990, Courier in 1991, Courier and Agassi in 1992, and then the reign of Pete Sampras from 1993 and beyond. While American men’s tennis was still strong in the late 80s–at least relative to the current era–it returned to dominance in the early 90s. It was not the Golden Age of the late 70s and early 80s in that while Sampras and Agassi reigned, the field was not as deep. Thus the 90s were truly a Silver Age, with two Americans – Sampras and Agassi – the most dominant players of the decade.

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I mark the end of the Silver Age as 1999, when Andre Agassi was #1 and Sampras had dropped to #3. Agassi remained a dominant player for a few more years but Sampras faded quickly.

The Bronze Age was, in some ways, a transitional era, and thus difficult to demarcate. But I’d offer that it began right after the end of the Silver Age, in 2000, which was the first year since 1991 that an American didn’t hold the #1 ranking. Sampras remained a strong player for a few years but was in obvious decline. Andre Agassi still played at a high level, even reaching #1 at the venerable age of 33 in 2003, the year that young Andy Roddick finished #1 and the last time an American held the #1 ranking. Americans hoped to see Roddick take the mantle from Agassi and Sampras, but it wasn’t to be – partially because his game was simply too one-dimensional to be a truly elite player, but also because of the rise of a Swiss player by the name of Roger Federer, who took the #1 ranking from Roddick in early 2004. Roddick went from being the top player for a short period of time at the end of 2003, to one of a few near-elites vying for the scraps left behind by Federer and, shortly after, Rafael Nadal.

The Bronze Age was a short period, fading in the mid-Aughties, suitably without a distinct ending. Perhaps it ended when it became clear that no active American male would win a Grand Slam or be #1. This could be 2006 when Roddick dropped out of the top 5, or it could be 2011 when he dropped out of the top 10 – or 2012 when he retired.  No one stepped up to carry the mantle of American spokesman. I’m considering 2005 as the last year of the Bronze Age, for it was the final full season of the last truly great American tennis player, Andre Agassi, who finished the year at #7. Andre played a few tournaments in 2006 but didn’t win any and finished the year #150.

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We are currently in the Dark Age of American men’s tennis, with no player in the top 10, and no elite player on the horizon. While the present and foreseeable future of American men’s tennis looks bleak, we must remember that the wheel turns and a new Golden Age may come around again. 1961 saw the last Slam win by Pancho Gonzales, the greatest American men’s tennis player of the couple decades before the Open Era, and probably the greatest overall player of the 1950s. In a way we could say that Gonzales was to the pre-Open Era what Sampras was to the Open Era – the leading player of a Silver Age. Early in his career and before him saw other American greats such as Jack Trabert, Pancho Segura, Jack Kramer, and Bobby Riggs, and some years before them you have Ellsworth Vines and Don Budge, and before them the great Bill Tilden.

The point being, American tennis did not begin with Jimmy Connors, but it was with Connors that it returned to dominance. The late 1950s to early 1970s was dominated by Australian greats Rod Laver, Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Roy Emerson, and John Newcombe. When Arthur Ashe won the 1968 US Open he was the first American to win a Slam, amateur or pro, since Chuck McKinley won Wimbledon in 1963. So the mid-60s were a dark period for the Americans, and only slowly did that Dark Age transition into the new Golden Age. In other words, we could see a transitional, or “Dawn Age” from 1968 through 1973, when Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith were among the best in the game, but not dominant on the level of Gonzales in the 1950s or Connors in the 1970s.

So Americans can hope that this current Dark Age will transition into a Dawn Age. If history repeats itself, as it often does, then the first signs of transition will be the appearance of lesser luminaries akin to Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith – not truly dominant players, but winners, or at least serious contenders, of Grand Slams. So we will watch and wait for a 21st century Arthur Ashe to usher the way towards that next Golden Age of American men’s tennis. But we might have some time to go. And given the more international nature of the game and world, it seems likely that the next Golden Age of American men’s tennis will not be as dominant, not shine as brightly as even in the early 90s. Some relativity is involved and we must think modestly; the next Golden Age might not see the United States returning to dominance, just re-joining the elite of the game.

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About Jonathan Northrop

Jonathan Northrop is the resident in-house analyst of numbers, trends and how they can be applied with an eye on tennis history. You can contact Jonathan via: eldude@tennisfrontier.com
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