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Houston, We Have A Problem: The State of American Men’s Tennis

Preamble

Mardy Fish retiring from the US Open got me thinking about the state of American men’s tennis. Here is a current list of the American men in the top 100, with their age in parentheses:

#14 John Isner (28)

#29 Sam Querrey (25)

#87 Jack Sock (20)

#92 Michael Russell (35)

#97 Ryan Harrison (21)

#100 James Blake (33)

From looking at that list, the near future of men’s tennis looks bleak. Blake and Russell have seen their best days. Isner is probably as good as he’s going to get. Querrey is an interesting case because five years ago he looked quite promising, finishing 2008 (age 21) at #39, but he was injured and has stagnated since, seemingly establishing himself as a #20-30 type player.

If Jack Sock and Ryan Harrison are the hope of American men’s tennis then, quite frankly, “Houston, we have a problem.” There are a few other players outside of the top 100 that have some promise, but none stand out as the next great American tennis player.

The focus of this blog is on statistics and historical trends, so I won’t speculate too much as to the why of this, but by looking at historical trends we can begin to get a sense of whether the current lack of top American talent is part of a cycle, or whether it’s something new and potentially lasting.

One speculative idea I do want to put forth is the question of how popular tennis is in the United States compared to prior decades, and whether or not this relates to how good the top American players are. Without having any proof other than anecdotal (which obviously doesn’t constitute proof), it is my sense that tennis is less popular today in the United States than it was during the hey-day of American tennis in the early 90s when you had Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, and Jim Courier dominating the game. But not only is this just a guess, but correlation does not equal causation, and if there is causation it may be two-way – in other words, it could be that the game is less popular in the United States partially because there are no elite American players, and there are no elite American players partially because the game isn’t as popular as it once was.

Let us return to the historical trends. The question I want to answer is this: How dominant have American players been in men’s tennis over the years, and how does 2013 compare to prior years? To do this I looked at the year-end rankings for the entirety of ATP history, from 1973 to 2013, with a focus on American players. What I found was quite astonishing to me. What follows is a chart that depicts the way American rankings have changed over the last four decades, with some explanation and discussion.

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A Few Notes on Tennis Statistics

The ATP website has a strange lack of rankings from 1980-82; I’m not sure exactly why it is. I can’t find any other source on the internet that has year-end rankings, so while I could find the top 10 rankings, the rest of the rankings will be empty for those years. But it doesn’t make that much of a difference for this study as the years just before and after that span were very similar.

Secondly, due to the lack of a good database for tennis statistics (although Tennis Abstract looks promising), I reserve the right to make errors! Hopefully they’ll be small, but chances are there will be one or two, hopefully small, errors along the way, but it wouldn’t change the overall weight of the statistics.

A briefer note on Ivan Lendl: Lendl became an American citizen on July 7 of 1992. Some records denote American status for earlier years because he lived in the United from 1981 on, for the sake of this study I’m considering him as a Czech for his entire career up to but not including 1992. I feel that it’s both kinder to the Czech Republic (then Czechoslovakia) to do so, but also considering that he was born and raised in the former Czechoslovakia, it’s more accurate to consider him as a Czech for the sake of this study.

 

American Rankings in ATP History

So let’s look at the rankings. The following chart depicts the number of American men in the year-end ATP top 100, 50, 20 and 10 over 41 years of ATP history (In the case of 1980-82, I just continued from 1979 for 80-81, and made 1982 the same as 1983).

20130821110703

(Please click on it to see a larger, more clear view)

When I put together this chart I was stunned by the results. I was expecting a drop off in recent years, but not to this extent. What I found particularly interesting is that the drop-off didn’t begin recently but actually back in the mid ‘80s and speeding up in the ‘90s.

I was also intrigued to find a rise in the mid-70s. Unfortunately we don’t have rankings before 1973, but if you think of the great names of the 1960s and before, few of them were American. Americans rose to prominence with Arthur Ashe and Stan Smith in the late 1960s and early ‘70s, but it was Jimmy Connors who became the first truly dominant American men’s tennis player, at least in the Open Era, and since the earlier greats of the 1940s and ‘50s: Tony Trabert, Jack Kramer, and Pancho Gonzales, and before them Don Budge, Bobby Riggs, Ellsworth Vines, and Bill Tilden. The Australians dominated men’s tennis in the 1960s, with names such as Ken Rosewall, Lew Hoad, Rod Laver, Roy Emerson, and John Newcombe.

Jimmy Connors changed that, ushering a new era of American tennis (with the help of Smith and Ashe). The baton (or racket, if you will) of men’s tennis was passed from Connors to John McEnroe, and then for a brief time to Jim Courier, then to Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. And then from Andre and Pete to…Andy Roddick? James Blake? Robby Ginepri?

The decline in the number of American men in the top 100 has been relatively minor since 1995, but what has changed is the presence of a truly great American men’s player. Pete Sampras started declining in 1999 and then retired in 2002, and when Agassi retired a few years later we lost the last truly great American player. Roddick and James Blake carried the baton as best they could, but although Roddick finished 2002 as the #1 player, his reign was short-lived as he was surpassed by superior players Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, and become one of the “best of the rest” in the field of the Aughties.

Andy Roddick is the last American man to have won a Slam, and also to have been #1. What may even more disturbing is that the only active American man to have been in the top 5 is James Blake, who is 33 years old and ranked #100 in the world. A couple years ago Mardy Fish – of the same generation as Roddick and a couple years younger than Blake – seemed to be a late bloomer, ranking as high as #7 in August of 2011, but a heart condition in the following year limited his play and he seems close to retirement.

With his big serve, John Isner remains a dark-horse candidate at many tournaments and has reached as high as #9 in the rankings in April of 2012. But at age 28 he is unlikely to improve.

 

Final Thoughts

American men’s tennis is in dire straits and there is no clear end in sight. American men’s tennis rose in the mid-70s, peaked in the late 70s to early 80s, but then began a long decline in the late ‘80s, with a startling drop in the mid-90s and continued slow decline since. We can hope that, like the Once and Future King (which is, ironically enough, of the British cultural mythos), a new great young player will rise up. But who he is, or will be, remains to be seen. The highest ranked American teenager is Christian Harrison, younger brother to Ryan, who is currently #389. The highest ranked American junior is #16, Macedonia-born Stefan Kozlov, who made it to the quarterfinals of the 2013 Boys’ Wimbledon at the tender age of 15.

Certainly, we are amidst a long winter in American men’s tennis.

Credits: Cover Photo: Mike McCune, (Creative Commons License)

Comment below, or you can also discuss in detail with fellow tennis fans on the Tennis Frontier Message Board Forum

 

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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