What’s Happened To US and Australian Men’s Tennis?

By Cheryl Jones and Mark Winters

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Next to no one living has ever heard of “Gold Diggers of 1933”. It was a Warner Bros. film. But, some people may remember “We’re in the Money”, the bouncy, pick up your spirits song that was used in the opening sequence of the movie.

Today, tennis fans are in the money because there are so many thought provoking stories to peruse in magazines and online.

“On The Decline Of American (And Australian) Men’s Tennis” is a case in point. It was written by Roberto Ferri and translated to English by Tommaso Villa. It appeared on the Ubitennis website on October 26th.

We found the feature captivating. Particularly since, historically, the men’s game in the US and Australia has been, until recent times, unparalleled. Other countries cannot match the success the two have enjoyed for ages.

Sampras and Agassi Wimbledon 1999
US great Pete Sampras defeats Andre Agassi at Wimbledon in 1999, to win his sixth title and surpass Björn Borg’s open era record of five. Photo: PA Images

Over the years, we have chatted about the topic. Drawing on our playing backgrounds, in part. Cheryl was a standout junior competitor and I was an “almost good, bad professional player”. Having a bit of an advantage over my wife (Cheryl), first as a pro, and then later serving as a Boys’ National Team Coach, we both have credibility to accompany our opinions.

That basis has served both of us well as veteran tennis journalists who have covered tournaments around the world for ages. To have a little balance to our assessments, we asked a long-time Australian friend, who has a playing background but more important, has been involved in the game for decades. He understands the Tennis Australia system thoroughly and has provided some insights that we will mention in this piece.

Beginning with the obvious, the reasons for the decline of US and Australian men’s tennis fortunes are tremendously complex. There are no “set” answers concerning what brought about the collapses.
Realizing that a topic of this sort can be analyzed from a variety of perspectives, we will discuss a number the possible “causes” in general.

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The USA Davis Cup Team of Captain Patrick McEnroe, Mike Bryan, Bob Bryan, James Blake and Andy Roddick in 2007. The 4-1 victory over Russia in the final was the USA’s most recent Davis Cup championship. Photo: Fred Mullane

The national tennis federations in the US and Australia have not done a stellar job for their constituents. They have regularly changed course with regard to plans, along with the direction that should be taken. Confusion results because the messaging becomes mixed – more like a GPS offering “rerouting” or “make a U-turn”. Internal political games and conflicting egos add to the situation’s befuddlement.

While this is a conundrum seen in many sports organizations, in tennis it is worse because those in leadership roles, for the most part, share one commonality – They were players at some level.

While there is some credence to the “big names” draw attention theory, it is important to remember that because an individual reached elite status on the court doesn’t guarantee that a former player has the wide-ranging vision that is necessary (essential is probably a better word) to establish meaningful, building block, step by step programs.

Moving to an executive role may be difficult for an individual who has lived with a linear focus that served him/her so well as a competitor. For many years, the future was…the next match, the next tournament and little beyond.

US player Andre Agassi retired after the US Open in 2006. He was an eight times Slam winner and achieved a Career Grand Slam. Photo: PCN Black

In “A Good Judge of Character” International Tennis Hall of Fame member Steve Flink summarized the situation. In the April 22, 1993 issue of Tennis Week Magazine, the author quoted the Honorable Robert Kelleher, a former USTA President who earned a spot in the Hall of Fame for his leadership.

Kelleher, along with Herman David and Derek Hardwick, brought about Open Tennis in 1968. He offered, “If you go back and look at the Presidents of the USTA over the last 25 years or so, you will find that there is not one of them who can point to any achievement of importance outside of tennis.

“It has been true for many, many years that you can’t get to be President of the USTA if you have a track record anywhere else. I have used the harsh expression that the USTA has been dominated by shoe clerks. A number of these people are my friends, and I don’t mean to wound them.

“To some degree there have been exceptions over the years in terms of competence within the USTA. Some have been pretty good, others not good at all, and others terrible. I don’t want to single anybody out. But I will say that the trend has been downhill, and threatens to continue to be.” (That was nearly thirty years ago.)

There are very few universals in tennis, but one that does hold is – Federations, help, but “do not a player make…” Simply put, they should be the tennis community’s network hub, develop “game building” travel opportunities and most important, offer financial support.

Alex Brisbane DC
Australia’s top male player, Alex De Minaur playing Davis Cup in 2018. De Minaur’s highest ranking of 18 came in October of last year and he has since battled injury. Some commentators have compared his playing style to that of his mentor, Lleyton Hewitt. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

But, it is critical to remember these organizations have yet to take a youngster from the beginning stages of his/her career to the top of the world ranking. This is why local coaches, who are responsible teachers and thoughtful communicators, are critical.

Further, just because a former player had an impressive career doesn’t mean that he/she understands the game’s essence or has the necessary ability to convey the nuances needed to teach the game effectively. Our Australian friend pointed out, “It is also amazing how gullible people can be. Coaches get a hold of a viable prospect, and many years pass, until it’s too late.”

It is like a seesaw, actually a metronome, always ticking away. Some coaches receive kudos and over time may develop a cult-like following. In the US, many of these “gurus” are based in Florida, California and Texas.

Other coaches, who should be highly acclaimed, are not mentioned because they have not been dynamic self-promoters. As a result, they receive little recognition, but they regularly perform better at maximizing a youngster’s talent. As the saying goes, “BS sells…”

Our friend added, “Australia is behind the ‘eight ball’ in the global game because of distance…” There is also the fact, “…Europeans are less prone to thinking of themselves as troops of a national sporting campaign, though an exception is France.

Their countries’ players see themselves as competitors, not tomorrow’s “our world number one”’ as Ash Barty kept being referred to during all of last year. That is, until she didn’t make our (Australian Open) final as everyone had hoped.”

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Australia’s top player, Ash Barty practicing at the Australian Open this year. Photo: Vanessa Taylor

Finding “game building” competition, without having to travel half way around the world, is not a major problem for US players, but the result of “being acclaimed” is a shared contagion. Far too often as soon as youngsters evidence almost any repeated success they are baptized “The Next”. That “blessing”, results in regular microscopic examination – “Is he/she really…” – analysis.

Those caught in this dance do their utmost to follow the rhythm but the music regularly changes and the dance moves are soon reminiscent of a minuet or maybe even a turkey trot, depending on anyone’s point of view from the inside or the outside. It’s confusing all the way around.

More and more, there is an added “problem”. The coach of a new age “phenomenon” most likely is a parent. Often, the script is the same. Having had marginal success or none at all in a competitive sport, in their own younger days, they resolutely pursue having “a new career” as a coach.

The trouble is, they are handicapped by the old bugaboo, “they think they know” tennis and have gained the expertise they believe they need. For the most part, they have learned the game as a “father” or “mother” observing their son/daughter.

Often they are open to discussing the issues involved, but parenting a child doesn’t guarantee that the individual is really aware of the emotional balancing act that has always been an intricate part of being a coach/dad or coach/mom.

Australia’s Bernard Tomic has been coached through most of his career by his father John. He reached a top ranking of 17 in January 2017 and is currently ranked 224. Photo: Juergen Hasenkopf

Anyone who has attempted to play or watched good players knows that tennis is a difficult sport to master.

Not only must a player have athletic ability, but the skill must be supported emotionally by someone (often the family) or something (a club) and bolstered by the development of realistic self-confidence, along with either boldness or stubbornness (or both).

Perhaps even more important is having the ability to deal with defeat and still make progress. Because of these and other requirements, tennis in the US and Australia doesn’t always attract extraordinary athletes.

The game, and we are speaking broadly, appeals more to “mechanics” than it does “creative architects”. (Yes, we know that Federer, Nadal and Djokovic are “creators” but someone like Schwartzman is, and this is not meant to be demeaning, a very good “mechanic”.)

The game has evolved dramatically since the inception of Open Tennis. Equipment and training techniques have made advances. Playing surfaces, though, have succumbed to a new and consistent malady – “Slow”.

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Roger Federer at the French Open on his least liked surface of clay.
Photo: Dana Anders

In the 2000s, Cheryl chatted with Federer and he brought up his concern about the Grand Slams court speeds becoming the same. Of course, each of the majors, stanchly supported by the International Tennis Federation, will deny the accusation that, in effect, “Nadal favored Court Speed” has been institutionalized at every venue.

Supposedly, the surface universality is physically easier on the players’ bodies, and makes match watching more enjoyable. As a result, building Tour de France stamina is now a major component of fitness training.

More disconcerting is the fact that the serve and volley playing approach, which was almost a religion practiced by the US and Australian players since time began, has for the most part, been assigned to a display case at the National Tennis History Museum.

Pat Rafter, Australia’s last great serve and volleyer. Photo: Rebecca Naden

Unfortunately, working with “social media attention spans”, which are notoriously short, federation efforts to call attention to new players are regularly nothing more than quick mention “blips”.

Whether it’s someone like US’s Brandon Nakashima or Australia’s Rinky Hijikata, their positions as “up and comers”, as well as others in the “keep your eye on” groups, these individuals have not been promoted with TikTok cleverness.

Our Australian friend pointed out, “The European tennis ‘boom’ coincided with the lifting of the Iron Curtain that created a greater freedom for a true competitive mix…” Tennis had been viewed as a bourgeoisie activity that now was open to the “struggling masses”.

Cheryl has interviewed and written about Jennifer Capriati numerous times. One of Capriati’s most telling comments was about needing to have “fire in her belly to succeed…” With many players this has taken a vacation.

Oh, they talk about commitment, about how hard they work, but in actuality, it is just talk. They simply don’t “burn with desire” because there is really no need or inspiration to become a forest fire. A few “ember” wins now and then is enough to maintain, “tennis player” status, or so they think.

Not to go overboard philosophically, tennis doesn’t consume their souls. They play it, enjoy it and are rewarded in many ways by their results. But, beyond quantifying wins and losses, it is rare for a player to express true “I can touch it, taste it” feelings about the game.

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US Doubles greats The Bryan Brothers retired in August this year having won a total of 29 Slams together or with other partners.
Photo: Peter Staples

This was a peek at an array of issues that impact the game. They are our opinions and readers may have other thoughts. We hope we have offered an interesting look at the demise of men’s tennis in the US and Australia.

One thing we would like to make clear is the state of men’s tennis in both countries is not the result of what many have espoused – “Tennis talent is cyclical”. So is the weather.

There is much more to the issue…

Title photo by Juergen Hasenkopf.

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