Time to turn around the question that is being asked too often as the U.S. Open commences its annual two-week run. Instead of, "what's wrong with American tennis?" what about, "does nationality really mean anything in tennis anymore?"
Other parts of the world have courts and rackets and balls and Gatorade, too. As well as boys and girls who are athletic, goal oriented and well trained.
While American sports fans, terribly spoiled and notably provincial, obsess about a lack of male dominance, with Andy Roddick barely clinging to a top 10 ranking at No. 9 - and the absence of any U.S. woman not named Williams in the top 40 - the reality of tennis globalization is there for all to witness.
There are 205 members of the International Tennis Federation, 13 more countries than belong to the United Nations. Not only are 14 nations represented among both the 25 top-ranked men and women, but the players also essentially operate - and live - without borders. Tournaments on the pro tour are spread from Qatar to Uzbekistan to Thailand. And if national affiliation were based on players' place of residence - as opposed to native land - Monaco would be seen as a worldbeater: Five of the top 20 men, and three of the top 20 women, live in Monte Carlo, none of them originally from that principality.
If the United States, in fact, wished to boost its current status in the sport, it might claim Florida-based former No. 1 Maria Sharapova of Russia and rising (No. 11) Victoria Azarenka of Belarus, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz. Furthermore, among the foreign-born stars who relocated, as mere children, at Nick Bollettieri's Florida tennis academy to polish their games were such familiar names as Sharapova, Serbia's Jelena Jankovic, Germany's Tommy Haas, Yugoslavia's Monica Seles, Greece's Mark Philippoussis, Russia's Anna Kournikova and Switzerland's Martina Hingis.
Meanwhile, much is being made of the long wait for the next Pete Sampras or Andre Agassi, who came to prominence rather quickly after dire predictions that, with the retirement of John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, American tennis was dying. Though Serena and Venus Williams, whose 20 major titles between them would seem sufficient to establish the ongoing presence of American tennis might, the seven-year drought in Grand Slam tournaments for U.S. men "is a concern," McEnroe said, "because it hurts the overall amount of coverage our sport gets when we don't have a guy threatening or winning majors."
Jamie Reynolds, ESPN's vice president of event production, presented more of a 21st Century view when he argued that "a great sports story is still a great sports story, regardless of nationality. We recognize that this is a global game and about competition, and we work on then developing the personalities behind that."
Truly international stars - Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Kim Clijsters, etc. - long have been fluent in English and highly sought for commercial endorsements, and often are more appealing to American audiences than some of the Yanks. So that the issue, in such an individual endeavor, becomes more a matter of U.S. tennis officials finding the next No. 1 than building him.
"I'm not convinced that a country or a system can produce a champion," said Patrick McEnroe, whose various jobs in the sport include serving as the U.S. Tennis Association's director of player development. "But I do think, with a better system, you can produce better players. Clearly, getting more talented athletes the opportunity to play is the biggest challenge for us. You can coach a kid and train a kid all you want, but if they don't have the desire or physical skills, it'll be hard for them to make it to the top.
"But you can create a more cohesive system, with more cohesive coaching, so that a great champion will have a better chance to come through."
John McEnroe, who has started his own tennis academy on Randalls Island as part of the effort to fill the tennis pipeline, noted that, "For our sport, there are a lot of other options out there in America. There are things on TV now that weren't even considered sports when we were kids. We have to invest money in even getting kids on the court. And we've got to get kids out there not just for recreational play, but where they're trying to make it on a professional level. That's where we're lagging behind other guys.
"There are certain places, like Bollettieri's academy or the ones in Spain, that provide opportunities for kids that are hungrier and come from difficult circumstances. But we have to figure a way to tap into a player's psyche who hasn't been through that type of ordeal, too. Like a Federer or Nadal, who grew up in perfect circumstances" but still were driven to play at the highest level.
The model transcends predictability. And borders.
Monday, Aug. 30-Sunday, Sept. 12
Defending men’s champion
Juan Martin del Potro (Argentina)
*Del Potro withdrew from the U.S. Open due to a right wrist injury that required surgery in May.
Defending women’s champion
Kim Clijsters (Belgium)
*Clijsters is the No. 2-seed in the women’s field.
This year’s top seeds
Rafael Nadal (Spain)
Caroline Wozniacki (Denmark)
The 2010 U.S. Open purse will top $22.6 million. The men’s and women’s singles champions will earn a record $1.7 million. An additional $1 million in bonus prizeis money is available based on performances in the Olympus U.S. Open series.
About opening night
Monday’s ceremony will celebrate those who Dream, Succeed and Inspire. The ceremony will feature tributes to tennis great Martina Navratilova, current player James Blake, wheelchair tennis star Esther Vergeer and USTA member Dori Samadzai-Bonner, who has embraced tennis since coming to the U.S. from her native Afghanistan.