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Tennis isn't producing national dynasties

Roger Federer reacts during his men's singles match

Roger Federer reacts during his men's singles match against Ernests Gulbis on day eight of the French Open at Roland Garros on June 1, 2014 in Paris. Credit: Getty Images / Matthew Stockman

MASON, Ohio - A week from the U.S. Open, the relatively forlorn state of American men's tennis is about to become a topic of discussion again. And with that, the shopworn thesis that aspiring athletes most often find motivation from stars in whom they see themselves.

Ergo, U.S. tennis needs Grand Slam champions to inspire future elite players. Success breeds success. A nation's thriving sports tradition fuels itself. Except when it doesn't.

"For me, it wasn't that important,'' said Roger Federer, who has become history's most accomplished major-tournament player without a superstar role model from his native Switzerland. Marc Rosset was a solid pro for 18 years but never was ranked higher than No. 9 and never won a Grand Slam event.

Rosset was "important'' as a mentor, Federer said, a guide to booking practices, picking the right tournaments, scouting some opponents. But Federer's tennis heroes were "from all around the world,'' he said, "and that was cool.

"I knew I would never meet Edberg or Becker unless I ball-boyed them in Basel . So from that standpoint, it was so far-fetched for me.''

Edberg, of course, now is Federer's coach, another indication that tennis is an organization of Athletes Without Borders.

Just as it has become abundantly clear -- after the Jimmy Connors-John McEnroe era was followed by the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi-Jim Courier-Michael Chang generation of Yank dominance -- that the inevitability of a national dynasty isn't guaranteed.

Sampras, by the way, always cited 1960s Australian champ Rod Laver as his example of greatness. And although Laver was just the best in a cavalcade of Aussie Grand Slam winners, that nation -- long a power in the sport -- has had only spotty highlights in recent decades.

Australian Samantha Stosur, the 2011 U.S. Open women's champ who has reached only one major semifinal since, at least feels a distant connection to past Aussie success, "men or women.''

At 30, she is too young to have been influenced by Australian women Evonne Goolagong and Kerry Melville, who were major tournament champions in the 1970s. "Maybe ask people who are older than me,'' Stosur said. But she did recall being "late for school'' while watching from Down Under as countryman Patrick Rafter won the Open in 1997 and '98.

"There wasn't necessarily a female when I was young,'' Stosur said, "but it was good in our country to have someone up there and try to keep inspiring the next generation. You don't want to get left behind when there's other people up there.''

For Czech Petra Kvitova, 24, who won her second Wimbledon title last month, there were clips of 18-time major tournament champion Martina Navratilova, the Czech-born American, shown to Kvitova by her father when she was a child.

"When I was growing up, she was my idol,'' Kvitova said. "She's [also] lefty, of course, and Czech.''

Ultimately, though, tennis has become too international, and too demanding of individual genius for players from any single country to rule for too long. Swedes have not been able to match the Bjorn Borg-Edberg-Mats Wilander days of glory. Spanish success overwhelmingly has been provided by Rafael Nadal.

Andy Murray's 2012 U.S. Open and 2013 Wimbledon titles hardly indicate a British inheritance from Fred Perry's late 1930s championships -- or even Virginia Wade's 1977 Wimbledon victory. If not for the Williams sisters, U.S. women's tennis would have nothing to show since the turn of the century.

The Williamses "influenced everyone,'' said 21-year-old American Sloane Stephens. "They're two of the greatest players ever to play the game of tennis.'' But Stephens' idol when she was growing up was Kim Clijsters, the Belgian champ.

Anyway, Stephens said, "Everyone wants to be like Roger Federer.''

And Federer? "I still have never met Michael Jordan to this day.''

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