American Entropy

Where are the great American men's tennis players? In the increasingly distant past, mostly.
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On a Sunday night in September the weight was on the shoulders of Tim Smyczek, a 25-year-old Milwaukee native scratching through a grueling five-set match in the third round of the U.S. Open. He’d been a presence on the senior tour for the past two years, struggling through wild card opportunities and dense Challenger draws toward what were mostly the briefest of Grand Slam appearances. He’d never made a run this far before, and another chance at a similar run might never come.

So, in a sense, Smyczek was facing the possible zenith of his career there in the blue-green confines of Flushing Meadows, not-that-early in the Open and with a crowd of thousands behind him. He was the last hope of American men’s tennis, for at least one night. Tomorrow, it’d be someone else.

The story of how Smyczek, a player known as much for his fiscal conservatism as his forehand, became the last American in the men’s draw is one told in reverent if frankly depressed tones, in words that indicate no course of correction and place an ominous importance on the past. There was Sampras, there was Agassi, there was Roddick, and then there was chaos.

American men’s tennis, once led by the greatest players in the world, shifted to something else – something less impressive, surely, but also something with no clear identity. Tennis is a sport of individuality, of singular players fighting and winning (or losing) both mentally and physically. In recent years, American men’s tennis has lacked players up to that steep challenge, and so has lacked a defining symbol.

When Andy Roddick retired, following a fourth-round defeat to Juan Martin del Potro at the Open in 2012, there was a quietness to the affair. Roddick presided over a time of decline in American tennis, but he did so with admirable, cheeky resolve. No words sum up his career quite as succinctly as the 2009 Wimbledon final did. Roddick rose and fired and fell again, struggling bravely before the graceful might of Roger Federer, only to eventually be knocked deep into the earth once more by that cruel, clockwork Swiss giant.  

It was the best match Roddick ever played, one that defined his career, and it was a loss. To watch and to love Andy Roddick was to enjoy determined failure and the pursuit of holy artifacts long forgotten. When his career ended, it was a loss not just in terms of the sport’s personality, but for the part of us that believes our single most unlikely dream might just come true, if only we fire enough 140-mph serves into the sky.

A career of brave and impressive losing in elite matches is admirable enough, in its way, and lamenting that a very good player was not quite great is a futile enterprise. But what came with Roddick’s era of American men’s tennis, that whole arduous decade, was the quietly held belief that he was a natural bridge, that his very-goodness would be a stepping stone to the next era and the next transcendent player, who surely was coming soon. When Roddick retired, that quiet belief finally faced reality. He was who he was, as well as he could be. But no one, it seemed, was next.

***

The number of players touted as The Next Great American Hope over the last decade is perhaps the most impressive accomplishment to modern American tennis fandom’s name. Sometime around 2007, when it became clear that Andy Roddick might be destined for a career of valiant four-set quarterfinal losses to the world’s best players, the visceral search for someone, anyone, to fill that special void of American tennis exceptionalism began in fervency.  Please, distant volcanic overlords, deliver us a player soon that can satisfy a vast Messiah complex on hardcourt and grass and... well, probably not clay. But please.

It once seemed a reasonable thing to believe Donald Young could fill that mythical dead air. Young dominated the junior circuits in 2005 and ‘06, became the year-end world junior no. 1 at the age of 16, and seemed prime to break into the senior circuit. Young had a special left-handed energy to his game, loved to volley, and possessed quick enough hands to surprise. A few quick passing shots can convince the world of anything.

Hype generated externally and internally as he succeeded early and drifted nearer to stardom. Donald Young – an American player with an American name and a fresh game – seemed headed for greatness. He was actually headed for four years of relative obscurity until the 2011 U.S. Open.

Donald Young loved the 2011 U.S. Open. That much is clear.  He defeated the Good Swiss Player That Isn’t Roger Federer, the very-good Stanislas Wawrinka, and in five sets. Americans don’t win five-set matches. They really don’t.  No prominent American has a winning record in five-set matches; Mardy Fish, the outlier, is a cool .500. But Donald Young did that, and there he was, still just 22 years old, making a solid tournament run and showing an eclectic, shining all-around game that a packed stadium could scream with in beautiful conjunction.

You could believe in forehands like this.  You could believe in Donald Young, that day. You could believe his fortunes were finally changing, that he and the USTA would solve the differences of the past, that the future was bright for him once more. Young then proceeded to lose 17 matches consecutively in 2012. It was the third-longest streak in the Open era.

***

Of course, the hopes of American tennis never pinned themselves exclusively to Young, though his style certainly captivated more than some of his competitors. Young is worth examining for his atypical American style – the looping lefty forehand, the penchant for approach shots, the demonstrable belief in tactical pushing. This kind of style is in direct conflict with the stock American player of today, a player simultaneously destined to briefly succeed and fail.

If we are to examine beyond the perceived imperfections of James Blake (a player with perhaps the most wonderfully imperfect game of all) and Sam Querrey and John Isner and [insert up-and-coming American here], then we should first determine what unites them. The only clear through-line is a strategy destined to fail in the modern game.

In short: the American men’s tennis players of today are engrossed by the concept of power. They hit forehands very hard and far into the court and hope their opponent will eventually miss. They serve big and at times – when the serve and opponent are right – it serves them well. They stay behind the baseline and slug things out nearly as well as anyone. They rarely hit drop shots; they rarely invent or dream. They face grim reality and they swing back with force. It’s an ethos.

But the modern game is not one for blunt force on its own, not one for one-dimensionality. John Isner, for all his positive traits – his goofy smile, his wonderfully angled serve, his daunting frame, his improving forehand – can be beaten by an opponent that simply dares to ask him to swing once more, again and again. A clever second-tier player will let Isner win his service games, bide his time carefully, and then attack the big Georgian’s backhand until he finally accepts defeat with hulking grace and confusion. The improved technology of racquets encourages a game like Isner’s – one set on power and sheer physical dominance. But it’s one of the game’s great ironies that elite play allows for such a game but does not reward those who exemplify its merits exclusively.  

Nearly every decent player on tour can grind out games at the baseline with impressive force, from Tommy Robredo to Mikhail Youzhny. It’s very possible that Isner could reach the pinnacle of his dubious brand of power and dominate a specific niche, as he indeed already has. But it has proven equally possible that such a game is destined for the confinement of confident fourth-round exits and a regrettable lack of creativity. In his recent third-round U.S. Open loss to Philipp Kohlschreiber, Isner’s backhand was attacked repeatedly, until Kohlschreiber triumphed and Isner was left wondering what happened to the match he controlled only an hour beforehand. Power won, and then power eventually lost. For the 28-year old, the nature of that power is probably set in stone.

Isner’s closest counterpart is the quietly mercurial Sam Querrey.  His success at 20 and 21 led many to view him as the evolutionary Roddick – less dependent on his serve, but with a very similar playing style. A good all-around game is encouraging at 21, but his ability has improved sparingly after achieving some early success at the Australian and U.S. Open. Since reaching world no. 17 in 2011, Querrey has regressed and failed to make a significant run. Much like Isner, Querrey appears very aware of the responsibility entrusted to him in the scope of American tennis. This is a heavy thing to notice, and commentators have often remarked upon its seemingly negative effect.

But in truth Querrey’s biggest issue is far more tangible – he can’t return. His backhand return is one of the least confident strokes in tennis. He stares into the oblivion of breaking serve and accepts it for exactly that. This aversion to risk is not a unique problem to Querrey, and in fact this constant uneasiness for half a match’s duration that exemplifies the current American style. Yes, Americans can serve, but they return like a luddite in a lightning storm.  

***

With the post-Roddick generation now seemingly set on their solid but unspectacular career paths, the post-post-Roddick generation rounds into importance. Two players now centrally carry the newest of new American hopes –  Denis Kudla and Jack Sock. And while they haven’t yet experienced huge success on the senior tour – Kudla made the second round at this year’s Open; Sock, the third – their collective talents represent an essential departure from the recent paths of American tennis, and a belated embrace of adaptation instead of grim serve-and-volley determination. Both players are not reliant on power alone, and both possess a creative streak lacking in many of their fellow countrymen.

Sock is especially promising, thanks to a blend of fierce resolve and skill. As he’s only 20 years old, a foolish optimist would predict greatness by 23. But even Sock, as he surprises and impresses, as he adjusts his shirt confidently and steps into returns, is plagued by many of the issues haunting the generation before him – an inability to last more than four sets, mental flubs on the backhand side, a tendency to give difficult games away too easily. The past does not always remain where it belongs. It is, as Faulkner said, not even past.

When considering an entire generation of American decline, it becomes eminently clear that a few things are known and most are not. We know that Americans can still be competent players – there’s no shortage of athleticism or will, here, and first and second round results often prove as much. We know that the cultural expectations have certainly declined, that a McEnroe-Connors rivalry isn’t likely to reappear anytime soon. We know, too, that something must shift in the way Americans play, that a slightly modified version of Andy Roddick can no longer be the model.

But we can’t say what a true revival in American men’s tennis might mean. If The Next Great American Hope did appear, how much would it matter? Certainly John McEnroe’s voice would boom out in joy and we might hear Cliff Drysdale excitedly proclaim a two-syllable name. That might be nice.

But it’s been so long since such a person existed on the world stage – so long that a return to form, to a status quo that no longer exists, might lose some intangible quality in its impact. Culture progresses, however meanderingly; it rarely reverts. Fads may reappear – we listen to disco in our earphones and call it Skrillex – but they do not replace what already exists. American men’s tennis dominance is dead; long live American men’s tennis.

So there is no great American men’s tennis player in 2013. In 2014, 2015, 2016, heck, even 2017, such a statement might eventually ring hollow. And when the cycle does change, we will ask obvious questions. Who is this player? How great can he be? Does he believe in love?

The glory days of American men’s tennis may never fully return. And that’s all right. The game is as exciting as it’s ever been, charged by Murray’s sheepish genius, Djokovic’s charging creativeness, Nadal’s physically unchecked masterpieces, complicated Federer’s lurking resolve, and whatever it is that a 50-year old Lleyton Hewitt brings on any given Tuesday.

And when an American finally joins that venerable list once more, it won’t necessarily signal a changed or even changing paradigm. Players like Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray will not fade from the scene. But if an American joins these vaunted ranks, it will mean he has brought something new to the sport, a fresh identity. This one doesn’t work. What’s next isn’t here yet. So today we wait.

Tomorrow? We’d better focus on that backhand.


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the blue-green confines of Flushing Meadows, not-that-early in the Open and with a crowd of thousands behind him. He was the last hope of American men’s tennis, for at least one night. Tomorrow, it’d be someone else.
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singular players fighting and winning (or losing) both mentally and physically. In recent years, American men’s tennis has lacked players up to that steep challenge, and so has lacked a defining symbol.
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