Cheering for American men’s tennis these days is not unlike cheering for the Chicago Cubs. Or the Cleveland Browns. Attach yourself emotionally to a player at your peril, for however much he may tease with talent and promise, he’ll likely remain on the outskirts of contention when the sport’s biggest prizes are awarded.
I happen to be a fan of tennis in general. Where a player happened to be born and raised is less important to me than how he handles being down a set in a major championship. My happiest memories of tennis during my childhood are the collisions between Sweden’s Bjorn Borg and America’s brat prince, John McEnroe. (I rooted for Borg, but have grown to love McEnroe.) If I were asked to name the most graceful athlete of my lifetime, it would come down to hockey great Wayne Gretzky or tennis legend Roger Federer, he of Switzerland. I relished Federer’s 2009 Wimbledon final against American Andy Roddick precisely because I was rooting for both players.
Which brings me to the current state of American men’s tennis and its impact on this week’s Regions Morgan Keegan Championships at The Racquet Club of Memphis. The only American player currently in the world’s Top 10 is 8th-ranked Mardy Fish. Fish will not be playing in Memphis, which means that for only the third time in 36 years, nary a top-10 player will be in the field for what remains a jewel on the Bluff City sports calendar. Defending champion Roddick — a three-time winner here and by now an honorary Memphian — returns, but has fallen to a world-ranking of 17. (In 1999, the top seed was 12th-ranked Todd Martin. In 2000, it was 16th-ranked Mark Philippoussis of Australia.)
Top-10 talent wasn’t always so hard to find, not in Memphis, and certainly not among U.S. players. As recently as 1995, four of the year-end top 10 were Yanks (Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, and Jim Courier). In 1989, no fewer than six Americans were among the top 10 players in the world. Heck, there was an eight-year stretch (1976-83) during which at least four Americans were in the top 10 every year.
The plethora of stateside champions decorated the Memphis field one year after another. Over the course of the tournament’s first 20 years (1977-96), the top seed every year except one (Michael Stich in 1992) finished at least one year of his career atop the world rankings. This group of eight champions actually included a pair of Swedes (Borg and Stefan Edberg) who marked the Memphis event down for their schedules. In 1996, four of the top seven players in the world — Sampras, Agassi, Chang, and Sweden’s Thomas Enqvist — gave what was then called the Kroger St. Jude the feel of a Grand Slam tournament. (It was the only championship Sampras won here in six appearances.)
So why the dearth of top-10 talent this week? Blame goes primarily to the titanic trio currently towering over the tennis landscape. Since 2004, the top year-end ranking has belonged to either Federer, Rafael Nadal of Spain, or Serbia’s Novak Djokovic. The next time any of these players compete in Memphis will be the first. Fish deserves some blame. As the fourth seed a year ago, Fish reached the semifinals before losing to Milos Raonic. Now in the top 10, he chose to stay overseas after last month’s Australian Open. Fish would be a fan favorite here.
So let’s thank the tennis gods for Roddick, whose only shortcoming has been sharing the prime of his career with Federer and Nadal. (Roddick’s lone Grand Slam title came at the 2003 U.S. Open, the same year he finished number-one in the world.) Supermodel Brooklyn Decker’s hubby finished in the top-10 every year from 2002 to 2010 (a streak longer than McEnroe was able to achieve.) The only other Americans to scratch the top 10 over the last six years are James Blake (twice) and Fish (once). Making his 12th straight appearance at The Racquet Club, Roddick will try to match Jimmy Connors’ record of four Memphis championships.
We’ll see world-class tennis this week in Memphis. Top seed John Isner (now ranked 14th in the world) teamed with Fish earlier this month to help the U.S. Davis Cup team upset Switzerland. (Isner defeated Federer.) Maybe Donald Young (22 years old and ranked 40th) is the rising American star that will finally make waves at a Grand Slam. My healthiest advice would be to enjoy the supreme tennis independent of world context. While the 10 highest-ranked players may occupy themselves elsewhere, Memphis tennis fans deserve better than the Cleveland Browns. And they’ll see it at The Racquet Club.