Jerry Magee was a sports writer in San Diego for more than 52 years before retiring in 2008. A few years before stepping into a full-time existence of recreational tennis at local courts, Magee was in New York for the U.S. Open.
On the morning after the final American player had been eliminated, far earlier than most anticipated, Magee’s story began like this: “There is something missing from the U.S. Open. The U.S.”
Magee, as writers like to say, could type with the best of them.
I was reminded of this story Monday, when Venus and Serena Williams were bounced from Wimbledon and the final American standing in either draw was Mardy Fish.
Nothing against our top-ranked men’s player, but if you mention his name to the average sports fan, they might think you’re talking about the dinner special at Emeril’s.
Fish is an Olympic silver medalist, has won five times on the ATP Tour and has never reached the semifinals of a Grand Slam event.
He’s ranked ninth and the best we have now.
You get the picture.
Do you remember the “Sports Illustrated” cover from 1994, the one that asked if tennis was dying? It wasn’t then and isn’t now, though the decline of great American men’s players remains steady.
We are no longer a tennis power. It could be a cyclical thing. It could be permanent.
Question is, how relative is the sport here anyway?
The drought of Grand Slam victories on the men’s side stretches to 2003, when Andy Roddick won his only major, at the U.S. Open. Stop us if you knew that.
Roddick is 28 and his game is nowhere near the point that once had him as the world’s No. 1. He makes more news now for his swimsuit model wife than a serve that once topped out at 155 mph.
Few seem bothered by it.
I’m not sure if the slippage in American tennis has anything to do with a transition while awaiting the next generation of all-time greats to emerge. Connors and McEnroe were followed by Sampras and Agassi, all building the type of U.S. dominance that made us expect any Sunday of a Grand Slam final would include at least one American player, if not two.
For decades, those names, along with Chang and Courier, defined America as the game’s most successful tennis nation. We were the bomb.
But even during those spectacular eras, tennis wasn’t drawing our best athletes. It never has. It never will. It doesn’t come close to earning the attention from the same pool of skill as football and baseball and basketball and, some would argue, even soccer. We have more kids to make into potential tennis stars than all countries but Russia and China. They’re just not interested, is all.
It’s not for a lack of trying. The United States Tennis Association has worked tirelessly to improve its grass-roots program, to identify talents 10 years and younger and then hope like heck they are interested and driven enough to stay with the game. It even changed the rules for youth players, allowing for slower balls and smaller courts.
It also has spent millions of dollars renovating public facilities such as the ones the Williams sisters learned the game on in Compton, Calif., the goal to move tennis away from the country club sport people have associated it with for decades.
Still, it struggles getting kids involved.
It doesn’t help that Roddick and Fish and James Blake and other Americans have had to exist within the same era as Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, two of the greatest to smack a forehand.
They have combined to win 22 of the past 25 majors. It would be like trying to win a writing contest four times a year with your main competition being a few guys named Faulkner and Joyce.
It might be, then, we are left to hope someone such as Fish can conjure up enough magic every once in a while to win a match like the one he faces today. Fish plays Nadal for a spot in the Wimbledon semifinals. He is 0-5 against the world’s No. 1.
A win for the American probably won’t cause the 10-year-old boy watching in Nebraska to grab a racket and run to his neighborhood court. But it might.
That’s sort of where we are right now.
“Being the highest-ranked American comes with a pretty high responsibility,” Fish told reporters in London this week. “People are watching more than ever.”
Watching and wondering if he has what it takes to give America its next tennis star.
And yet not overly concerned either way.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 3 to 5 p.m. Monday and Thursday on “Monsters of the Midday,” Fox Sports Radio 920 AM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.