BOSTON — When John McEnroe and the CBS broadcast team spoke with reporters about the 2009 U.S. Open, the first thing on everybody’s mind was a bit of nostalgia.
This year’s Open, which began Monday, marks the 25th anniversary of one of the most memorable matches in tournament history: the late-into-the-the night, five-set war between two brilliant and pugnacious American stars, McEnroe and Jimmy Connors.
McEnroe would win the marathon (6-4, 4-6, 7-5, 4-6, 6-3) and the next day the Open title, the seventh in a row won by one of the two American stars. Connors and McEnroe would wind up playing each other 35 times, the last match in 1991, but ’84 was essentially their last hurrah at the highest level.
Connors, who was 32 years old that year, would never come that close to reaching another Grand Slam final. McEnroe, though seven years Connors’ junior, was winning his last Grand Slam too, marking the end of an American heyday. It would be five years before another American man, Michael Chang, would win a Grand Slam title, ushering in another era of American stars led by Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. At about the same time on the women’s side, only newly minted Americans Martina Navratilova and Monica Seles were adding to the U.S.’s tennis haul. After Chrissie Evert’s 18th and final Grand Slam title in 1986, it would be another dozen years before an American-born player — Lindsay Davenport at the Open — would capture a Grand Slam title.
So by historic standards, what is happening in tennis today hardly represents an American drought, not with the Williams sisters, Serena and Venus, racking up 18 major titles between them since 1999. (This Open also marks the 10th anniversary of the first of those majors, when Serena, on the cusp of her 18th birthday, signaled the end of Martina Hingis’ brief reign over the women’s game.)
Still, when McEnroe and his broadcast mates gave their assessment of Americans who may make their mark on this Open, it is a relatively brief conversation. Call it “round up the usual suspects” — the same few names that have been at the front ranks of American tennis for most of the past decade: Serena and Venus, who figure to meet in this year’s semifinals; and Andy Roddick, buoyed by renewed confidence following his near-miss at Wimbledon, a five-set loss to Roger Federer, earlier this summer.
And behind the contending trio on the American bench, there’s something between not much and nothing at all. The Williams sisters are the only Americans among the 32 women seeds in the tournament; the American men fare only a little better with four seeds and one, Mardy Fish, has already withdrawn with an injury.
Nor does there appear to be that much front-line talent in the American pipeline. Tennis, amid the glut of sports options, appears to have lost its luster in this country. Perhaps American parents are increasingly reluctant — or at least reluctant, at least by comparison with families in hardscrabble circumstances in Eastern Europe, to surrender their children at early ages to an all-consuming tennis life. That is particularly true on the women’s side where the burnout and injury pattern is alarming.
Consider this year’s women’s draw, with three recent U.S. Open champions in unfamiliar places. The 2005 title holder Kim Clijsters is unseeded as, at 26, she attempts a comeback after two years of retirement; 2006 champ Maria Sharapova, just 22, is seeded a lowly 29th after a series of injuries derailed her ascendant career; and 2007 champ Justine Henin is at home, though, at 27, she too is reportedly contemplating a comeback.
The dominance of Europeans on both men’s and women’s circuits may also reflect the advantages of playing youth tennis in Europe. Tournament travel is easier and cheaper and the continent still boasts a variety of playing surfaces, whereas clay courts are virtually extinct in the United States (and thus, apparently, the hopes of producing another American champion on clay at the French Open). Fortunately, none of these matters will put a damper on the doings at the Open over the next two weeks. If Flushing Meadows can survive the 2009 Mets, it can survive anything. Besides, New York is genuinely international and the Open has grown to the point where it transcends tennis, having become one of the city’s foremost destination events.
Which is indeed a very good thing. Because with Roddick now 27, Serena Williams about to turn 28 and Venus Williams 29 years old, there may soon be a day when anniversaries and nostalgia provide the only excuse to talk about American players.