The future of American tennis, and the nature of stars

Patrick McEnroe

Patrick McEnroe

With the return of the US Open – which concludes Monday, Sept. 8 with the winners of Saturday’s Fed-Marin Cilic, Nole-Kei Nishikori matchups – there’s been much bemoaning of the state of American tennis, particularly the men’s game and especially in the aftermath of Patrick McEnroe stepping down as head of player development for the United States Tennis Association.

I won’t comment on the latter as I don’t know anything about coaching or PMac’s accomplishments with the USTA or lack thereof. But I do know a lot about being a journalist, especially one who covered performances of all kind, and since PMac is an analyst for ESPN, I have to ask myself what a commentator is doing working for an organization he might be called on to critique. There’s a reason the framers established a free press. But nowadays everyone’s in bed with everyone else, because as Rafa would say, “It’s all about the money.”

On, though, to American tennis, which consists of Serena, the Bryans and a whole bunch of people no one watches. The arguments for its anemic state don’t necessarily hold water, however.

Chief among them is that tennis players are now tall enough – 6 feet, 1 inch or 6 feet, 2 inches on average for the men, 5 feet, 8 inches to 5 feet, 10 inches for the women – that they qualify for other American sports that are more lucrative. (Let’s face it. We’re talking about the guys here. There are few more lucrative sports for women than tennis. And anyway, we still have Serena. What’s really got everybody’s Nike shorts in a bunch is that there are no great American male players. It’s almost like the women don’t count.)

But if height is the criterion, why don’t swimmers, who are rather tall, abandon swimming for another sport? The height argument discounts the differences in body type, weight, skill set and temperament that various sports require. Given that you might be a happy tennis-playing millionaire – as opposed to an unhappy baseball-playing multimillionaire – the choice seems obvious.

But Americans do play sports – namely football, our national religion, as Quinn Novak, star quarterback for The New York Templars, discovers in my upcoming novel, “In This Place You Hold Me” – that the Euros, who dominate tennis today, don’t. Unlike football, tennis is an international sport, hence more competition for Americans. When I visited Indonesia a couple of years ago at Christmastime, I observed men playing baseball or softball early in the morning before the wall of heat and humidity builds. Otherwise on ESPN, it was all tennis all the time, particularly all Novak Djokovic all the time, as he was playing the Hopman Cup, a tune-up for the Australian Open, otherwise known as Nole Land.

Indeed, the relativity of fame is not lost on my character Quinn, who visits his native Indonesia in “ITPYHM,” where he is well-known not as a football player but as a native son who made good in the far, wide world.

Still, if you’re an American athlete who loves tennis, swimming or skiing, you don’t care about playing football, baseball or anything else. You think that your passion and accomplishments will elevate your sport. And you would be right – to an extent.

So what argument are we left with? Perhaps the reason American tennis is in a lull is that stars are cyclical. They cannot be created in a farm system, as it were, although as the Yankees have demonstrated for years, they can be developed in one.

If we learned anything from Feddy Bear’s comeback against Gael Monfils in the Open quarterfinals, down two sets to love, it’s that stars have an ineffable resilience and will to win that cannot be manufactured. Certainly, the USTA and our country can do more to support upcoming talent with coaching, funding and audience participation. But I think we’re going to have to wait for the next great American star to come along. And when he or she does, my guess is that there will be more than one.

In the meantime, you can read my new novel, “Water Music,” the first in the series “The Games Men Play.” In one of four story arcs, Iraqi-American tennis player Alí Iskandar becomes the first American man since Don Budge to win the Grand Slam – all four majors – in a calendar year and the only American man to win the Golden Slam (the Grand Slam plus Olympic gold in men’s singles play). He does this with little coaching and little help, although he does get financial support at a heartbreaking price.

He does it because he’s just that determined and that good.