Where have you gone, U.S. men's major tennis champ?

Where have you gone, U.S. men's major tennis champ?
August 2, 2013, 11:45 pm
Share This Post

There is no real reason to include Robert Griffin III, John Wall or Bryce Harper in a story about tennis, but we'll wedge the starry young trio in for some age perspective. In September of 2003, the last time a U.S. man claimed a Grand Slam title, the future quarterback and emerging point guard were 13 while the promising slugger was all of 11.

That September, James Blake, who played at this week's Citi Open, was four years into his pro career. That September, the now retired Andy Roddick triumphed at 2003 U.S. Open, the last time an American man won any of the four Grand Slam events. Since then, a stretch of 39 majors without a Stars and Stripes victory. Each missed opportunity adds to the longest drought in U.S. history. Unless John Isner or one his fellow compatriots do something at the upcoming U.S. Open none of them has done before, 40 straight feels inevitable. It certainly feels old.

Blake, 33, was all of nine when Michael Chang underhand-served his way to the 1989 French Open title. He turned 10 the same year Pete Sampras claimed the first of his 14 Grand Slam titles, then 11 shortly before four-time GS champion Jim Courier took his first. The Harvard product joined the pro tour in 1999, the same year Andre Agassi won two of his eight majors.

"I think maybe American tennis fans might have been spoiled by that, including myself, Blake said, whose first tour title came in Washington one year before Roddick '03 victory. " When I was growing up, I feel like there was an American winning a Slam all the time."

Blake grew up during arguably the golden age of American men's tennis. The winding-down veteran certainly is playing in the humblest of times. The outlook calls for more of the same.

Opposing the mighty quartet of Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray hasn't helped

"Now it's just become much more globalized, much more international," said Blake following his first round loss at the Fitzgerald Tennis Center on Monday. "It's tough. You're competing with the best ever."

The highest ranked American on tour and coming of a title last week in Atlanta, Isner defeated Cypriot Marcos Baghdatis 6-7 (5), 6-4, 6-4 on Friday.

"I think American fans need to sort of temper their expectations a little bit given how deep the game is and how nowadays it's taken players  a lot longer to develop," said Isner shortly after reaching the semifinals of the Citi Open.

Seeded eighth this week, Isner faces unseeded Russian Dmitry Tursunov on Saturday. Despite the unwanted streak and constant questions about it, Isner claims he faces no extra stress despite being part of this major-less generation.

"I don't feel like I've felt pressure from other sources or the media or people talking about how American tennis is in the dumps, which I don't really agree with that," said Isner, who like the rest of the active American men has never played in a Grand Slam semifinals.

Entering this week, Isner (20) and Sam Querrey (22) are the only American men ranked inside the top-50. Former top-10 player Mardy Fish, who along with Querrey lost in the third round this week, saw his ranking (64) plummet due to a heart condition.

Blake (77) is one of six U.S. men in the top-100, along with Jack Sock (94). The 20-year-old Nebraskan is considered the best young American, but has not yet shown he can truly compete at the highest level.

Even if his game is rather one-dimensional, the 28-year-old Isner represents America's best hope thanks to his monster service game.

"Nobody wants to play against him," said Juan Martin del Potro, the Citi Open's top seed. "Very big serves. He plays really well on hard courts. He's playing in his country. That helps with his game."

Del Potro, the 2009 U.S. Open champion, defeated No. 7 seed Kevin Anderson 7-6 (0), 6-3 in Friday's nightcap. Twice a winner in Washington, the Argentine will face No. 3 seed Tommy Haas in Saturday's other semifinal. If the seeds hold, the 6-foot-6 del Potro will meet the 6-foot-10 Isner on Sunday.

"With myself and Sam and Mardy - as long as he can stay healthy - and the guys behind us, we're not in too bad a shape," Isner said of the U.S. men. "Just have to give us a little bit of time. I'm 28 and I feel like I have a lot of years ahead of me given that's sort of how the tour is going."

In fairness to Isner and company, the U.S. is not the only country without recent major success on the men's side. Sweden, which claims past champions Bjorn Borg, Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg as its own, last claimed a Grand Slam title in 1992. Nothing for Germany since Boris Becker's triumph at the Australian Open in 1996, nothing for the Aussies since Lleyton Hewitt's win at the 2002 Wimbledon.

"It's been a while since just about anyone's won a slam outside the big four right now," said Blake, who reached a career-high No. 4 ranking in 2006. "I wouldn't say it's just America. I think you can say that about a lot of countries. ...I don't see us anytime soon being the generation of Sampras, Agassi, Chang, Courier. But I don't know if anyone is going to have a generation like that again."