The Big Four Help
The US Open is obviously a Grand Slam event. One third of the ATP’s Masters 1000 events reside inside of the United States. The Wimbledon and French Open championship start times are designed to get access to some of the television market in the US. Yet, the US does not currently have a male player ranked within the top 15 in the world. Under ordinary circumstances, this would mean casual tennis fans would tune out inside the US. Luckily, Roger Federer has been an incredible ambassador for tennis since 2004. Rafael Nadal has won over many fans with a different style than Roger’s. Novak Djokovic has brought a different personality and style of play that has made its way into the US sporting consciousness. Andy Murray’s Olympic Gold and US Open title in 2012 helped him to make strides as well. Federer reached his first major final in 2003, Nadal in 2005, Djokovic in 2007 and Murray in 2008. Their consistency and general affability, along with Andy Roddick’s results, have helped keep tennis relevant for general fans of sports inside the US.
Where Have You Gone Andy Roddick or Aaron Krickstein?
Andy Roddick won the 2003 US Open and was runner-up at four other Grand Slam events. Andy Roddick reached at least a Grand Slam semifinal round on ten different occasions. His contemporaries James Blake and Mardy Fish have combined for a handful of Grand Slam quarterfinal appearances, but neither has yet reached the final four of a slam. Younger US players have combined for a total of one Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance. John Isner lost in the 2011 US Open quarterfinal round. Sam Querrey, the highest ranked US player, along with Jack Sock, Ryan Harrison, and Denis Kudla have yet to reach a quarter at a major.
Todd Martin (no relation) was runner-up at both the 1994 Australian Open and the 1999 US Open. Mal Washington was runner-up at the 1996 Wimbledon Championships due in part to defeating Todd Martin in five sets in the semifinal round. Aaron Krickstein reached a US Open semifinal in 1989 and an Australian Open semifinal in 1995. David Wheaton reached the 1991 Wimbledon semifinals. Robby Ginepri’s 2005 US Open semifinal run is the only comprable story in recent years.*
Where Things Stand
No country can ever bank on producing record setting champions such as Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras. To this point, the current crop of US players has not come close to producing results along the lines of what great players such as Michael Chang, Jim Courier, Vitas Gerulaitus or Andy Roddick achieved. Few tennis fans remember Todd Martin or Mal Washington as key US players during the 1990s. However, a male US citizen becoming a Grand Slam finalist would be a welcome site for the USTA.
Mardy Fish won a silver medal in 2004. James Blake and Mardy Fish have each appeared in Masters 1000 championship matches. Blake contested a classic match against Andre Agassi at the 2005 US Open. We’ve seen Isner compete in a historic marathon while also carving out a lot of success on faster courts and in Davis Cup. Sam Querrey has rebounded nicely from an injury. Finally, the very group of uber consistent Europeans known as the Big Four have made second week Grand Slam efforts harder to muster.
The US is becoming increasingly diverse. A top ten dominated by players from Europe, South America and Asia will find prospective fans living in various parts of the US. Beyond that, advances in broadcast quality have made tennis easier and easier to appreciate. A US citizen won at least one slam on the men’s tour from 1989-2003. Yet, tennis has been enjoying a popularity spike within the US that began in 2006? Maybe things are not as gloomy as they appear.
In 10 Years?
In a decade Roger Federer will be 41. Nadal, Djokovic, and Murray will each likely be out of tennis as well. If the US does not produce a few top ten players over the next decade, I cannot imagine that tennis will be as popular as it is today in my home country. Federer and Nadal are transcendent champions. Novak Djokovic has done ballroom dancing en route to an Australian Open title. Nole is close to joining the ranks of tennis’ pantheon. Regardless of who the US produces, tennis will need to find some exceptional players to fill the void that the Big Four will leave. Still, a few US players making runs can only help keep the profile of the sport high. That is vital for tennis given the events that are held on US soil and the importance of the US television market.
* Since Ginepri is still out there grinding away on tour, he is the only active US citizen on the ATP Tour with a Grand Slam semifinal appearance to his name.