GIRLS interrupted

Passing the torch: Billie Jean King.-GETTY IMAGES

SINCE the Open era began in 1968, U.S. women's tennis has been a chain without a weak link. From Billie Jean King to the Williams sisters, with many great champions in between, there have always been Americans at the top of the game. But for the first time in four decades, the chain appears to be in danger of breaking. While there are teenagers galore making major statements on the women's tour, none of them are Americans.

"There's nobody," says one American sports agent who requested anonymity. "It's gotten to the point that I'm going to look at a six-year-old that people says is the next Capriati."

The stats tell part of the story. On the WTA tour, only one American teen, 18-year-old Jamea Jackson, was within striking distance of the Top 100 this spring. At the same time, there were 10 foreign teens in the Top 50.

Chris Evert.-GETTY IMAGES

The picture isn't much better at the international junior level. The year-end 2004 junior ITF rankings featured no American girls in the Top 10 and just five in the Top 50. (The boys, by contrast, had two in the Top 10 and seven in the Top 30.)

There have been points of light for the Americans. Jessica Kirkland, a determined, consistent 17-year-old from Dayton, Ohio, reached last year's U.S. Open junior final and made the fourth round at the Pacific Life Open in March. And 15-year-old Alexa Glatch, who stands 6 feet tall, has had promising junior results.

But if these two are going to make a move, they better do it soon. In the modern era, the top women have posted significant results in major events by their 18th birthdays (and most burst onto the scene even earlier). It's hard to imagine any late-blooming 17-year-olds closing the yawning gap with Maria Sharapova, the Russian-born, American-trained teen who won Wimbledon at that age last year. It's just as unlikely that any 15-year-olds in America will surface to catch up with, say, Nicole Vaidisova of the Czech Republic, who won two WTA titles before her 16th birthday.

"If they're not really great by 16 or 17, it's going to be difficult to get a No. 1 player," says Robert Lansdorp, who was instrumental in shaping the ground strokes of Tracy Austin, Lindsay Davenport, and most recently Sharapova. "A late bloomer can get to No. 30 or so, but you're not going to get a dominant champion. The development has to start early for the girls, and in this country I don't think there's a very good base where talent is searched for. I think the concerns about the future are legitimate."

Jennifer Capriati.-GETTY IMAGES

What's wrong? "The easy answer is just to say it's a matter of cycles, but I'm not sure that's true," says Alan Schwartz, former president of the USTA. Many experts throw out the usual litany of causes: The girls don't compete enough as juniors; they play in higher age brackets and don't learn how to win when they're expected to beat their peers; they don't travel abroad enough to expose themselves to tougher competition.

But the problem may go deeper. One theory is that the rising popularity of organised team sports for girls, like soccer, basketball, and field hockey, is draining the pool of top athletes. Tennis is more expensive, more difficult to learn in the early stages of life, and often more complicated to organise for families with two working parents because talented juniors need to travel far and wide to compete.

"The problem is that, in general, the best girls athletes in America are not playing tennis," says Sharapova's agent, Max Eisenbud. "There are so many options. They're more interested in being the next Britney Spears than in being the next Capriati. But if you're a great Russian girl athlete, you're probably playing tennis."

Many are also concerned that American girls lack the drive needed to succeed at the game's higher levels. "We live in a very fortunate country, and I think sometimes that indirectly affects how tough the kids can be," says Jean Nachand, the director of women's tennis for the USTA's High Performance program. "I think there's an attitude of entitlement." Someone like Sharapova, who came to the U.S. when she was seven, is proof that a girl can still develop her game in the U.S. and reach the elite level. But for Americans to get there, Nachand says that changes are in order. She wants to see more American girls competing internationally at a younger age. "We want to organise trips for 12-and-unders," says Nachand. She also hopes to see more emphasis on tactics and all-court tennis, and she's calling for more competition domestically between players of the same ages.

Serena Williams.-GETTY IMAGES

The idea is for American girls to get a sense of what they're up against, and the truth is that they're up against plenty — particularly Eastern Europeans, who are devoting themselves to tennis early in life. For now, American women's tennis will continue to revolve around the Williams sisters. But the not-so-distant future looks murky.

"Certainly if we didn't have Americans among our top players in five years, we'd be very concerned," says Larry Scott, the WTA's chief executive officer. "It's the largest market in the world, where a lot of major sponsors come from. The question mark is how many of these stars who were born outside the U.S. can appeal to an American audience? I would argue that Anna Kournikova and Maria Sharapova are as interesting to Americans as Jennifer Capriati or Lindsay Davenport. But that's rare." — Christopher Clarey

* * * Quick Hits

3 Years since a teenager broke into the ATP's Top 10. Rafael Nadal, 18, did it at the end of April. Andy Roddick cracked the 10 spot in 2002, at 19.

4 Continents represented in the ATP's Top 5: Europe (Roger Federer and Marat Safin), Australia (Lleyton Hewitt), North America (Andy Roddick), and South America (Gaston Gaudio), as of May 2.

7 Years since Carlos Moya has reached a Grand Slam semifinal.

13 Countries that have produced at least one player with a WTA title this year, as of May 2.

34 Ranking of 16-year-old Nicole Vaidisova (as of April 25). At that age, Venus Williams was No. 500, Kim Clijsters No. 184, Serena Williams No. 500, Maria Sharapova No. 152, and Justine Henin-Hardenne No. 314.

$42 Price of a 3.4-ounce bottle of Andre Agassi's new fragrance, My Summer, by Aramis Life.

351 Most aces hit on the men's tour (as of May 2), by Andy Roddick.

From Tennis Magazine @ 2005 By Miller Sports Group LLC. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate International.