The American annihilation

The Williams sisters... really formidable in the women’s circuit.-AP

The Americans are faltering, even at their home Grand Slam, because the rest of the tennis world has caught up. Kunal Diwan takes stock.

The chapter and verse of American achievements at their own Slam is unending. Arthur Ashe was the only player to win the Amateur and Open titles in the same year (1968), Jimmy Connors won at home on all three surfaces, John McEnroe retired the only man with four crowns apiece in singles and doubles.

In 1990, nineteen-year-old Pete Sampras became the youngest men’s winner ever, and in 1994, Andre Agassi the lone man to knock five seeds en route to the title.

Few events have been as thoroughly dominated by the host as the U.S. Open, which is understandable given the nation was an active galactic nucleus of talent, spouting a never-ending crop of stars machine-harvested from ghetto courts and gated country clubs alike, since William Sears shook the mould off his wooden weapon of choice in 1881.

In 128 years of its existence, the U.S. Open has had a homeboy hold aloft the men’s singles trophy on 85 occasions; with 18 titles by 11 men, Australia comes a distant second. In 36 years of the Open Era — before the phenomenon of Roger Federer stamped its impress on the modern game — American men won 19 titles between 1968 and 2003. Only five times (1959, ’73, ’88, 2004) since its inception in 1881 was the year’s last Slam not blessed with local flavour in either the men’s or women’s title round.

With a legacy spanning over a century, American absence from the men’s quarterfinals of the latest U.S. Open was an unpleasant occurrence, though not entirely an unexpected one.

Of the 18 Americans in the main draw, eight lost in the first round. Devin Britton ran into Roger Federer, Donald Young into Tommy Robredo, Michael Yani into compatriot Sam Querry and Chase Buchanan into Frenchman Jo Wilfried Tsonga. Ryan Sweeting was swept under the carpet by Marin Cilic, and Robin Soderling and Andy Murray ended the campaigns of Querry and Taylor Dent.

The 6’9” University of Georgia star, John Isner, was the last out, removed by Fernando Verdasco in the fourth round, but not before the towering hulk had masterminded compatriot Andy Roddick’s five-set ouster in the third.

“I wanted to keep it going. I didn’t think I would be the last American,” said the world number 55 after his loss.

The year 2009 then was cataclysmic to the legacy of the American swatter, long deemed a veritable fixture in the second week of the majors. Roddick was the only quarterfinal entrant at the Australian Open (losing semifinalist) and Wimbledon (losing finalist), and no supporter of the Stars and Stripes managed a nudge into the last eight in Paris and New York.

The last American to win a Grand Slam — when he went all the way at Flushing Meadows in 2003 — A. Rod admitted to a democratisation of the tennis fraternity.

“You see guys from everywhere now,” he said, “And they can all play. You can’t take anyone lightly and say that any country is superior. It is down to the individual and what he is prepared to put in.”

Trends register with greater impact when avouched for and confirmed by the omniscience of the internet. Google, helpfully, informs us that Spain leads the list of the most number of men in the top 100 with 12 entries (nine in top 50). France follows with 11 (eight), and the United States with nine (four). The existing equation is a far cry from the halcyon days of the 80s when Americans overran ATP listings like a 16-wheeler driven under influence.

Ace coach Nick Bollettieri, whose academy in Florida resembles a global village, observed as much.

“It is a matter of how the game has changed. Back then you didn’t get kids from Serbia or Russia or countries like that rising to the elite level. The best coaching opportunities were over here and American players had a big advantage.”

Another factor in the decline of American dominance, according to Jeff Newman — tournament director for the Legg Mason Tennis Classic — is that the traditional practitioners of the clay court game were now opening up to the sport on hard surfaces.

“A lot of the South Americans and Europeans are performing tremendously well on all surfaces,” Newman said, “And a guy like del Potro, coming from Argentina you’d think was a clay-court player. But then he pulls off four tournaments on hardcourts last year and also then reaches the semis of the French Open.”

A vacuum of stars to cheer for in the men’s field this year led fans to the women’s draw, where other than the constant presence of one of the Williams sisters — in this case Serena — American hopes hinged on 17-year-old Melanie Oudin.

The Georgian threw a spanner in the works of the Russian Revolution, structuring a mini-upheaval of her own by shutting the door on four Babushka dolls on her way to the quarters. The former junior number two’s giant-killing spree made it the first occasion since the 2002 French Open that no leggy Russian made it into the quarterfinals of a major.

Before the tournament, Oudin’s coach Brian de Villiers had commented that to win the Slam she would have “to beat six Russians and a Williams” — an apt summing up of the women’s tennis milieu.

Since Anna Kournikova opened the sluice gates over 15 years ago, Russians have been a regulation presence in the upper echelons of the women’s game. Fourteen of them are currently in the WTA’s top 100 and led by world number one Dinara Safina, 13 qualified for the main draw of the U.S. Open — four of them seeded in the first 10.

Safina lost the opening set in each of her three matches, twice rallying to win, before falling to unknown Czech entity Petra Kvitova in the third round. The exit of Marat’s sister lent fuel to theories of the ‘most unworthy number one ever’. The still Slam-less Safina — who will retain her number one ranking despite the early loss — confessed: “I go to the court with so much that I want to win, and I put so much tension in it not to lose and that’s why I’m not playing relaxed.”

Russian efflux from the Open continued as fourth-seed Elena Dementieva became another Oudin victim in the second round, and sixth and seventh seeds Svetlana Kuznetsova and Vera Zvonareva lost to Dane Caroline Wozniacki and Italian Flavia Pennetta in the fourth.

Possibly the hardiest fighter in the Russian battalion, Kuznetsova said: “I lost it myself because I made so many unforced errors.”

Maria Sharapova won two matches before turning in a ghastly performance against (who else) Oudin, serving 21 double faults and making 63 unforced errors over three careless sets. The pint-sized American claimed another Russian victim when she overcame the four-inch-taller, 13-pound-heavier Nadia Petrova in round four.

Russian reversals at the US Open, however, appear to be a temporary glitch when one peruses their performances in the year past. Safina reached the final of the Australian Open, lost the French Open final to compatriot Kuznetsova, and reached the Wimbledon semis along with Elena Dementieva where both Russians lost to the Williams sisters.

And as for the American Annihilation, the last word is reserved for commentator and former player Patrick, the better-behaved McEnroe: “The reality is the reality. The world has caught up. At the same time, I believe we can do a better job.”