Break Point: What’s Wrong With America’s Men?

The days of Sampras and Agassi are long gone.

The days of Sampras and Agassi are long gone.

2013 will go down as a pretty ignominious year for America’s male tennis players who have set a couple of decidedly unwanted records. At Wimbledon, none of them managed to reach the third round, which previously hadn’t happened for over a century, while here in New York, the fourth round of the U.S. Open got underway with no home representatives for the first time in the tournament’s 132-year history.

After exits for John Isner and Jack Sock on Saturday night, it was 25-year-old Tim Smyczek who was left to shoulder a nation’s expectations. Despite a 66-place ranking disparity to Spain’s Marcel Granollers, Smyczek came close to producing some face-saving heroics, losing a five-set epic, and he insisted afterwards that despite immediate appearances, bright times lie ahead for American tennis.

“I think it’s actually a really exciting time,” he told The Observer. “You’ve got John who’s back in the top-20, Sam [Querrey] who’s fallen a little bit but he’ll be back really soon because he’s too good of a player not to and very talented guys like [Ryan] Harrison, Sock, [Denis] Kudla, Steve Johnson and Rhyne Williams, who are all capable of really climbing. You’ll see a couple of them really make big jumps over the next six months.”

Harrison tweeted Smyczek on Sunday night, saying “We’re going to keep pulling each other up until we get more guys in the second week,” and there’s a mutual determination between the young Americans to drag their nation back into the spotlight.

Smyczek believes that some of his compatriots have been particularly unlucky with their draws at the majors this year, especially 21-year-old Harrison who drew Rafael Nadal in the first round at Flushing Meadows and Novak Djokovic in the second round of the Australian Open.

“He just needs things to fall his way,” Smyczek said. “I think he’ll make a breakthrough, I see how hard he’s working. Jack also has a huge game and he could just catch fire for a couple of weeks in a row and be top-50 before you know it.”

While comparatively little was expected of Harrison and Sock this year, Isner’s third-round exit to Philipp Kohlschreiber was highly disappointing after his wins over Novak Djokovic and Juan Martin Del Potro at the Cincinnati Masters last month. He appeared to burn out toward the end of the match, something he attributed to getting too pumped up early on as he tried to bring the crowd into the match.

Isner has faced a barrage of questions lately about the current state of American tennis, but he has little time for negativity.

“I think we’re doing just fine,” he said bullishly. “Jack’s going to have a great future and we’ve got a few guys like that. Certainly not like it used to be in the ’80s and ’90s and early-2000s, but we’re not too bad.”

Tennis has become far more globalised since the days of Sampras and Agassi with 18 different nations currently making up the world’s top-30. As a result, it’s become far harder for one particular country to dominate.

“It’s a different game compared to the ’90s,” Smyczek said. “These days, a guy ranked outside the top-100 will come out of nowhere and beat the top guys, as we saw at Wimbledon.”

However, some former players believe that things need to change. ESPN pundit Brad Gilbert feels that the Spanish in particular have stolen a march on the U.S. over the past decade as their players are intensely drilled on clay from a young age.

“Nowadays, if you become a good clay-court player, you become a great tennis player because the grass is so much slower, the hard courts bounce higher,” he told The Observer.

“It’s better on the body, it helps you build points and it teaches you more discipline. It also forces you to develop better footwork. You learn these things when you’re 12 rather than growing up trying to flap a one-ball winner.”

Smyczek agrees that the Europeans may be more versatile but in his mind it makes sense for Americans to train on hard courts as the big tournaments in the States are all held on that surface.

“You have to have your priorities,” he said. “I want to peak at the U.S. Open, Indian Wells and Miami, so ultimately I’m not gonna play many tournaments on clay.”