That’s what top American men’s tennis players are saying. The changes they see do not include instant replay,the retractable roof at Wimbledon or thorough drug testing. Instead,it involves the way the game is played and how it is won.
By some descriptions,this change is Darwinian: The biggest,fastest and strongest win while the rest lose and go home. Just ask American veteran James Blake,one of 48 players here in the Legg Mason Tennis Classic,this week’s ATP tour stop that concludes Sunday.
“It’s incredible to see how much the game changes,” Blake said. “When I first started on tour,I feel like I was one of the bigger guys. Now I feel like I’m a shrimp in the locker room.
“The game has just gotten bigger and stronger,and the athletes get better. That’s just the way all sports are going.”
And these days in tennis,there is a clear gap between better and best. It’s called the Atlantic Ocean.
No American has won a Grand Slam since a 20-year-old Andy Roddick won the 2003 U.S. Open,and no U.S. player has been No. 1 in the ATP rankings since Roddick fell from the top spot in 2004. It’s the longest drought in U.S. tennis history and unlikely to be snapped when this year’s U.S. Open concludes next month in New York.
Forty of the top 50 players in the world,including nine of the top 10,are Europeans. Mardy Fish is the only American in the top 10,and only Roddick and John Isner are in the top 50.
The top 10 Americans have a 15-89 record against Djokovic,Nadal and Federer,the top three players in the world. Roddick has won five of eight matches against Djokovic but is 2-20 against Federer,including 0-4 in Grand Slam finals. None of the top three players hails from traditional tennis countries.
So what separates these three and other Europeans from Americans? “I don’t know,” seventh-ranked Frenchman Gael Monfils said. “That’s a good question.”
With the game getting bigger and faster,champions must possess size and strength or find a way to limit their opponents’ size and strength.
Roddick has one of the fastest serves in tennis,and the 6-9 Isner has height and a huge serve. But top players have adapted to out-perform players with these advantages.
“These guys at the top are such unbelievable returners,” Isner said. “It just makes it so tough. Really,the Europeans have kind of taken this game to a new level.”
Many fans viewed Roddick’s 2003 win as a changing of the guard in American tennis. Pete Sampras ended his illustrious career with the 2002 U.S. Open title. Andre Agassi followed with a 2003 Australian Open title,his last Grand Slam win. With Agassi’s victory,the U.S. secured a major title for the 15th straight year.
When Roddick failed to rack up titles like John McEnroe,Jimmy Connors,Sampras or Agassi did,fans got restless and critics said Americans were too lazy in training and too aggressive on the court to win.
“I think that the work ethic is back,” he said. “We hear what people say about Americans,us being lazy and all that,and we’re kind of proving that that’s not true.”
Blake said aggressive play has become necessary to beat highly ranked opponents. This differs from a generation ago,when poise and patience were rewarded.
“People weren’t playing the way I play,the way Roger plays years ago,” he said. “The way Nadal plays,with that much power and aggression,we’ll see if it makes for possibly shorter careers because guys are playing with so much power,and it takes a little bit of the finesse out.”
But training and strategy have not yet led to wins. In tennis years,Blake is over the hill at 31. Roddick is 28 but has appeared in only one Grand Slam final since 2006.
Young players such as Harrison and Donald Young are the latest U.S. hopes for the future. Harrison is the first American teen to beat a top-20 player in a Grand Slam since Roddick,and Young is the first American to win the Australian Open Junior Championship since Roddick.
American tennis is alive and well,Young said,”You’ve got Andy and Mardy and James and John and Sam [Querrey].”
Blake still has drive,but he knows he can’t play forever. He practices with Isner,who beat him in a third-set tiebreaker here Thursday,and has offered to train with Young and others.
“These kids,in five years when I’m sitting back and watching it,or if I’m commentating,or if I’m just taking about them,I’m going to have to be the first to admit that they’re better than I ever was,” Blake said.
“The improvement is incredible.”
Reach reporter Michael Stainbrook at [email protected] or 202-326-9868
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