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The Surprising Reason for the Decline of American Tennis

One thing seems certain as the 2011 U.S. Open draws to a close: An American man will not win this year’s championship. Andy Roddick was both the last American to win a men’s grand slam event (the 2003 U.S. Open) and the last to compete for one (losing to Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2009). It’s by far the longest stretch of time without an American winner since the Open era began in 1968. Only one American man is currently ranked in the ATP top 10, only two in the top 20, and only three in the top 50.

The situation on the women’s side is more dire still, despite the bright moments for Christina McHale and Sloane Stephens—and it would be even worse if not for the Williams sisters. Aside from Venus and Serena, no American woman has claimed a grand slam title since Jennifer Capriati won the Australian Open in 2002, and none has made a final since Lindsay Davenport in 2006 at Wimbledon. When the seeds for this year’s U.S. Open were announced, there was only one American among the 32: Serena Williams, who, owing to serious injuries, barely had the points to qualify for a seed. Two years ago, Melanie Oudin reached the fourth round at Wimbledon and the quarters at the Open and was being touted as the next American star; she is currently ranked 120.

This dramatic American decline has coincided with the rise of Latin America and especially Eastern and Southern Europe. There were already signs of this in the late 1970s and 1980s, and particularly in the 1990s as the Cold War ended and opportunities for athletes from the Soviet bloc grew. But in recent years the trend has been overwhelming. Of the top 50 men and women, more than 80 percent are from Europe and roughly 90 percent are from Europe or Latin America. On the men’s side, the Spanish have been most impressive, with three of the top ten, four of the top 20, and eleven of the top 50; but the French (six in the top 50), the countries of the former Soviet Union (five), and the Serbs (four) are also well-represented. On the women’s side, it’s the Russians who have been most successful. Russians and players from other parts of the former Soviet Union account for twelve of the top 50 women, followed by the Czechs (five), the Italians (four), the Germans (three), and the Slovaks (three).

How can we explain this? Is it the strength of their junior programs? Is it the support of their local or national governments? Is it the wealth and resources of their populations? Is it something about their cultures and characters? It would be difficult to identify any of these variables as a distinguishing factor. These countries have, for the most part, been on what can be called the “peripheries” of the world economy since the advent of the industrial revolution. They have been regarded as relatively poor and undeveloped, subject to political instability and repression. State involvement in the sports world has been on the slide for the past quarter century. There has been no special tennis tradition in any of them.

But all these countries do have one important thing in common: They largely play tennis on red clay. This may seem like a counterintuitive explanation, since clay court tennis is something of a specialty niche. Three out of four of the grand slams are on hard courts or grass, which are much faster surfaces and cater to players with big serves and rocketing ground strokes. Clay is a much slower surface. It’s much more difficult to serve aces or hit winners from the baseline or volley effectively. The game tends to favor the grinders who play more of a defensive game and hit very heavy (lots of top spin) balls. Spain’s Rafael Nadal is, of course, the classic example, and his record on clay has been nothing short of astonishing.

But Nadal did not remain a clay-court specialist. He’s made the transition to hard courts and grass with great success. So have many others who learned the game on clay, including Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, and Justine Henin—indeed almost anyone who grew up in continental Europe or Latin America. What gives?

The answer is the training and foundation that clay-court tennis provides. That, at least, is what the United States Tennis Association seems to think; as Tom Perrotta reported several months ago in The Wall Street Journal, the group has recently been pushing clay court training. The rationale has to do with the different types of skills that players develop when they learn to play on clay courts instead of hard courts. In the United States, where juniors learn mostly on hard courts, the emphasis is on power. Coaches tend to stress hitting hard on serves and ground strokes and pasting the lines. The idea is to get the point over quickly. Hit deep, hit a good angle, hit down the line, get a short ball, boom. By the time you reach the 16s (the 16-and-under division of the USTA) the ball is moving much faster than the kids, and the players who really blast it are most revered. Juniors who are more patient, more defensive, and focus on constructing points are derided as “pushers.”

On clay the orientation is very different. Coaches stress technique and fundamentals, beginning with legs and footwork. After all, you do get bad bounces and you may have to stay out on the court for a long time. The key is to have your feet in almost perpetual motion and to slide into the ball. Legs have to be both strong and agile. Clay court coaches also encourage young players to develop a variety of shots (slices, drop shots) and to use the entire court.

Needless to say, this is not the formula for success in the top echelons of the professional game, where serves can hit 140 mph and even ground strokes can fly at over 80 mph. But the fact that clay-courters seem to have made such a successful transition to hard courts certainly raises the possibility that learning tennis on clay creates not just better clay-court players but better hard-court players too.

When we recently asked Brad Gilbert—former top-five player, coach, and one of the most thoughtful and knowledgeable observers of the game—what he thought about the state of American tennis and the hegemony of the Europeans, he wondered about the relative popularity of the sport on both sides of the Atlantic and the costs involved in training juniors. But he readily acknowledged the significance of early experience on clay. His own game bore resemblance to that of the clay courters: He worked the court and was a master strategist. Unfortunately, he added, there are very few clay courts in the United States.

This is not the first time in tennis history that the geopolitics of the sport have shifted based on the surfaces where it is played. The origins of tennis can be traced at least to twelfth century Europe, when monks and later monarchs and aristocrats developed versions of it (remember the Tennis Court Oath in the early moments of the French Revolution?). But the modern game emerged in the late nineteenth century among the upper classes of England and the United States, adapted to the sites of their other favorite sports, cricket and croquet. Thus, it wasn’t simply tennis; it was lawn tennis, and would remain lawn tennis into the Open era (what had been the United States Lawn Tennis Association since its founding in 1881 officially dropped “Lawn” in 1975). And during the first decades of organized competition (chiefly amateur), the Americans, English, and, to a lesser extent, the French (who played on clay but in the late 1920s did very well on grass) and Germans—the imperial center—predominated. Not surprisingly, tennis also gained a foothold in outposts of the British empire—India, Egypt, and especially Australia—and, for a period, the Australians pushed the English and the Americans off center stage.

But by the mid-1970s, grass court tennis had been increasingly marginalized. The U.S. Open abandoned grass in 1975 and the Australian Open did so in 1987, leaving Wimbledon as the sole grass court slam. Hard courts became the norm, initially favoring the Americans who were raised on them. The 1990s saw Americans dominate the sport.

Now, as tennis has become more global in its reach, players from what had been the peripheries of the world political economy have begun to compete effectively: Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Spain, Italy, Serbia, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Romania, the Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Russia, and Sweden. To these may be added “core” nations like France and Switzerland, though many of their players, like Roger Federer, have family roots in Africa, the Caribbean, and Eastern Europe. It is a new world order of the sport. And, however improbably, it rests on feet of clay.

Steven Hahn is a professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania. Declan Hahn is a highly ranked player in the USTA Juniors.