Decline Watch: Do American men suck at tennis?

Today’s American decline story is a piece that ran recently on sister-site Slate by Eliot Spitzer on how "How the decline of American men’s tennis can explain global economics." State your case, Mr. Governor: For those of us who came of age watching Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe do battle, followed by years-long domination by ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
549649_roddick_02.jpg
549649_roddick_02.jpg
during Day Twelve of the 2011 US Open at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center on September 9, 2011 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City.

Today's American decline story is a piece that ran recently on sister-site Slate by Eliot Spitzer on how "How the decline of American men's tennis can explain global economics." State your case, Mr. Governor:

For those of us who came of age watching Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe do battle, followed by years-long domination by Pete Sampras, something is missing at this Open, something, unfortunately, that we have gotten used to over the past several years: a legitimate American men's challenger. The field is dominated so totally by the grace of Roger Federer, the power of Rafael Nadal, and the flawless execution of Novak Djokovic, that it's easy to forget that it has been eight years since an American man-Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open-has won a Grand Slam tournament. Indeed, the only American among the top 10 men's seeds this year is No. 8 Mardy Fish. The next American man-Andy Roddick-is seeded 21st.

I can't help but see men's tennis as a metaphor for America's long-term struggles. Twenty years ago, the U.S. was the undisputed superpower. The Berlin Wall had fallen. Our economy was the symbol of capitalism ascendant over all other ideologies. President Reagan had restored Morning in America. And the U.S. dominated the men's tennis circuit.

Today’s American decline story is a piece that ran recently on sister-site Slate by Eliot Spitzer on how "How the decline of American men’s tennis can explain global economics." State your case, Mr. Governor:

For those of us who came of age watching Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe do battle, followed by years-long domination by Pete Sampras, something is missing at this Open, something, unfortunately, that we have gotten used to over the past several years: a legitimate American men’s challenger. The field is dominated so totally by the grace of Roger Federer, the power of Rafael Nadal, and the flawless execution of Novak Djokovic, that it’s easy to forget that it has been eight years since an American man-Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open-has won a Grand Slam tournament. Indeed, the only American among the top 10 men’s seeds this year is No. 8 Mardy Fish. The next American man-Andy Roddick-is seeded 21st.

I can’t help but see men’s tennis as a metaphor for America’s long-term struggles. Twenty years ago, the U.S. was the undisputed superpower. The Berlin Wall had fallen. Our economy was the symbol of capitalism ascendant over all other ideologies. President Reagan had restored Morning in America. And the U.S. dominated the men’s tennis circuit.

Twenty years ago, four American men graced the top 10: Jim Courier, Ivan Lendl (who got a green card in 1987), Sampras, and Andre Agassi. And McEnroe still survived at No. 17. In the entire ’90s, American men won an amazing six U.S. Open championships and an even more amazing seven Wimbledon titles. We were at the top of our game.

So what does this mean? As a tennis player, I hope the lesson is: If we regain our stature in the tennis pantheon, our position in global affairs will return.

The piece was written before the U.S. Open, and the final results … sort of … bore out his conclusion. There were two American men in the top eight, Andy Roddick and John Isner, but both were knocked out in the quarterfinals. And of course, Serbia’s Novak Djokovic went on to defeat Spain Rafael Nadal in the final.

Verdict: 2 (See yesterday’s post for the scoring system.)

I was pretty skeptical of this one, thinking that Spitzer seemed to be cherry-picking data. Looking at the full world Top 100, there nine American men. That’s puts the U.S. at second behind Spain — which has 14, including two in the top 10 — and slightly ahead of France, which has eight.

That doesn’t seem so bad, until you look back to 1991 when there were 19 Americans on the top 100. As Spitzer notes, this was something of a golden age for men’s tennis. But look back to 1973 — the year the ATP rankings began — and there were 24 American men in the top 100.

You might think, given the prominence of Serena Williams, that things are better for the USA over on the women’s side. But only seven American women are currently ranked in the top 100, compared with 14 Russians.

Maybe Spitzer does have a point. The reason this doesn’t get a 1 is that, unlike Olympic medals, tennis isn’t a very accurate proxy for superpower competition. Spain and Serbia aren’t exactly rising powers in the real world. India and China aren’t really major factors in tennis yet, though there are an increasing number of Chinese players in the women’s top 100, including, No. 5 ranked Li Na.

Maybe the world is a flat court after all.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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