Seriously Speaking: Time for America’s best to show their true colors
by Staff Writer
Now be honest: How many of you actually knew the French Open was taking place this week?
I guess if you’re a diehard tennis fan or perhaps someone who occasionally keeps watching ESPN’s “SportsCenter” after the NBA highlights are done, you’re aware that they’re playing some tennis at Roland Garros this week. But for the most part, if you’re the average American sports fan, you probably don’t know.
Even worse, you probably don’t care.
Sure, we’re talking about the early rounds, but the French Open hardly has made a ripple on the national sports landscape this week. That’s unheard of for a Grand Slam event.
Why would so many of us be indifferent about a sport as great as tennis, particularly one of its signature events?
Well, it’s the same reason boxing interest has waned over the years. It’s the same reason golf’s television ratings have suffered since late 2009: The number of Americans playing prominent roles in the sport has dwindled beyond belief.
We’re a nation of sports fans that thrives on patriotism. How else do you explain why the greatest sports memory for so many Americans isn’t a World Series or a Super Bowl but instead the Miracle on Ice? An uncanny percentage of us cherish that collection of U.S. hockey players that defeated the Soviet Union in the semifinals of the 1980 Olympic Games – even though we couldn’t give a darn about hockey at any other time in our lives. The same thing goes for all of us who nearly broke our remotes trying to DVR American swimmer Michael Phelps during the 2008 Olympics when, meanwhile, we couldn’t tell you the difference between a breaststroke and a butterfly.
So when we’re confronted with a French Open field that doesn’t have an American as a contender – such as Pete Sampras and Lindsay Davenport in years past, or Andy Roddick and Serena Williams more recently – we emotionally move on to a sport that’s littered with Red, White and Blue heroes, like mixed martial arts or something.
It’s the American way, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that.
People from all walks of life usually have more of a connection when people from their personal demographic are doing well. Did many white people take special pride in Larry Bird’s ascension as one of the greatest basketball players in a league dominated by African-Americans? Yes. Did African-Americans and people of Thai heritage become more emotionally invested when Tiger Woods began taking his place among the legends of golf, a sport that was devoid of minority heroes? You bet.
And, again, there’s nothing wrong with that.
The problem for American tennis, boxing and golf fans right now is: Our countrymen need to step up. We’re getting close to being desperate for heroes in those sports.
Even before Roddick had to withdraw from the French Open last week with a shoulder injury, it’s not as if he’d been piling up victories. Although he’d spent time as the world’s No. 1 player in 2003 – the last time an American man won a Grand Slam singles title, by the way – he hadn’t won a match since March.
As expected, with Roddick out of the French Open, things looked woeful, as seven of the nine American men were eliminated in the first round, with only Mardy Fish and Sam Querrey advancing. Querrey, though, was done in the second round, and Fish was gone in the third.
Then again, should we be surprised? There hasn’t been an American man in the French quarterfinals since 2003, when Andre Agassi did it. That’s embarrassing for a nation with Sampras, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Arthur Ashe and Jim Courier in its lineage.
With Venus and Serena Williams out of action this week because of injuries, things have been just as bad for the American women in France. Our last best hope was Vania King, who was ranked 115th and won a pair of matches. King, however, failed to reach the quarterfinals, meaning that for only the second time in the Open era, which began in 1968, no American man or woman reached the round of 16 at any Grand Slam tournament. And the only other time that had happened was in 1973, when no Americans entered the Australian Open.
The 29-year-old Fish and 28-year-old Roddick are the highest-ranked American men in the sport right now, coming in at 10th and 11th, respectively, and you have to wonder if their best tennis is behind them. And with the Williams sisters seemingly in the late stages of their careers – Venus will be 31 this month, while Serena turns 30 in September – is there another American woman ready to step forth and challenge for Grand Slam titles?
Look, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer are remarkable tennis players. Before their careers are over, they just might be the two best ever to pick up a racket. Sorry, American fans, but it’s true. But until an American man or woman starts winning tournaments, tennis in this country is going to face a similar fate as boxing, meaning only the sport’s diehards will follow it regularly.
Vitali Klitschko is one heck of a boxer, but he has zero appeal to folks in this country. Who’s going to cough up pay-per-view dollars when all he’s doing is knocking out little-known Americans? Excuse me, but I’ll pass on that fight party.
Golf – which, like tennis and boxing is an individual sport – isn’t in as bad a position as the others. Not yet anyway. But Woods’ downward spiral over the past year or so certainly affects golf’s chances of capturing mainstream America’s attention on championship Sundays again.
While there are some promising American golfers out there – Nick Watney, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan, to name a few – one of them has to prove he’s ready to take over for Woods and Phil Mickelson. One of them has to prove he’s ready to be good enough to hold the country’s attention.
As it is, the last four majors have been won by international players. But no matter how good Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel and Germany’s Martin Kaymer are, they simply won’t make the masses in this country stop and take notice.
Much like all those great foreign-born players at this year’s French Open.