Of late, American men haven’t given us much to be happy about when it comes to tennis.
On the women’s side, we’ve been fortunate enough to see one of the most dominant eras in the history of the WTA tour, as Serena Williams and her older sister Venus have made their presence felt throughout this decade. They’ve claimed a combined 24 Grand Slam titles dating back to 1999, and it would seem that their successors, in the form of players like Sloane Stephens, are coming into their own and keeping the outlook bright for American women.
For the men, it’s been a decade of unfortunate timing that began in September 2003. Pete Sampras retired in 2002 after an improbable US Open title run; he perfected what so many athletes routine fail at: leaving on top. Andre Agassi had more in him, winning tournaments regularly into the decade and remaining a force to be reckoned with nearly up until his retirement, as he made the 2005 US Open final (he left the game in 2006). Andy Roddick won his first (and, it turned out, only Slam) in New York in 2003, burying Juan Carlos Ferrero with his monster serve and taking the mantle from Sampras and Agassi as the future of American men’s tennis.
Then Roger Federer won 14 of a possible 24 Grand Slams between 2004 and 2009. Rafael Nadal entered the scene. Novak Djokovic found his form, and Andy Murray captured the heart of the United Kingdom. Roddick struggled with finding the right coach and dealing with superior returners who could neutralize his blistering serve. He had a powerful forehand as well, like Sampras did, but he didn’t quite have one more weapon that could consistently put him over the top, as Sampras’ preternatural volleying ability simply overpowered most opponents. For more contrast, remember that picking on Sampras’ backhand, probably his weakest stroke, was never a great option for his opponents like it was for Roddick’s; Sampras’ was more reliable and could generate winners from more positions on the court. Roddick struggled with consistency and was never a regular threat from the backhand side.
This is not to say he had a disappointing career, not by any stretch. He made the Wimbledon final three times and the US Open final one more time, losing to Federer in each of those matches, the 2009 Wimbledon final a particularly crushing loss. It happened in the midst of a great season for him, and he lost despite only losing his serve once, in the final game of an epic 16-14 fifth set that could easily have gone either way. Even later on, he was formidable, with Federer himself telling reporters after losing to him at the Sony Ericsson in 2012, “He’s still very good. I hope you guys give him more credit than he’s getting at the moment.”
Roddick remained the American fixture in the top 10 through the decade, but others came and went, including James Blake (career-high number 4 ranking) and Mardy Fish (a late bloomer who peaked at number 7 in 2011). We now turn to Sam Querrey and John Isner, both tall practitioners of “big-man tennis,” both possessing big serves and forehands to match, though with nothing more to show for it between them than 14 total titles (Federer has 77) a high of world number 9 (for Isner), a quarterfinal exit at the 2011 US Open (Isner again), the record holder for most consecutive aces in a match (Querrey) and one of the participants in that famous 11-hour Wimbledon marathon (Isner). Even today’s brand of big-man tennis is largely unproven; Juan Martín del Potro, who probably exemplifies it best when healthy, has only one Slam title to his name.
Though there are others in the pipeline, such as Jack Sock and Bradley Klahn, there is no mistaking the fact that American tennis has been in a transitional period, with the future highly uncertain as to when we will see another great champion representing the red, white, and blue.