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American golf and tennis players are shrinking from the world stage

Once dominant in the two most prominent individual sports, U.S. athletes have become increasingly hard to find in the world rankings. Here's a look at what happened, and what the future might hold.

June 14, 2011|By Diane Pucin
  • Martin Kaymer of Germany was inspired by the play of former No. 1-ranked American Tiger Woods. Kaymer won the PGA Championship in 2010 and held the top ranking for a short time earlier this year.
Martin Kaymer of Germany was inspired by the play of former No. 1-ranked… (Streeter Lecka / Getty Images )

Where are the Americans in the world's most prominent individual sports, golf and tennis?

Not on the leaderboards very often.

The sports' next majors begin soon — the U.S. Open men's golf championship on Thursday at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., and Wimbledon at the All England Lawn Tennis Club on Monday — and there doesn't seem much reason to expect an American winner.

On turf where, in the not-too-distant past, Americans dominated, they now mostly founder.

Last month, for the first time in the 38-year history of tennis rankings, no American man or woman was in the top 10. In the last major, the French Open, won by Spain's Rafael Nadal (men) and China's Li Na (women), no American even made it to the second week of play.

In golf, Britain's Luke Donald became the top-ranked men's player in the world two weeks ago. Since Tiger Woods surrendered that spot last October for the first time in more than five years, Germany's Martin Kaymer and Britain's Lee Westwood are others who have held the top spot.

No American holds a major title on the men's tour. Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell is the defending U.S. Open champion; South Africa's Charl Schwartzel won the 2011 Masters; Kaymer won the 2010 PGA Championship; and South African Louis Oosthuizen took the British Open last year.

At one point on Day 2 of the Masters in April, the 10 names on the leaderboard included only one American — 51-year-old Fred Couples.

Charles Howell III, an 11-year veteran of the PGA Tour, said the dominance of foreign players — Europeans in particular — was a "hot topic."

He cited two reasons for their success: "A lot of European guys went to college in the U.S. Paul Casey went to Arizona State, Luke Donald went to Northwestern, Graeme McDowell went to [Alabama Birmingham]. I find it all funny the commentary on the Europeans doing so well when they're coming here for college."

Also, Howell said, it was wrong to have expected the so-called Tiger Woods Effect to be a factor only in the United States.

"Tiger made golf popular around the world," Howell said. "Martin Kaymer looked up to Tiger; the Tiger influence didn't stop in America."

Nor was Annika Sorenstam's effect on the women's game felt only in Europe and the United States, said Sandra Gal of Germany, who won her first LPGA tournament title last winter in the City of Industry.

"I think a lot of women around the world watched Annika and became interested," Gal said of the Swedish star who became an American citizen in 2006. "I know some of the girls I've spoken to from Korea say that too."

American women have not fallen as far off the golf radar as the men. Cristie Kerr, who won the last LPGA Championship, is second in the world rankings behind Yani Tseng of Taiwan. Also, Paula Creamer won the last U.S. Open and 26-year-old Texan Stacy Lewis won the Kraft Nabisco Championship, this year's first major.

But there are only two Americans in the top 10 of the Rolex Rankings — Kerr and Michelle Wie, who is 10th. Six of the top 10 women are from Asia — Taiwan, Japan or South Korea.

Only five years ago, when the women's world golf rankings debuted, Sorenstam was No. 1 and Americans Creamer, Wie and Kerr were second, third and fifth.

In men's golf, Americans Woods, Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker were ranked 1-2-3 at the end of 2009, and Jim Furyk was No. 6. Now Stricker, at No. 4, leads the way.

In tennis, U.S. women — sisters Serena and Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati in some combination — owned the top three spots in the world rankings throughout 2001 and 2002. Now, Serena Williams, at No. 25, is the highest-ranked American woman. Venus is next at No. 32.

The best of the American men are No. 9 Mardy Fish and No. 10 Andy Roddick, whereas in 1995 the U.S. held the Nos. 1, 2, 5, 8 and 18 spots with Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Jim Courier and Todd Martin.

The reason for this gradual erosion?

In preparation to write his book "The Talent Code," author Daniel Coyle traveled the world to see why athletes from Europe and Asia were doing so well. He said he discovered one universal truth: "It's pretty simple. You practice more, you get better."

"Here in the U.S., we've fallen in love with the idea that athletic talent is a gift," he said. "That's a beautiful idea, that a baby is born with a gift, that a Michael Jordan had a divine spark, or that Serena Williams is so gifted that she can just go out and sell tennis shoes. But guess what? Turns out, that idea is fundamentally wrong."

Patrick McEnroe, general manager of player development for the United States Tennis Assn., agreed with Coyle.

"We tend to look for the stars when kids are 8 or 9," he said, "and it's the same in leagues like Pop Warner football and baseball's Little League. We tend to think of who can become professionals and the kids start thinking that way."

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