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BILL DWYRE

U.S. men's tennis missing its drive

An American man hasn't won a major title since 2003. Jose Higueras says a high percentage of the coaches want it more than the U.S. players.

March 07, 2014|Bill Dwyre
  • John Isner, ranked 13th in the world, is one of the few Americans ranked in the ATP Top 100.
John Isner, ranked 13th in the world, is one of the few Americans ranked in… (Robert Prezioso / Getty…)

Remember when we used to have exciting, successful men’s tennis players from the United States? Come on. Think hard. Press those thumbs to your temples.

Some hints. John McEnroe. Jimmy Connors. Pete Sampras. Michael Chang. Jim Courier. Andre Agassi.

Remember Andy Roddick? That wasn’t even that long ago.

All these guys won majors, some of them lots. All of them had a fire in their bellies, and the thought of losing wasn’t on their radar.

Roddick was the last man from the U.S. to win a major, if you can believe that. He won the U.S. Open in 2003, and since then U.S. men have won zero, zilch, nada. If they had victory podiums like the Olympics for Grand Slam tennis events, “The Star-Spangled Banner” would be a forgotten song.

Friday at Indian Wells, where they are holding a great tournament in a great venue, seemed like a good time to visit the problem.

To be clear, this is not exactly a burning societal issue. We get so much nationalism shoved down our throats by NBC during any Olympics that occasionally rooting for somebody from Ethiopia to hit a winning backhand feels kind of nice.

Plus, U.S. tennis fans have always managed to find a favorite foreign player, based on all the right stuff — winning, personality, playing style.

But still, every once in awhile, it would be nice to cheer for somebody from Milwaukee who actually has a chance against somebody from Minsk.

Not these days.

The U.S. has four men — yup, you only need one hand to count ’em — in the top 100. John Isner is No. 13, Sam Querrey No. 57, Bradley Klahn No. 64 and Donald Young No. 81. One U.S. man (Isner) won an ATP tour title last year.

Apparently, we don’t have much of a population base from which to draw athletes. But watch out, Bermuda. One of these days, we’ll catch up.

Jose Higueras is the No. 2 man, under Patrick McEnroe, in charge of U.S. player development. He is originally from Spain, won 16 tour titles and got to two French Open semifinals. He lives in the Palm Springs area, is 61, and was, as always, direct and to the point Friday.

So, Jose, what is the state of U.S. men’s tennis?

“It’s not good,” he said. “I’m losing a lot of sleep.”

We had just watched two of the jewels of the ATP development program. They had been given their shot on center court by tournament officials. They both lost. First, Klahn, a 23-year-old Stanford graduate and former NCAA champion, got knocked around by Marinko Matosevic of Australia, 6-4, 6-4. Matosevic was distinguishable by his tendency to make all the right shots at the right times and by his yellow shoelaces.

Next came Stevie Johnson, 24, the former NCAA champion from USC, who once won 72 college matches in a row. Johnson, just four courses short of his USC degree, was knocked around by Roberto Bautista Agut of Spain, 6-3, 6-3. Bautista Agut was distinguishable by his un-Spaniard-like ability to play the net and by his bright yellow shirt.

Klahn, of Poway, said afterward that he was satisfied with his progress and noted that most of the top 100 players were “27-28 years old, so I have some time to move up.”

Johnson, of Manhattan Beach, who is ranked No. 119, said he, too, was satisfied with his progress and added that, though Bautista Agut played a great match, “There are a lot of little things I am learning to get me better.”

Higueras was pretty much satisfied with nothing. When he spoke, he made it clear that he wasn’t speaking directly of Klahn and Johnson, but more generally.

Then he unloaded.

“We are lacking competitiveness in our players,” he said. “They’ve got good backhands and forehands and serves, but they lack an understanding of how the game needs to be played. We have good coaches, but the culture of our players needs to improve.”

Soon, more bodies were rolling under buses.

“I won’t use the excuse you hear all the time about all the good U.S. athletes playing football or basketball,” Higueras said. “Sure, if we didn’t have football and basketball in this country, there would be more guys playing tennis. But it’s an easy crutch.

“If our players were European, things would be different. Being No. 80 in the world wouldn’t be enough then.”

Another former player from the U.S., who was ranked in the top 40, spoke anonymously because his job is in tennis. But he echoed Higueras’ sentiments. He didn’t exactly say that today’s players are soft and coddled, but he said, “I used to play for the rent. These guys are paid and given lodging and wild cards. For them life is good.”

He said he has been told by coaches that some of the young U.S. prodigies refuse to partake in practice sessions longer than 45 minutes.

Higueras fired one last volley across the bow.

“When a high percentage of the coaches want it more than the players,” he said, “we have a problem.”

As the men’s draw headed toward its third day Saturday, there were five U.S. men still alive. They were Tim Smyczek, Ryan Harrison, Querrey, Isner and Michael Russell.

Here’s an idea. German veteran Tommy Haas is seeded 11th here. He lives in Los Angeles. Let’s rush through some citizenship papers.

bill.dwyre@latimes.com

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