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Couch: Why Is US Men’s Tennis A Bunch Of Guys You Never Heard Of?

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His name isn’t Edwin, but close enough. I’m not going to give away the names of players I’m recruiting. I’m the head tennis coach at Roosevelt University in Chicago, and I’m hoping Edwin will be a freshman playing for me in the fall.

He is part of a lost generation. Edwin has nice strokes, excellent movement, a perfect disposition and a preposterous serve. I told him to slide his hand down to hang off the bottom edge of his racquet, and his next three serves were fantastic. He was thrilled! He loves the game, plays every day, wants to be good. I mentioned Andy Roddick, the last real American men’s champion who had a great serve and. . .

Edwin drew a blank. He does not know who Roddick is. Never heard of him.

This lost generation of American men’s tennis doesn’t even have a role model anymore. The memory of Roddick doesn’t even linger over American tennis anymore like smoke on the water. Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras might as well have played in black and white. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors?

Who?

Roddick was the last American man to win a major championship, winning the U.S. Open in September of 2003. Edwin was born in February of 2002. On Sunday, I signed an amazing girl from suburban Chicago named Emaira. She was born three weeks before Roddick’s big win.

The point is this: American men’s tennis has now skipped an entire generation. It has been so long since an American man won a major that today’s incoming college freshmen have never seen it happen, have no reference point. Even today’s college seniors wouldn’t remember it.

The story in the U.S. media during every tennis major the past 10 years has gone something like this: Day 1: Americans men are off to a great start! The future looks bright! Day 3 and 4: The Americans are out. What’s wrong with American tennis?

The last American man standing at the Australian Open was some guy named Mackenzie McDonald, who lost the other day in the final 16. McDonald is best known for, well… no, he’s not known at all.

So what happened? Well, there are lots of theories, including that the U.S. Tennis Association doesn’t know how to identify a champion from an early age. Or that American kids have too many options. Or they’re lazy. Or they’re all so wealthy that they don’t need tennis to dig their way out.

As a coach at a small college, I hate the way tennis is taught in the U.S. It has become too formulaic, too focused on trying to build the next superhero, as if you can do it with Legos. This part goes here, that part goes there.

I worked at a club in suburban Chicago, teaching little kids. I used to throw rapid fire balls at those kids, stopping only to spend 20 minutes on serve. The kids would laugh as I’d say, “Great shot! Great shot! Terrible shot! Ohmygod no! Woohoo!” A new head pro came in with a three-ring binder of scientifically designed approaches. He taught a 5-year-old that a racquet is like a steering wheel and then lofted a ball so they could learn to punch it. I think those kids were hitting 20 balls an hour. Mine hit probably 400.

The next great American men’s champion is going to come naturally. He’s going to come because he has a blast playing when he’s 5. The more 5-year-olds having fun, the more likely a champion will emerge. The more balls he hits, the better.

Sure, it’s not that simple. But as I look around the college tennis landscape, most top teams have rosters filled with foreign kids. Meanwhile, colleges are so obsessed with football that they’ve overspent their way into massive debt. And rather than not importing foreign mahogany for football lockers, they’ve chosen to eliminate non-revenue programs, such as tennis. Title IX laws require that women get equal opportunities to men, so women’s college tennis is well-funded.

And American women’s tennis is still a force in the world.

This isn’t about lack of hunger among American kids. If it were, we wouldn’t dominate in basketball or football.

Tennis is an international sport, and Americans rarely cheer foreign athletes. For tennis nuts, Roger Federer is perfection. To general sports fans in the US, he’s a violin concerto. 

American sports fans want a badass. US tennis fans need their own Travis Scott. Or better yet, Cardi B.

They’ve been supercharged through the decades only by loudmouths: Roddick, Agassi (while ignoring the well-mannered Sampras), McEnroe and Connors.

The greatest generation of American men’s tennis — Sampras, Agassi, Jim Courier and others — were thrown into the same place together as kids to beat the crap out of each other.

The next American men’s champion will come from the sticks somewhere, a place that teaches kids to bang a serve, crush a forehand and nothing else. He’ll ignore coaches with three-ring binders and the American style of tennis that develops top 100 players who lose to the greats in the second round.

It’ll be some brash kid who comes up cocky. If the USTA wants to help, it can keep funding the best kids coming up, but maybe just focus on making the game cool, fun and cheap. Get as many kids out there as possible having fun.

The next great one will find his way. And maybe help American kids connect with college coaches.

I’m easy to find. Edwin doesn’t have to be lost.

Written by Greg Couch

Greg earned the 2007 Peter Lisagor Award as the best sports columnist in the Chicagoland area for his work with the Chicago Sun-Times, where he started as a college football writer in 1997 before becoming a general columnist in 2003. He also won a Lisagor in 2016 for his commentary in RollingStone.com and The Guardian.

Couch penned articles and columns for CNN.com/Bleacher Report, AOL Fanhouse, and The Sporting News and contributed as a writer and on-air analyst for FoxSports.com and Fox Sports 1 TV. In his journalistic roles, Couch has covered the grandest stages of tennis from Wimbledon to the Olympics, among numerous national and international sporting spectacles. He also won first place awards from the U.S. Tennis Writers Association for his event coverage and column writing on the sport in 2010.

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  1. Good summary, although for a good number of Division 1 schools the football program funds everything else. In a way, I would like the football to be drained dry and then the whole swamp of college athletics would dry up. No women’s sports at all….which is the only way reality would intrude on the WNBA set.

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