— If your morning commute is longer than the average commercial break, it just takes a day or two of tailgating your way through the express lane before you’ll become an expert on bumper stickers. You know who has an honor student, who’s creepily attracted to their Goldendoodle and who’s still not embarrassed by their choice in the 2004 election.
My recent favorite vinyl opinion is the one I saw on a double-parked sedan, a faded run-on sentence that said if I’m not outraged, I’m not paying attention.
The driver probably didn’t slap that on his Subaru after seeing last week’s tennis rankings but, for a lot of people, it fits. When those now-infamous ATP and WTA top ten lists were released last Monday, it became the first time since the rankings were established that there were zero Americans — not one man or one Williams sister — on either chart.
“A historic low,” sighed a number of headlines. The American-free top 10 lasted a week before Mardy Fish grabbed the No. 10 spot with both hands, but the damage had been done. And when it comes to men’s tennis, America’s slipping ATP rankings are the exact opposite of that bumper sticker: If you are outraged, you aren’t paying attention.
Watching our players fall in the polls isn’t a new fad, and it’s certainly not surprising, not to anyone who has watched an increasing number of Europeans kick our grasses (or our clays, hardcourts or Plexicushions). It doesn’t mean that there’s anything wrong with American players; those rankings — along with the Grand Slams, the Davis Cups and the fact that we just outlasted Kazakhstan at the World Team Cup — show what a truly global sport tennis has become.
“The world has developed more tennis players,” broadcaster and historian Bud Collins told the New York Times. “It used to be us and the Australians, a couple British guys and the odd French or Italian. But the rest of the world has progressed.”
Yes, it has. This week’s 10 — the one where Fish is hanging by one racquet string — features players from nine different countries. The same goes for the WTA, where eight different nationalities are bunched behind Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki.
“We’re kind of a victim of our own success,” Andy Roddick said during the Rome Masters. “If you still stack us up over most countries, we’re coming out ahead. I feel like I’ve handled my part for more than a decade. I’ve been doing my job for a long time.”
Roddick is right, in that he’s done his part. His 2003 U.S. Open win was the last time an American man held up a shiny silver trophy and, unless the Roland Garros staff serves a buffet of bad hollandaise to half the field, America’s longest major drought isn’t going to end at the French Open.
After withdrawing from the not-so-Nice Open with a shoulder injury, Roddick might not be able to play, which puts all of America’s hopes on the slim shoulders of Mardy Fish, who’s never reached the semifinals of a Grand Slam.
“I’m excited about my form going into the French Open,” Fish said. “I’ve never made it past the second round but I’ve certainly put in the work.”
Despite Fish’s optimism and Roddick’s insistence, the ATP charts show that we’re way past the glory days of American tennis, a period that—coincidentally — seemed to peak around the time Bruce Springsteen recorded that song.
When “Glory Days” was on the pop charts in 1985, there were 35 Americans in the ATP Top 100. As of Monday, there were nine (And only seven of those players were, um, Born in the U.S.A. — No. 70 Ryan Sweeting and No. 84 Alex Bogomolov hail from the Bahamas and Russia, respectively.)
By contrast in 1985, Spain had three men in the top 100; today, they have 14, including No. 1 Rafael Nadal and No. 7 David Ferrer.
So between defending champion Nadal and the streaking Novak Djokovic — the Serbian Sensation that Sports Illustrated described as “the most dominant athlete in the world” — the only American thing in the French Open final might be the Nike swooshes on Nadal’s sweatbands.
Get used to seeing less familiar flags in the onscreen graphics. Despite Fish’s improved performance, he’s approaching 30 years old. Roddick is 28. And James Blake — America's only other active former Top 10 player — has been sideswiped by more injuries, illnesses and outright bad luck than a week’s worth of TODAY Show guests.
It doesn’t look like The Next Pete Sampras or The Next Andre Agassi or, hell, even The Next Michael Chang is loitering in the lower half of the rankings, either. Some of our would-be phenoms have started to look more like should’ve beens. Twenty-one year old Donald Young — No. 95 this week — still hasn’t grown into his potential. He followed his 2007 Junior Wimbledon win with a 16-48 singles record and a recent Twitter tantrum that paraphrased Cee-Lo Green but didn’t exactly endear him to the USTA.
So why aren’t we churning out a training center’s worth of Next Bests, kids who could grow up and collect more oversized platters than Kate Middleton at her wedding reception? Because our best athletes don’t always reach for a tennis racquet. American tennis’ major competition isn’t Spain or Germany or France; it’s baseball and basketball and the kind of football where you can use your hands.
That’s not the case in Europe, which is part of the reason why the multinational ATP rankings could confuse Carmen San Diego. Other than soccer, tennis might be the most global game going right now, and that doesn’t mean that there’s anything “wrong” with American players.
It just means that if you’re not paying attention, you’re probably missing some spectacular shots. You can put that on a bumper sticker.