It wasn’t that long ago that United States men’s tennis dominated the world. Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Pete Sampras, Las Vegas native Andre Agassi and Arthur Ashe are just some of the iconic names of American players that helped build the sport. Now, much like heavyweight boxing, the international makeup at the top tier has changed and even the best American players are second level at best and also rans at worse. While there’s no shortage of finger pointing and rationalization about why US men’s tennis is struggling things just continue to get worse. The latest blow is the withdrawal of John Isner, who has withdrawn from the Australian Open citing injury.
Isner may be the best American men’s player at the moment but he wasn’t considered much of a threat to win the Australian Open that begins in Melbourne this weekend. He’s ranked #14 in the world and has never advanced past the fourth round of the season’s opening Grand Slam event. One problem among the current crop of American tennis players is the same that plagues the sport all over the world–a lack of toughness. Isner is claiming that he can’t play due to a bruised knee, even giving the borderline comical diagnosis that to play with this slight discomfort puts the knee at the risk of more serious injury. Judging from the gravity of his ersatz diagnosis you’d think he’s Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III and not a pedestrian level tennis professional.
Isner’s lack of heart and resolve is in marked contrast to the aforementioned American tennis legends who were to a man known for their grit and toughness. Sampras may have been a little less flamboyant than warriors like Ashe, Connors and McEnroe but there was never doubting the competitive fire and intensity of US tennis professionals. Now all it takes is a little bruise combined with some hot weather–never mind that it is summer in Australia–and these ‘delicate flowers’ that pass for athletes can’t be bothered to compete. There’s nothing wrong with the lucrative sponsorship deals that are available to modern tennis professionals but in many ways it seems to have undermined the resolve to actually compete and win. Other than competitive pride–and greater marketability–there’s not much incentive for most pros to fight hard for tournament victories. In Isner’s case it appears that just being the top US tennis player in a serious competitive lull for Americans in the sport is ‘good enough’. That’s a shameful way to approach any profession.