NEW YORK -- There is nothing quite as American as the U.S. Open. The bright lights, the larger-than-necessary stadium, the influx of celebrities, the crowded grounds, and the non-stop excitement and drama are, for better and for worse, a microcosm of our over-the-top, go-big-or-go-home culture.
But there's one place that you won't find any remnants of America: the top of the men's draw.
Though the state of things has been in decline for a while, there have been a lot of terrible "firsts" for American men in 2013. At Wimbledon, no American man made the third round for the first time since 1912. Earlier this month, for one week, all of the American men dropped out of the top 20 for the first time since the rankings system was invented 40 years ago.
And now, as the eyes of the nation focus in on tennis for the fortnight, they will see that there are no American men seeded in the top 10 at the U.S. Open for the first time ever. In fact, there are only two Americans seeded at all, No. 13 John Isner and No. 26 Sam Querrey, and there are only four other Americans ranked in the top 100, all of them ranked 87 or higher. Two of those guys, James Blake and Michael Russell, are in the twilight (or beyond) of their careers.
This year marks the 10-year anniversary of Andy Roddick's U.S. Open victory, which was also the last time an American won any Grand Slam. Looking on the horizon, it's hard to see another American male winning one in the next 10 years.
There's a possibility that things will have to get worse before they get better.
That is an alarming thought for a nation that bred such greats in back-to-back generations as John McEnroe, Jimmy Connors, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, and Andre Agassi.
And considering the U.S. Open is the largest tennis tournament in the world, and garners around $200 million for the United States Tennis Association, approximately 15% of which goes to the Player Development Program, it raises a lot of questions.
In late 2008, the USTA Player Development Program, which has been around for over 20 years, doubled their budget and completely overhauled their staff. Along with bringing Patrick McEnroe on board as the general manager of player development, they hired Jose Higueras, one of the most successful tennis coaches in the history of the sport, as the director of coaching.
Higueras has worked with some of the greatest players in the history of the sport, including Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer.
The USTA -- and the Player Development Program in particular -- has been widely criticized throughout the years by players and media alike, most notably and recently by Wayne Bryan, the father of the No. 1 doubles team Bob and Mike Bryan.
As I watched the American men attempt -- and mostly fail -- to qualify for the U.S. Open last week, I went to Higueras for a response to these critiques, hoping for answers or, at the very least, explanations.
"To me, that's one of the things that's a little disappointing, is how many people dislike the USTA," Higueras said. "I ask some players, 'Why do you hate the USTA?' Guess what? Most of them don't have an answer."
"There's some misconceptions with how much money Player Development gets," he said. "They say, 'Oh, you guys get $17 million.' Yes, but we have five divisions, we have three National Tennis Centers that we pay all the expenses for. [We pay for] the junior competitions, for talent I.D., for coaches and education. We have 54 people on staff. A very small portion of that goes to the players."
"We have 20 national coaches for the United States, 10 men and 10 women. France has 64, and France is the size of California. There are huge challenges."
Still, Higueras revels in the unenviable task, and he feels like the program is moving in the right direction. "I think we're helping so many players. It just takes time," he said. "When I started this job it was below ground. We're still pretty much just scrapping to get above ground, but we'll get there."
Brad Gilbert, the coach and ESPN commentator who began working with the USTA this summer as a coaching consultant, echoed that sentiment.
"The USTA is doing a lot more. They have a lot more of their coaching, they have a full-time facility down in Boca," he told me as he waited in the stands to watch 16-year-old American Jared Donaldson play in the final round of the qualification tournament.
"I'm hopeful that something good will happen."
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Donald Young, 24, used to be considered the future of American tennis. As the legend goes, John McEnroe discovered his talent during a hitting session when Young was only 10 years old, and demanded that IMG sign him immediately.
As swiftly as he was pronounced the future, he became a cautionary tale, an example of what happens when a kid gets too much too soon.
He reached No. 1 in the junior rankings when he was just 15, and around the same time, he began receiving wild cards into ATP events. For years, the wild cards flew in, but Young had little to show for it. He lost his first 10 ATP main draw matches, and didn't enter an ATP tournament on the strength of his own ranking until three years later.
These days, the former wild card can go by another name, one that comes with a little more pride: qualifier.
Of the 16 American men who entered the U.S. Open qualification tournament, he was the only one still standing after three rounds. His reward is a well-earned spot in the main draw of the 2013 U.S. Open, where he'll face No. 46-ranked Martin Klizan in the first round.
The qualifying tournament is a 128-man-duel to earn 16 vacant spots in the main draw. Held the week before the main event, the U.S. Open qualifying tournament, or "quallies" as it is colloquially known, is a free-to-the-public extravaganza held at Billie Jean King National Tennis Center.
As the players, primarily ranked between No. 100 and No. 200, compete for a spot that could change the course of their careers, it's made pretty clear that they are a step below an opening act. The focus on the grounds is getting ready for the main draw. During their matches the DJ tests music choices on the loudspeakers, the stars practice and fine-tune their games on the show courts, and the television booths are constructed.
"When we get here, we're kind-of the test bunnies," Young said. "It's little things, like when you get here, the towels aren't washed, so the fuzz gets all over your body and your face."
"They're washed by the time the main-draw guys get here."
Quallies is a far cry from a night session on Arthur Ashe Stadium, where Young electrifyingly took James Blake to five sets back in 2008, but he didn't let a little fuzz get in his way. He took out all three opponents in his path in straight sets, and looked fit and focused doing so, showing glimpses of the versatility and touch that caught McEnroe's eye so many years ago.
"I feel good," he said after his victory on Friday. "I'm just happy to get through, play well for three rounds, and qualify for the show."
Young is soft-spoken and nice, yet understandably distant. Though he's an adult now, he was a product long before he was a fully-fledged person.
Through his career, Young has had a tumultuous relationship with the USTA. His parents, Donald Sr. & Illona, are his coaches, and though the USTA has given Young a lot of support, they have also tried to get him to branch out and accept coaching help from others.
His most successful year to date was 2011, when he made the semifinals of the Legg Mason tournament in Washington, D.C., the fourth round of the U.S. Open, the final of the event in Bangkok, Thailand, and saw his ranking climb as high as No. 38 in the world. During most of this period, he was working with the USTA.
However, at the end of that season he decided to split ways.
Since the start of 2012, Young has been back with his parents. In that time, he's suffered a 17-match losing skid, the third-longest in the history of the ATP, and seen his ranking plummet to No. 156.
On Friday, he said that he was comfortable working with his parents. "It's going good. It's what I'm used to."
Young said this decision to leave the USTA in 2011 boiled down to a "difference of opinion," but that his relationship with them these days is "kosher."
"I've known Donald for a long time. It's kind of a long story," Higueras said. "He's had some good success. Sometimes he has a hard time keeping that success going. I think he's a talented kid. He's like any other professional athlete; I think he just needs to get into the right situation. I'm not saying he's not in the right situation, but I'm just saying as a whole, it's a very competitive business, and you cannot give an advantage to anybody."
For now, the man who used to seem like a sure-fire bet to win Grand Slams and take over the mantle of American tennis is just happy to make it through the qualifying tournament.
"I'm working hard. It might not be the way other people think I should be able to do it, but I'm doing what I feel is right," he said. "I want to do well, just like everyone else."
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Higueras' main goal is to improve the culture of complacency in American tennis. "If you want something, you have to work for it," he said. "Otherwise your chances are zero."
He acknowledges that there are a couple of generations of Americans who were lost in the shuffle. Many of the top American juniors in the past decade were swayed by contracts to turn pro early, but didn't have the work ethic to back up the success. When he first joined the USTA, he came across kids who thought that just an hour of practice a day was enough, and that their talent would do the rest. Many didn't realize what a grind the tour was, and how hard they actually had to work to be successful. It wasn't guaranteed just because of their passport.
"The culture has to be there. You only get something for something. If you want to be successful, you have to do what everyone that is successful does," he said. "You watch Roger Federer play, for example. He always plays like he's just having a drink, but don't get fooled by that, there's a lot of work beyond that. He didn't get to where he was by just being talented."
Higueras is passionate about the importance of hard work, which is why he enjoys the qualification tournament so much -- players have to earn their spot.
"If it was up to me, there would be no wild cards. Wild cards create entitlement for the kids. I think you should be in the draw if you actually are good enough to get in the draw," he said. "I think one of the things that hurt Donald when he was young [was that] he got so many wild cards. They don't make you a player."
As Higueras focuses on changing the mindset of our youth and expanding powers of the USTA Player Development Program, he's realistic about the prospects of directly creating the next Sampras or McEnroe. "You can put together a system where you have some good players, but the special players are going to come on their own. That's just how it works."
"I don't care. I just want people with an American passport to be good. I can care less if they work with us, or they don't work with us, or how much we help them or not."
Still, he points out that the USTA got Mardy Fish into the top 10 a few years ago, Sam Querrey into the top 20, and in the past year Denis Kudla, Jack Sock, and Steve Johnson have gotten into the top 100. The women working with the USTA have had even more success, which Higueras attributes to a better pool of athletes on the women's side, due to fewer professional options for female athletes.
But make no mistake about it, right now the United States is lagging way behind countries like Spain and France when it comes to tennis player development, and though there is work being done by Higueras and others, the gap seems to be widening every year. It may take another generation, if not more, to notice any culture changes.
"I mean, the game is incredibly global," Gilbert said. "There's no birthright that we have to have great players, we just always have. We always expect them."
Perhaps, for the time being at least, it's time for us to lower our expectations, even if it does feel a little un-American.
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