I went in search of a reason why the United States is irrelevant in professional tennis — in stark comparison to a proliferation of elite Russians.
I’ve heard for years how we’re trying this, and we’re trying that on the grass roots level to beef up American tennis, but you don’t need a bachelor of USTA to notice that the women’s semifinals at the Pilot Pen Tennis tournament — a U.S. Open Series event — is populated by three Russians and New Haven’s favorite Dane, Caroline Wozniacki.
The only American women’s player in the Pilot Pen field that you’ve heard of, Melanie Oudin, never made it past the first round. Bethanie Mattek-Sands came out of qualifying to reach the second round, and a third American (with an asterisk), Varvara Lepchenko — Ukraine born and American naturalized — also didn’t make it out of the first round.
The only Americans of consequence in women’s tennis are the aging Williams sisters, and heck, they virtually ignored the American blueprint every step of the way, dating back to their irregular association with junior tennis.
Here’s where the plot gets complex because there are actually more similarities between the Williams sisters and the proliferation of Russians on the professional tours, than there is between the Williams sisters and other American players.
“These things go in cycles, but (the Russian players are) hungrier than we are,” said Pilot Pen tournament chairman Butch Buchholz, a tennis Hall of Famer and lifelong contributor to the game under many different hats.
“You have a whole different culture (in Russia). You look at the three countries that everybody talked about being so strong (in the past); Australia, Great Britain and the United States, and we all have very strong educational systems. I mean, it’s a gutsy move to say, ‘I’m not going to go to (college).’”
Tennis is still an affluent game in America, largely a country club game, and though that environment certainly doesn’t preclude a player from rising to greatness, there’s an innate hunger that comes from having to struggle for everything you get.
“Something that we have not done, and it’s been a mistake, is we’ve not gone into the inner city because that’s where the athletes are,” continued Buchholz. “And that’s a challenge because all those kids want to play basketball, football and baseball.”
Buchholz emphasized that when he’s talking about the inner city athlete, he’s also talking about their hunger to succeed and better themselves. He pointed to the Williams sisters, who spent the early years of their lives in Compton, Calif., the toughest of neighborhoods, by anyone’s measure. Not only are the Williams sisters superior athletes, but their burning desire to become leaders in whatever field of endeavor they choose has been an undercurrent of their entire careers (Harlem World has reached out to a number of tennis NY orgs inviting them to Harlem).
The similarity between the Russians and the Williams sisters was accentuated by comments made by all three Russian semifinalists in today’s Pilot Pen field. Russian tennis is hardly born out of country clubs.
When Maria Kirilenko — 2009 swimsuit model in SI — was asked why Russia seems to have so many talented players compared to America, she set the record straight.
“I think you said it not right,” began Kirilenko in accented English. “Maybe (it’s) not (that we’re) very talented, but very hard workers. We work a lot. That’s why I think we have good results. To have a talent, it’s not enough. You have to be patient. You have to work a lot. You have to fight. Everything together. So I think that’s why we have so many Russians.”
Kirilenko will face country women Nadia Petrova in one semifinal, while Elena Dementieva, a long time friend of Pilot Pen Tennis, meets Wozniacki.
Kirilenko’s remarks were amplified by Dementieva, who said, “I wish I can say that we have a great system (in Russia) and we have great support from the Federation, but it’s not true. I mean, all these results are just based on our hard work … because our parents are involved so much, it’s a big sacrifice for them. I just see all the girls, especially Russian girls, working very hard. It’s a great motivation.”
Buchholz points out that when you look at the last batch of (top) American players , Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier, Todd Martin, Michael Chang, etc., none of them went to college. They went right from high school into the pros.
“And that’s what the rest of the world is doing,” he said.
We’d never concede that a young tennis talent is better served to turn professional at 18 than attend college, but it shouldn’t have to be an either/or situation. We just have to do a better job of selling tennis to the best athletes.
That job, among many others, falls in the lap of Patrick McEnroe, the man hired to strengthen American tennis globally.
“Patrick McEnroe’s got his hands on it now and they’re making major changes,” said Buchholz, who oversees his own model grass roots tennis program in Miami. “He’s in charge, 100 percent. The politics are not interfering with him. He’s the right person to do it as the Davis Cup captain. So I have a lot of confidence in him. He’s a smart guy, he understands the sport, and as long as they leave him alone and let him do it, I think we’ll be fine.”
We give McEnroe every benefit of the doubt, but in the end, it won’t be about selling the game in the country clubs. It’ll be about cultivating athletes from the environments that produce the top athletes in our team sports.
And that’s going to take a lot of heavy lifting.