NEW YORK – The early buzz at the U.S. Open is all about American men.
There’s this guy named Bobby Riggs, a short but brainy tactician, who became the biggest story on the eve of play Sunday. The classy James Blake held court Monday morning. Big-stage performer Lenny Kravitz was the nighttime star at Arthur Ashe Stadium several hours later.
Of course, none of them are part of the unclear future of American tennis. But it is customary to write about the state of the stable of U.S. men during the first week of a major, because it’s unknown if any will be left in the draw come week two.
U.S. men’s tennis hit a nadir this summer. There are several reasons argued for the fade, leading with the sport’s globalization. There is no obvious solution.
At least a slice of optimism accompanied the humidity on the blue courts Tuesday.
No. 13 John Isner, No. 26 Sam Querrey, Jack Sock (ranked 86), Denis Kudla (104) and Donald Young (157) advanced like dominoes as afternoon turned to evening in Queens. That’s great, but nobody wants to peak on the second of 14 days of a major (well 15 days now with the new Monday final).
This stat spread on Twitter as the No. 7 train stalled on Tuesday morning: In 1983, the 10th-best U.S. man was ranked No. 16 in the world. Today, the 10th-best U.S. man is ranked No. 116.
American tennis can be classified into eras. Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe. Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier. Most recently, but to a lesser level of excitement, Andy Roddick, James Blake and Mardy Fish.
This is the last tournament for Blake, the former world No. 4. Fish, ranked No. 7 two years ago, hasn’t played a major since last year’s U.S. Open due to issues including a heart ailment.
Roddick retired at the 2012 U.S. Open and, with his absence, this marks the first time in the Open Era (since 1968) with zero American men in the field who have won this tournament (unless you count the dominating Bryan brothers in doubles).
It’s also the 10-year anniversary of Roddick’s triumph here. No American man has lifted a major title since (again, not counting the Bryans). The 39-major drought is the longest in U.S. men’s history. USA Today called it the “Great Recession.”
“All three of them (Blake, Fish, Roddick) are kind of gone in a way; you could sense the tide has kind of already changed,” Querrey told three reporters in a press conference room that can seat 100, with images of McEnroe and Connors on the walls.
The rankings reflect the change. They were Deadspin fodder in February, when Roddick, five months into retirement, actually jumped two spots in the ATP rankings to No. 40 (the No. 4 American at the time).
For one week this month, no American men were in the top 20, the first time that’s happened since the birth of the rankings 40 years ago.
Isner is the tour’s King of Aces -- he beat No. 1 Novak Djokovic and played No. 2 Rafael Nadal tight in Montreal two weeks ago. He’s best known for a first-round match, the 2010 Wimbledon marathon against Nicolas Mahut, which he won 70-68 in the fifth set.
Isner has made one career major quarterfinal. He said he does not feel added pressure being the No. 1 American. Should he?
“I feel like Andy carried a bigger burden than a guy like myself,” Isner said. “He was always, always in the spotlight. Any time he lost a match, he got a lot of bad press from it and whatnot.”
Isner won his first-round match Tuesday with the most lopsided scoreline of his major career (6-0, 6-2, 6-3) and will play entertaining Frenchman Gael Monfils in the second round, potentially under the lights in Arthur Ashe Stadium.
The American attention, good or bad, has dwindled and dwindled as Roger Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and Andy Murray turned men’s tennis into a game of four square.
Even the second tier of players has proved pretty impenetrable. Juan Martin del Potro, David Ferrer, Tomas Berdych and Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, when healthy, have been locked in at Nos. 5-8 the last two years. Yes, the game is globalized now.
The USTA continues to seek improvement through partnering with local programs across the country, trying to get more rackets in the hands of children 10-and-under.
A few young U.S. women are in the Top 50 with potential to succeed the Williams sisters as threats to win majors. No country has more women in the top 100 than the U.S. (10).
After the veterans Isner, 28, and Querrey, 25, there are no men inside the top 85. Sock, 20, at No. 86, is one of two American men to win major junior titles in the last six years.
The other, Bjorn Fratangelo, 20, is still playing on the lower-level Challenger Tour and was swept out of the first round of qualifying for the U.S. Open.
“This idea that you can get to the top just because you were a great junior or won a lot of the juniors is just a complete myth,” USTA head of player development Patrick McEnroe said in a conference call last week. “There is no great player that comes up that doesn’t take their lumps on their way up.”
It can take time. The average age of the men’s Top 10 is 27.
“Whether we can find those ones that can get to the promised land, nobody has the answer to that,” McEnroe said. “No coach, expert, anybody has the answer to that.”
The French sports newspaper L’Equipe took a stab at it in May, predicting the Top 10 players for 2018. It included one American, the Chipotle-crazed Sock, who barely made it at No. 10.
That’s at least something to chew on next week if, for the fourth straight major, no U.S. man makes it past the third round.
“Obviously it’s been a little bit of a slump, I guess,” Sock said. “But there’s a lot of young guys around my age that are trying to work as hard as they can and fight to get American tennis back.
“Hopefully we can please you guys sooner than later.”