Juan Martin del Potro from Tandil, Argentina, is the 2009 United States Open Men's Champion. He is twenty years old.
Early in yesterdays match, when it looked as if the man I call The Monogram was going to run away with the win there was some light hearted banter among the talking heads of CBS about what was happening on court. Mary Carillo said, when asked what del Potro was good at, said that he was good at being tall. One of her peers asked her to clarify and she said it again just to make sure she was understood. Hilarity ensued. By the end of the evening they were all singing a different tune.
Young Mr. del Potro is the second Argentine to win the US Open. The first was Guillermo Vilas who won in 1977 when the event was still played on clay. It was an historic victory in many ways but it was what happened afterwards that shaped the face of American tennis. The men behind the curtain didn't like the fact that a South American had won and the decision was made to change the surface the US Open was played on, in fact to change most of the training for up and coming American tennis players, from clay which was the dominant surface, to hard courts. This was to stop "others" from winning what was thought to be an American championship. And yet thirty two years later another South American born man hoisted the trophy, this time in Arthur Ashe Stadium after winning the American Slam.
So what happened to the Americans this year? The only American player to make it to the semi finals was Serena Williams. Every other American was out early. Not one American man made it past the round of sixteen. Why was that? I mean we've got some guys who are "good at being tall" playing now don't we? Haven't we got men like John Isner? Sam Querrey? Why are countries that were said to only produce, to use the pejorative "dirtballers" suddenly producing kids who thrive on hard courts while American young people are falling by the wayside unable to compete internationally?
To stick with South America for a few more minutes let's look at Fernando Gonzalez, David Nalbandian, Guillermo Canas and Gustavo Kuerten. All are excellent hard court players but again, due to where they were born, they were looked down on by the tennis establishment. Canas had his career stolen from him just when he was coming into his own. Nalbandian is known for his hard partying ways in the American press and Gonzalez for years only had that forehand. Of the four Kuerten was known for his wins at Roland Garros and can be said to be the only true clay courter among the four.
Gonzalez made the decision to hire Larry Stefanki, an American, and suddenly he was competitive, going deeper in tournaments than he ever had before. He accepted that his game worked better on hard courts and embraced what Stefanki was teaching him. It was a major turning point for the South American men because it gave players like del Potro the freedom to develop and play the game the way they wanted to.
I want to take a minute and say that Stefanki, now working with American Andy Roddick, has once again pioneered a change. Roddick is now playing what I call "modern tennis". His serve is now part of his game not his entire game. This will bear fruit down the line since American youngsters will now have the freedom to embrace their inner player and not be forced to be mindless ball bashers with no idea how to construct a point and with no knowledge of strategy beyond hitting the ball hard.
I've been hitting the men pretty hard but the women are not exempt from this. While watching Serena Williams vs Kim Clijsters it occurred to me that the reason Serena was having so many problems is because she is not used to playing someone like Kim anymore. The current crop of women need their hands held through every point and can barely think for themselves. They aren't able to hit hard but with accuracy to any part of the court and adjust their games when need be. No matter how great a player you are if you've been getting by with using only 3/4 of your skills it's hard to reverse and start using tactics you haven't needed to use in a couple of years. Serena said as much when she said that now that she knew how Kim played she'd be ready for her next time.
The United States tennis establishment can no longer sit on the sidelines looking down their noses while arrogantly declaring that the only real tennis is played on either a hard or grass court. It's obvious that thirty years from Vilas victory that the American attitude towards the rest of the tennis world not located in Great Britain or Australia is archaic and that the rest of the world has caught up and surpassed us. When someone like James Blake could state without irony that American players don't care about the European clay court swing because they prefer Wimbledon and the hardcourts something is wrong. When your players have no idea how to counter the rise of players skilled in tactics and strategy something is wrong. When one of the young men you tout as the next big thing goes to a casino the night before a big match instead of preparing himself mentally and physically for the next day something is wrong. When a young South American player who came on the scene a couple of years ago and who will turn 21 on September 23 already has a Grand Slam trophy on his mantlepiece while the American hopes win smaller tournaments and serve as filler for European ones something is wrong. When an American man hasn't been a serious Grand Slam contender since 2003 something is wrong. When a tennis establishment is more interested in tearing down it's best player instead of, like the FFT supporting it's player come hell or high water something is wrong.
There are already new names on many tennisheads radar. Gianni Mina of France, Heather Watson of Great Britain, Noppawan Lertcheewakarn of Thailand, Kristina Mladinovic of France and Yuki Bhambri of India come to mind. How ironic is it that the two young Americans who did well during the US Open, Chase Buchanan who almost won the Junior Boy's Tournament and Melanie Oudin both come from outside of USTA Player Development?
Efforts are being made to change the culture of Player Development. "More clay, less ball bashing," seems to be the mantra yet the people being hired are wed to the system as it was, have been part of it all of their professional lives. As I see it change on that side of the street will be glacial. The innovation and more complete players are coming from outside of the tennis factories in Florida.
So while to many Juan Martin del Potro's victory is a clarion call to become the best player you can be and to use your skills to your advantage to others it's their worst nightmare come true. It took thirty years to get into this mess. It's going to take some time to get out of it. Is the narrow minded and provincial attitude that got us to this point going to once again win out or will it be acknowledged by more than words that something is wrong and the fix needs to be found sooner rather than later? We've come full circle people. It's 1977 again for United States tennis.
Taking a couple of days off. I hope to be back for Davis Cup.