“You’ve got to create a positive atmosphere.”
That was the advice that Sloane Stephens' hitting partner and traveling coach, Andy Fitzpatrick, gave her during a changeover last week in Doha. Stephens, ranked No. 18, had just lost an error-filled first set to Petra Cetkovska, ranked No. 134. “It’s all in your head,” Fitzpatrick told her.
If anything, the atmosphere became even less positive in the second set, which an increasingly morose and bewildered Stephens lost 6-1. The trend continued this week in Dubai, as Stephens went out again in straight sets -- again to a lower-ranked player -- in her opening match.
Was the negativity contagious? Watching Stephens’ friends and fellow Americans Sam Querrey and Jack Sock in Delray Beach later in the day, you might have thought they caught the bad vibes from an ocean away. Each lost his first-round match there, and neither put up much resistance when things went south. Even the man who beat Sock, France’s Adrian Mannarino, didn’t want to bask in his achievement.
“There’s not a lot to say about this match,” Mannarino told reporters. “It was not a good match. But I’m happy to win.”
Tennis fans in the U.S. have been bemoaning the state of the nation’s game for years now, but we seem to have reached a new crisis point in the first months of 2014. It was triggered by dismal recent performances in two team competitions that the country once dominated.
First, the Davis Cup team lost at home to Great Britain, a country that hadn’t won a World Group tie in 36 years. Making it even worse was Querrey's inexplicable collapse against James Ward, a player ranked outside the top 150, after Querrey held a commanding lead.
The following week, the U.S. Fed Cup team could muster only one winning set in three live rubbers against Italy. The fact that the Americans were without their two best players, Stephens and Serena Williams, would be more of a mitigating circumstance if the Italians hadn’t been without their three best, Sara Errani, Roberta Vinci and Flavia Pennetta.
If we’ve learned one thing over the last decade, it’s that there’s no easy way to reverse the decline in U.S. tennis, or even to identify why it’s happening. We hear that fewer top-notch athletes choose tennis in the States than in other countries. We hear that kids are hungrier for success in Eastern Europe. We hear that no one country can dominate in an era of globalization. We hear that our young players don’t like to compete, they have cookie-cutter games, they don’t get enough coaching, they get too much coaching, they get the wrong kind of coaching.
The bottom line is that tennis champions are usually aberrations, rather than logical, predictable products of a national system. Serena learned the game with her family on public courts in Compton, Calif. Rafael Nadal learned from his uncle on the tiny island of Mallorca. Roger Federer came from a country that had never produced a great male champion. There will be another aberration from the U.S. at some point.
But as long as we’re in hand-wringing mode, I’ll offer one suggestion, by echoing Sloane Stephens’ hitting partner above: Create a positive atmosphere. There was little pleasure evidenced in the games of Stephens, Sock or Querrey this week. John Isner, the top seed in Delray, shows fight at times, but gets down on himself at other times. Donald Young and Ryan Harrison have let their anger get the best of them. The men in general have struggled to leave the shadow of Andy Roddick, who, if nothing else, always relished a battle.
On another court in Dubai on Tuesday, another U.S. woman, Venus Williams, won her first-round match. Afterward, Venus said, “This is definitely a privilege, but a privilege I deserve. I’ve done the hard work to be here, and I definitely don’t take any win for granted anymore. Now it’s even more special with every win.”
Venus is 33. She played her first professional match 20 years ago. U.S. tennis players would do well to heed her words.