Unproven future prospects keeping U.S. in the dark

Ryan Harrison made headways earlier this year, winning an ATP match in Houston, but lost in the third round of the French Open juniors. Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

It was not long ago that American tennis could borrow the lyrics from the famous Queen tune and sing loudly and proudly "We are the Champions."

But nowadays, times are tougher. Increasingly the powers that be in American tennis would be prudent to alter the lyrics to ask the question no nation wants to have to ask: Where are the champions?

All four of the top U.S men from the last generation of players were Grand Slam titlists -- Pete Sampras ended his career with a record 14 trophies from the majors; Andre Agassi became only the fifth man in history to win all four majors during his career; Jim Courier scored four Slam titles; and Michael Chang made history by being the youngest French Open champion at 17 in 1989.

And even this generation, which boasts two top-10 entrants in Andy Roddick and James Blake followed by spirited competitors Mardy Fish and Robby Ginepri, hasn't experienced a total drought. Courtesy of Roddick it has at least made a mark on the Grand Slam scoreboard -- he became the last American success story in the men's game when he captured the 2003 U.S. Open.

The best American women of recent times are still in the hunt -- the Williams sister act has thus far accounted for 14 Grand Slam titles (eight for Serena and six for Venus) and Lindsay Davenport has won all but the French Open. But it should be noted Davenport's last Slam win came in Australia just over eight years ago.

For some countries, having credible players in contention is more than enough and better than anticipated. But for a country like the United States with a rich history in the sport, the health of the game is determined by a thermometer whose mercury registers major victories.

When Ginepri's run as the last American standing at last week's French Open came to an abrupt end to Chilean Fernando Gonzalez in the fourth round, it coincided with the beginning of the junior competition at the French. The symmetry behind that coincidence brought to focus the uncertainty facing American tennis in the future prospects department.

Among the more frequently mentioned American teens are Madison Brengle, Melanie Oudin and Mallory Burdette for the girls; and Ryan Harrison, Chris Buchanan, Jarmere Jenkins and Bradley Klahn for the boys.

While those responsible for ferreting out the talent to sustain the future of the American game are offering no guarantees, they sound more positive these days. Yet, they caution, patience is an absolute necessity.

"They have to come along at their own pace and that has been the case for the last 10-15 years for the best American juniors," said Patrick McEnroe, who was named the general manager of elite development for the USTA in April. "From my experience it's been the case from [Andy] Roddick to [Sam] Querrey and Donald Young to these guys. It's part of the challenge for these [younger] guys to deal with expectations. But I do think from the juniors here there's a lot of potential."

Jean Nachand, who is the USTA's director of women's tennis for elite player development, spoke of the promise she is seeing in the up-and-coming women's ranks.

"I think if you had asked me two years ago rather than today I would've been more concerned than I am now," Nachand said. "We're starting to see the results from a move to get our players, those who want to turn pro or want to be pros, on the pro track a little sooner. It's starting to pay off."

At one point in time it was easier to judge if a young phenom was waiting in the wings.

We all heard the whispers when a child prodigy had been discovered -- often before his or her age was in double digits. We knew about Andre Agassi hitting with Jimmy Connors at the age of 6; we knew about Jennifer Capriati having a tennis racket in her crib; we had interviewed Venus and Serena Williams when they were barely in their teens.

The bottom line is that the trend of scouting prepubescent genius on a tennis court has clearly waned.

Rodney Harmon, the USTA's director of men's tennis for elite player development, acknowledges that predicting what's ahead is close to impossible.

"I think you don't really know who between 16 and 20 is going to make the next move," Harmon said. "They all have superior athletic ability. They all have shown that they're quite accomplished players. But there's such a big next step you have to take so you just have to sit and wait."

Harmon, a former U.S. Open quarterfinalist, also has a theory for why young American talents tend to trail foreign players in showing early success.

"I think we have some talented players, but I think the thing we struggle with is that some of our guys don't have as much experience as the European guys because [the Europeans] don't go to school and get to play more pro events," Harmon said. "But I think our guys are coming along fine even though they might take a little longer to develop. I think when they're 20, 21 we'll have some pretty good players. Going to school is important because tennis is a short career and afterwards you need to do something else. Afterwards, at least you have enriched your mind and it teaches a lot of life lessons."

McEnroe, a superb student of the men's game who led an enthusiastic Davis Cup squad he's nurtured for close to seven years to victory last December, is in the midst of learning about the women's game as well. That's because all aspects of American tennis fall under his umbrella as USTA general manager.

So on McEnroe's middle weekend days off from his ESPN duties at the French Open, he was not shopping or checking out museums, but assessing a pool of young hopefuls.

He had his first close look at Oudin, who received top-seed junior honors in Paris. McEnroe liked what he saw from Oudin after she reached the quarterfinals, but while singing her praises, he carefully flew the yellow caution signal as well.

"That's nice, that's big [being the top seed], but as we all know a lot of the best girls are playing the seniors by the time they're teenagers," McEnroe said. "But I've watched Melanie and she has a good-looking game. And we need the girls to start picking it up, that's for sure."

Harrison already won an ATP Tour match at the Houston tournament this year, and Buchanan has fared well in the juniors, most recently winning the prestigious Easter Bowl title in April.

The powers in charge are arduously trying to work the fine line between encouraging the most talented teens while doing their best to avoid sending the message they are desperately seeking champions.

Nevertheless, all the tapped youngsters understand there's an urgency to discover future champions.

Buchanan, who had the opportunity to play and win a practice set 6-3 against McEnroe's more famous eldest brother, John, during the French Open, knows he's being watched.

"They definitely want another top, top contender like Agassi and Sampras," Buchanan said. "There's definitely not a lack of talent in the U.S. I don't think. I just think it's the attitude on the court everyday that needs to be there. And the consistency -- I think a lot of the players in the U.S. have good wins but then have [bad] days too."

Oudin signaled she knows the score as well.

"I know that Americans have definitely been looking for more younger kids coming up because we have such a big gap between Venus, Serena and Davenport and no one in between," she said. "But I'm not worried about that -- I'm playing my game the best I can and trying to improve my ranking the best I can. I don't worry like 'Oh my god, I'm supposed to be winning because I'm supposed to be the next great American.'"

There are no guarantees to be sure. But no one is going to be complaining if sooner than later the Americans start showing their muscle at the majors.

Sandra Harwitt is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.