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Americans head home early, again

WIMBLEDON, England -- Shortly after The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club picked up stakes 84 years ago and moved two miles north from Worple Road to its present site on Church Road, King George V and Queen Mary presided over the opening of play at Wimbledon on the 26th of June, 1922.

Two British subjects, Leslie Godfree and Algernon Kingscote, had the honor of playing the first match in front of the sovereign couple. In a harbinger of things to come, the opening match was delayed by rain and the tournament concluded on the third Wednesday. That's a wet Wimbledon, by any stretch of the imagination.

Not once in the ensuing years since the King struck a gong three times and declared the new grounds open has there been only one American singles player left heading into the second week at Wimbledon.

Now, with Shenay Perry's loss Monday to No. 7 Elena Dementieva, the futility is complete -- and stark.

The last time no American competed in the Wimbledon quarterfinals: 1911, when William Taft was president and a future actor-turned-president named Ronald Reagan was born in a small town in northwest Illinois.

With Andre Agassi, Venus Williams, Andy Roddick, Mardy Fish and Amy Frazier checking out of Hotel Wimbledon on Saturday, American hopes for the second week, apart from doubles play, rested entirely on the shoulders of Perry, 21, from Washington, D.C.

Williams was in the same position at the French Open, where she said she "felt like a lone flag waving," but that's almost come to be expected on what's clearly the American players' worst surface. To post the same sort of disappointing results on the Wimbledon grass comes as an especially unwelcome surprise for American tennis.

The burden proved a heavy one for Perry, who admitted that her nerves got the best of her in her 6-2, 6-0 loss to Dementieva.

"I think it got to me a little bit," Perry said. "I can't explain why I was nervous. It's a position I haven't been in before and being the last American [was] a little nerve-wracking. I didn't handle it as well as I would have liked to."

Asked what her being the lone American representative in the second week says about the state of American tennis, Perry answered tersely, "I have no comment on that."

With Roddick going through a testing period, Serena Williams and Lindsay Davenport out with injuries, and James Blake and Venus Williams posting disappointing results here, the Wimbledon fortnight has been anything but golden for the Americans.

The experience of not having an anchor superstar who routinely makes it to the last four in Grand Slams is a new and uncomfortable one for American tennis. In fact, the Wimbledon performance marked the first time since the 1976 Australian Open that the United States didn't have at least one player, male or female, reach the quarters of a Grand Slam event.

Larry Scott, the CEO of the WTA Tour, says, "From our perspective, we love to see Americans doing well. [And] it's true that it's not clear where the next great American [women's] player is, but things change quickly in tennis.

"[But] from a TV ratings perspective, our television partners tell us that Maria Sharapova generates ratings in the U.S. as strong as any American player."

"Our stars really transcend their passports," adds WTA Tour president Stacey Allaster. "The U.S. has been a dominant force and will continue to be. It's all cyclical."

Odds are that advertisers and sponsors in the U.S. certainly hope that's the case.

In most countries, it's the national tennis federations that help lay the foundation for future underperformance or success, and it's no different in the United States.

Paul Roetert has headed up the USTA's player development program since January 2003 and says the program is in year three of a five-year process.

"We're paying the price a little bit right now but we've changed the system and the next generation coming up looks very promising," says Roetert. "One of the concerns we had was that players were actually ducking each other, so we've changed the ranking system to a points-per-round system."

The USTA has also recently opened high-performance training centers in Carson, Calif., and Key Biscayne, Fla., that have, of all things, clay courts. Go figure.

Roetert says -- something the Spanish, French and Argentine federations figured out a long time ago -- that clay is an ideal training surface because it forces players to focus on their movement and point construction.

Rafael Nadal -- "his movement is just out of this world," said Andre after losing Saturday to the No. 2 seed -- and Justine Henin-Hardenne have used those skills to great advantage in recent times. Though neither is especially comfortable on grass courts, it's notable both advanced earlier Monday to the quarterfinals.

"We've really focused on clay-court training," says Roetert. "We've had our top coaches visit Spain to see what they do and it's no secret: It's just hard work, playing lots of sets on clay, and teaching technique and tactics hand in hand.

"We don't want a bunch of ball-bangers that just hit the ball as hard as they can. We want to teach them how to construct points and keep the ball in play."

Bob and Mike Bryan are looking to capture their first Wimbledon doubles title and complete a career Grand Slam, after falling a victory short here last year. The pair increasingly find themselves in the position of being the Last Americans Standing at the majors.

Bob Bryan says: "It's good to have our friends around so it's kind of tough to see our buddies go out early."

"It's not familiar territory because usually the big boys, guys like Agassi and Sampras, are still alive," adds Mike Bryan. "Hopefully we'll have some more guys step up and we won't be the Lone Rangers."

"We don't want a bunch of ball-bangers that just hit the ball as hard as they can. We want to teach them how to construct points and keep the ball in play."
The USTA's Paul Roetert

Asked why American results have dipped lately, Bob says, "The game's changed, it's slowed down a little bit. Balls are heavier, the courts are slower. You have these Spanish-style players dominating tennis and a lot more tournaments played on clay.

"The USTA is doing some good stuff, bringing junior players to Davis Cup matches, which is inspiring them. They're sponges, these kids. They're asking us questions and they want to learn."

Problem is, there just aren't a lot of them who currently exhibit big-time potential, particularly on the men's side. The much-ballyhooed Donald Young is winless (0-9) in Tour-level matches since turning pro at age 15 in 2004 and the Bryans mentioned only one American junior by name, Californian Sam Querrey, 18.

"Querrey's impressed us a lot," says Mike Bryan. "He's got a huge game and he's good mentally, too. [But] besides him, it's a little empty right now."

Perry, despite today's disappointing loss, feels like she's being well-supported by the USTA's efforts.

"Yeah, I do," she says. "They're supporting me really well. I love my coach [Ola Malmqvist] that I'm working with. And they [the USTA] came out here and supported me during all of my matches this week. So I feel pretty supported."

Bob Bryan feels that some foreign tennis federations' focus on identifying and developing players at an early age is partially responsible for the shifting fortunes of American tennis.

"I think a lot of these countries are taking their young guys and scooping them up and turning them into robot tennis players," he says. "In the States, kids are having more of a life and not getting drilled into the ground like some of these other guys."

The thing is, the U.S. men and women are getting drilled into the ground -- at least in 2006 by their opponents at the Australian Open, the French Open and Wimbledon.

Just a partial list: Roddick bounced out in the Round of 16 by a guy from Cyprus (Marcos Baghdatis). Roddick's third-round elimination from Wimbledon by a Scotsman, Andy Murray. Venus Williams knocked out in the first round in Australia by a Bulgarian (Tsvetana Pironkova) and in the third round at Wimbledon by a Serbian (Jelena Jankovic).

Bob Bryan appears to hold out hope for a magic bullet of sorts, maintaining that American tennis is merely in a temporary down cycle and just needs a break or two to regain momentum.

"You always see a crop [of top players] that comes up together and we've got to wait for a new crop," he says. "There's always kind of a lull and then 'Bam!' you'll have another five guys coming up.

"All it takes is one, just another Roddick or Blake to break through."

The problem, though, is that hasn't been happening for the Americans at the Grand Slam level in 2006. And tennis, like sports in general, is heavily weighted along the lines of what-have-you-done-for-me-lately?

"I think it's quite a disappointment," said Roger Federer of the American contingent's performance here. "We know that it can happen at the French Open, but seeing it happening at Wimbledon is obviously a bit of a surprise."

Could the U.S. Open be next on that list, despite its slick hard courts that are seemingly purpose-built for American success?

Whatever the case, the year's final Grand Slam at Flushing Meadows will be the last opportunity for American tennis to rediscover its mojo and get things back on track for 2007 and beyond.

Says the WTA's Scott, "Many people have written off American tennis over the years -- and they've always been wrong."

But after disappointing performances at the year's first three majors, just how wrong those people might be in the future remains an open question.

Whit Sheppard is a Paris-based sportswriter who is covering Wimbledon for ESPN.com. He can be e-mailed at lobsandvolleys@yahoo.com.