Duo hopes to take U.S. to next level

NEW YORK -- There was a time, a glorious time in retrospect, when America dominated world tennis.

In the 1960s, '70s and '80s, the United States routinely populated more than a third of the top 100 -- and sometimes better than half of the top 10. In the 11 years from 1974-84, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe finished the year at No. 1 a combined nine times. Roscoe Tanner, Jimmy Arias, Dick Stockton, Eddie Dibbs, Harold Solomon, Gene Mayer and Eliot Teltscher all found their way into the top 10.

Gradually, the world caught up. After Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi and before Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal became the standards of the modern game, Andy Roddick sneaked into the vacuum, won the US Open in 2003 and finished the year as the ATP World Tour's No. 1 player.

And that was pretty much it for the stars and stripes.

Today, the No. 1-ranked player comes from Serbia, followed by Spain and Scotland. The European Union may be splintering, the Euro weakened by financial disasters in Greece, Spain and Portugal, but Europe has become the indisputable superpower of men's tennis.

John Isner is the highest-ranked American man at No. 17. Of the 16 men ranked ahead of him, 13 are from Europe. In all, 11 countries are ahead of the United States, including Japan, Argentina and Poland. France and Spain have three each, and tiny, neutral Switzerland has two.

None of this, of course, is Isner's fault. These days, the 6-foot-10 former Georgia Bulldog is carving out a nice little living in professional tennis. On Tuesday, he wrecked Filippo Volandri 6-0, 6-2, 6-3 in a match that took only 76 minutes. The first set sailed by in 15 minutes.

Before the tournament, the No. 13 seed was asked about Roddick's only career Grand Slam victory.

"It's has been a long time," Isner said. "But I know and Andy knows and everyone knows how deep and international it is. The drought has been going on for quite some time now. But, really, I don't think about that too much at all."

Volandri, a 31-year-old Italian, had no business being out on the Grandstand court. He is the ultimate clay-court specialist, having played his previous 55 matches on clay. The last time he won a match on hard courts was -- wait for it -- Dec. 31, 2007. He's now 0-for-his-last-20 on the hard stuff. Volandri hasn't won a Grand Slam match since 2007 at Roland Garros.

"Very good start," Isner said afterward. "Can't ask for anything better on my side. I played like I should. No complaints at all."

The second-ranked American man, No. 26-seeded Sam Querrey, had a brief scare against Guido Pella before stabilizing things and winning 7-6 (3), 4-6, 6-1, 6-2.

"I thought I served well and it got me out of trouble," Querrey said in his on-court interview.

Did he ever. While Isner leads the ATP World Tour in aces by a wide margin, Querrey is a hard-charging No. 5. With 24 against Pella, he has 483 in only 37 matches. On Tuesday, he won 88 percent of his first points, which bailed him out of some sloppy play.

A year ago, Roddick announced the US Open would be his final tournament. On Monday, James Blake did the same. Mardy Fish, the third of the triumvirate that has led the United States for the past decade, is struggling with health issues, and at age 31, it's fair to wonder if he will soon follow suit.

For the next several years, it seems, Isner and Querrey will carry the U.S. banner. But they are 28 and 25, respectively. The elephant in the room? Neither has been to a major semifinal, and the way men's tennis is loaded at the top, it's possible they never will.

Isner has been having a terrific summer. He won in Atlanta and lost in the finals in Washington and Cincinnati -- to guys named Juan Martin del Potro and Nadal. Isner, who advanced to the quarterfinals here in 2011, has a difficult second-round match against Gael Monfils. The Frenchman is also a one-time quarterfinalist here and, like Isner, a former top-10 player.

Being the No. 1 American man, Isner said, does not weigh on him.

"I feel like Andy carried a bigger burden than myself," Isner said after his match. "He carried the torch for so, so long. So for me, I'm playing well and enjoying what I'm doing. I don't feel any pressure to perform well because I'm the No. 1 American."

Querrey is on course to meet Federer in the third round, while Isner could see Nadal in the fourth. Most folks see another Rafa-Roger collision in the quarterfinals, which would be their 32nd meeting. But in theory, at least, the sometimes doubles team of Isner and Querrey -- Quizzner -- could, against great odds, give us an all-American quarter.