WIMBLEDON -- The four top-ranked American male singles players -- John Isner, Jack Sock, Steve Johnson and Sam Querrey -- all won their matches at Wimbledon on Thursday. Seventh-best American Donald Young also won his rain-delayed opener.
It seems the United States is on the upswing again, possibly rekindling hopes that it will produce a male Grand Slam singles champion again sometime in the near future. The mantra for a long time now has been, "The American game is in trouble -- tennis needs a male American champion."
The mantra might be irrelevant. It might rest on false premises. It might have been run over and left for roadkill by history.
Does it really matter if tennis has a great American male champion, and do tennis fans really care one way or the other?
"It does help to have one," ESPN TV analyst Chris Evert told us. "But now it just adds maybe 10 percent where once it was essential. Look at how beloved Fed [Roger Federer] and [Rafael] Nadal are, and how [Novak] Djokovic is coming into his own. It seems like it's enough. And there's all the social media and press that make them more available to the public everywhere than ever before."
There has been a global transformation in sports. Kids in Brooklyn are wearing green-and-gold Brazil soccer jerseys as well as New York Mets caps. In Tanzania, kids are running around in LeBron James T-shirts. Tennis fans in all but the most achievement-starved nations support their domestic players, but bestow their true love on a more personality-based footing. Just ask global ambassador-in-chief Roger Federer. His passport says "Suisse," but he's really an international crush and beloved brand.
Flash back to the second round of the 2013 US Open at Louis Armstrong Stadium. Isner, now leading all US players at No. 17, played Gael Monfils. The Louis Armstrong crowd went into love overload for Monfils. Isner was so angry he muttered that he wanted to go home.
"That would never happen anywhere else," Johnson, ranked No. 29 in the ATP rankings, said Thursday of the incident after his win against Jeremy Chardy. "The average fan maybe now just gets used to champions, whoever they are. Beyond that, he just gets behind who he likes more."
In other words, someone left the U.S. barn door open and the horse is gone. Andy Roddick was the last American man to win a major title -- a long time ago at the US Open in 2003. The last Grand Slam at which U.S. men made a great impact was the 2006 US Open. Agassi retired there, Roddick reached the final and lost to Federer, and the American game tanked soon thereafter.
That tournament drew 640,000 spectators. But for a blip here or there, the ensuing, fallow years still produced significant growth rather than a downturn. US Open fans seemed to have little trouble moving on. There's even less urgency now.
"Given that the TV contracts for the major tournaments are all locked up for a long time, there's no financial pressure on the sport in absence of a U.S. champ, either," Tennis Channel commentator and former world No. 1 Jim Courier told ESPN.com. "Whenever I do a sports talk show on radio, some generalist will call and ask why we don't have a Jimmy Connors anymore. But that's a guy who's just missed how international it's all become."
The lack of American champs hasn't had a noticeable impact on participation, either. Overall tennis participation saw a marginal increase in 2015, up 0.3 percent to 17.96 million players. In 2015, core players (those who played 10 more times that year) grew 0.5 percent to 9.96 million, according to the 2016 Physical Activity Council (PAC) participation study. Ball sales, considered a critical indicator of the game's health, were up 1.8 percent.
Somehow, tennis avoided a great depression when the American men's game crashed. The unsung heroes of this saga are undoubtedly women players -- specifically, Venus and Serena Williams. Their longevity and success have surrounded the game with layers of bubble wrap.
"They have carried American tennis for 20 years," Evert said. "They've really assumed the responsibility well and taken a lot of focus off the men."
American male players are somewhat ambivalent on the subject. The media often paints them as carrying a crushing burden of hopes. But as Taylor Fritz, the gifted 18-year-old already ranked No. 65, said in a recent interview with London's Daily Mail: "Lately a lot has shifted on to me, and I understand it's important for American tennis. But I don't really care too much about that. I'm playing for me, not for any other reason."
Querrey, ranked No. 41, told ESPN.com that no one outside press rooms on the tour really comes up and asks him, "What's wrong? When are we going to have another champ?"
Sock knows there is a younger group coming up, led by Fritz. That group is ready to push Sock's group -- which includes Johnson, No. 66 Denis Kudla, and others -- the way they've pressured Isner and Querrey. Maybe they'll have better luck incubating a Grand Slam champion. Maybe someone will mature late and lock up a big one.
For now, the U.S. must be content to possess a solid fleet of players who can compete at a respectable level. It might be better to have a large number of very good, diverse players than one or two great ones.