Wimbledon woes could be signal of lean years ahead

Monday, July 3, 2006

WIMBLEDON, England -- Everyone knew this was coming.

Andre Agassi has played his last match at Wimbledon, and his final hurrah will come in a few months at the U.S. Open. Pete Sampras hung up his racket years ago, and Jim Courier and Michael Chang are long gone, too. Major champions all.

That American success at Grand Slam tournaments would suffer with the departure of such an impressive generation hardly is surprising.

What's shocking is how one day at the All England Club brought U.S. tennis woes into focus.

It began with Agassi bowing and blowing kisses to the four sides of Centre Court after his third-round loss in straight sets to No. 2 Rafael Nadal. A younger, healthier Agassi would have had a chance. This Agassi, 36 and dealing with a bad back, did not.

Hours later, on the same court, another former No. 1 and major title owner, Andy Roddick, was sent packing by Britain's Andy Murray. No problems with age or injury for Roddick, just his game.

Roddick's good pal Mardy Fish, on the comeback trail after a bad wrist injury, quit during his match because he was sick and running a fever Saturday. And another buddy, No. 8-seeded James Blake, lost the day before.

In all, nine U.S. men were in the singles draw at the start, and all nine are gone before Week 2, only the second time since 1922 none reached Wimbledon's fourth round.

As Roddick himself noted, it's one thing for American men to fare poorly on the unfamiliar red clay of the French Open. It's another for it to happen on the lawns of the All England Club, which tend to help the go-for-broke style popular among U.S. players.

"It is a lot more surprising-slash-disappointing when it is here," Roddick said, "a place that we've all had a lot of success."

He was the runner-up in 2004 and 2005 and lost in the semifinals in 2003, each time beaten by Roger Federer. Agassi won Wimbledon in 1992, the start of a nine-year stretch during which at least one U.S. man was in every final here. It helped, of course, that Sampras won seven of those championships.

As if to make sure the women weren't left out, defending champion Venus Williams also departed Saturday, as did veteran Amy Frazier, meaning one singles player from the United States is still in the tournament.

That would be Shenay Perry, a bit of an unknown even to Williams.

So here's the scoop: Perry turns 22 this week, is based in Coral Springs, Fla., is unseeded, is ranked a career-best 62nd, has never won a tournament, and advanced past the third round at a Grand Slam event for the first time by beating 47th-ranked Sybille Bammer of Austria, who was treated for a strained shoulder during their match.

"It's a nice story," Williams said. "I've never really seen her play, per se, to be honest."

Perry is one of eight American women ranked between Nos. 50 and 100; there are only three in the top 50. Compare that to Russia, for example, which has 10 women in the top 50, four in the top 10.

Things aren't much more promising for the United States in the men's rankings, and what might be most depressing to U.S. tennis fans is that there isn't necessarily a can't-miss, up-and-coming star waiting in the wings right now.

Plenty of other places have dynamic young players starting to make their marks, from the 20-year-old Nadal (Spain) to 19-year-olds Murray (Britain) and Novak Djokovic (Serbia), all of whom are in the fourth round. Indeed, seven of the 16 men left at Wimbledon are 22 or younger.

Djokovic, Jelena Jankovic (who beat Williams) and Ana Ivanovic, meanwhile, give Serbia three times as many remaining singles players as the United States.

"That's a really strange stat," Jankovic said. "We're such a small country."

Part of what made Agassi and his U.S. peers so formidable is that they grew up playing against and learning from each other, from the time they were 8 or so.

"We knew each other so well. We were playing not just to see who is better than the other one, but we were playing for titles, playing for championships, playing for No. 1 in the world," Agassi said. "It was, I think, rivalries that existed that brought out the most in each of us."

The current crop of U.S. men forms a tight-knit bunch, but they aren't exactly squaring off in Grand Slam finals. The closest thing to high-stakes encounters Roddick, Blake and the rest of the crew have is when they gather for poker games.

Howard Fendrich covers tennis for The Associated Press.

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