Finding the Next American Tennis Champion

From 1992 through 2001, Americans won 22 of the 40 men’s singles Grand Slam championships. Since 2002, Americans have won only 3 of the 53 men’s singles Grand Slams. So, what happened over the last 14 years? A lot.

Yes, American tennis is still thriving on the women’s circuit, with Serena Williams currently being ranked No. 1 and winning 19 singles Grand Slams. In doubles, we’ve held the No. 1 ranking for a record 412 weeks. However, America has not had a men’s singles Grand Slam champion since 2003.

The truth is, the success of American men’s singles players in the 1990s spoiled many fans. We grew up watching Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier compete for Grand Slam titles every single year. As kids, we were obsessed with Agassi. He was the reason we fell in love with tennis. When he competed internationally in Grand Slams like the Australian Open, we’d wake up early to watch his matches. When he would compete in tournaments that were fairly close by — Indian Wells or the Great Western Forum — we’d make the pilgrimage from our home in Camarillo, California to see our idol.

While most of the world wanted to be like Mike, we wanted to be like Andre. You need that kind of champion to inspire more American kids to go out and pick up a racquet.

Yes, in the doubles world, we have won 106 tournaments to-date as the World’s No. 1 doubles tennis team. We also have 16 Grand Slam titles to our names, and a gold medal from the 2012 Olympics. Since the age of 6, we’ve dedicated our lives to the sport and have been blessed to reap numerous benefits. Despite our success, we’re not oblivious to the fact that singles players — especially men’s players — dominate tennis headlines. An American household name on the singles circuit would do wonders for the sport’s popularity here in the U.S.

Players from other nations have progressed greatly since the days when Agassi and Sampras battled one another in finals. The household names in men’s tennis today are limited to the following Grand Slam winners: Swiss Roger Federer (17 Slams), Spaniard Rafael Nadal (14), Serbian Novak Djokovic (8) and Scot Andy Murray (2). The dominance of those 4 men is quite unprecedented. Since 2004 they’ve won all but 5 of the 45 Grand Slam tournaments.

So, why can’t the U.S. rise to the top of men’s singles tennis like they have in the past? Each of the previously mentioned countries has a limited selection of popular sports. For the most part, it’s either soccer or tennis that interests kids. In the U.S., from snowboarding and lacrosse to basketball and hockey, there are a dozen sports for up-and-coming young athletes to choose from. We’re losing a lot of our best athletes to other sports.

Tennis is designed to focus on nationalism. Unlike many other team sports, the countries we represent are always at the forefront every time we take to the court. From the various national anthems sung before matches to having a mini flag icon next to our names in matchup listings, the reminders are always there. When Tony Parker goes onto the court during the NBA season, he’s representing San Antonio rather than France. Same goes for Miguel Cabrera; when he steps in the batter’s box, he’s playing for Detroit rather than for Venezuela. In tennis, the only “team” you represent is your home country.

The proudest we’ve ever been is standing on the podium with our gold medals at the London Olympics. In our opinion, the Olympic tennis event is the toughest doubles draw in our sport. Everyone gives it their all because the stage is so big.

So, what needs to be done in order to produce the next great American men’s singles champion? The United States Tennis Association needs to continue to develop their grassroots programs, like Tennis in the Parks, so that that the outreach of the sport is as broad as possible.

However, once we identify kids with potential, it’s imperative that we continue to develop their skills in a comfortable environment. Right now, many of these young players are encouraged to leave their neighborhoods and families for unfamiliar training facilities with new coaches. When you take away that natural environment, the comfort and love of the game is sometimes lost. You don’t have to institutionalize talent. That’s a downfall. Instead of taking these young athletes out of their comfort zone, more money needs to be put into communities and coaches at the local level.

The fact that our skills were developed in a club environment played a huge role in our success. Rather than leaving school and relying on private lessons, we had this magical opportunity to improve our games but still be kids. It was never solely about doing drills or moving up in the amateur rankings. We were able to develop as tennis players while maintaining a hunger and love for the sport.

These are just some of the principles that our Bryan Brothers Foundation is built upon. Acts like restoring parks, providing equipment and taking at-risk youth to professional tournaments all play a role in the development of the sport in America. If you can get five million kids to play tennis instead of two million, then you not only have a better chance of discovering the next American champion, but you also can change the lives of many more kids along the way.