Mark Starr: Why America Lost Its Tennis Fever

With assorted Middle East crises driving up energy prices, I was wondering if anybody has considered the potential of vitriol as an alternative energy source.

I just happened to corner a fair share of the vitriol market last week, most of it coming from foreign sources. It came to me after I suggested, in the wake of l'affaire Zidane , that European soccer players might actually have something to learn from America , at least in terms of handling trash talk.

Perhaps my tongue wasn't planted quite firmly enough in my cheek. The result of my musings was significant outrage: about the notion that we have anything to teach Europeans regarding soccer; about the bad behavior of our athletes in general; about the bad behavior of our government leaders in general, and about a host of other sins ascribed to those of us who dare to set America up as an example of anything at all. Skipping past the many pejoratives, the response from abroad could be best summed up thusly: Butt-head!

Mind you, I didn't say that America couldn't also learn from the French (though I may have, in the past, suggested that would be mostly in matters culinary), as well as from other nations. If it would quiet the mobs, I will gladly stipulate to that now. But that may not be sufficient to restore my cred as a card-carrying man of the world. I fear I must prove myself an equal-opportunity basher. So here goes: we Americans are pathetically provincial.

No, this isn't about soccer again (or "football" as my foreign correspondents keep shrieking at me). It's about a game that once upon a time was far nearer and dearer to our hearts, a game that has seen America produce some of the greatest champions in history. That game is tennis. And as U.S. Open season begins this week with a six-week, 10-tournament North American run-up to the big event, the response of the American sporting public is one giant yawn.

No doubt there are enough tennis junkies to fill the seats—starting for men this week in Indianapolis, for women next week in Palo Alto and concluding, like off-Broadway tryouts of yesteryear, in New Haven next month. TV, both CBS and ESPN, is fully on board, hyping the big purses, the replay technology and the intriguing novelty of player challenges to officials' line calls. All serves lead to the U.S. Open, which has evolved from a nice tournament into a major New York happening—just like the NCAAs have been transformed into March Madness.

So why doesn't the average fan here care? Truth is that with the glut of major sporting events jamming the sports schedule—baseball's pennant race, NASCAR's race to the Nextel Cup, golf's British Open and Ryder Cup and, of course, the opening of NFL camps—the typical American sports fan won't perk up unless there appears to be value added, like the recent World Cup or anything with Tiger Woods. The indifference to things tennis appears to stem from the fact that Americans no longer dominate—indeed they barely show up—in the highest ranks of the game.

There is much debate about why Americans are fading from the tennis top but no doubt that it is happening. Andre Agassi will be playing his Open swan song, Andy Roddick's talent seems to have tapered off, James Blake remains only an engaging second-rank player, Lindsay Davenport is aging and oft-injured and the Williams sisters have been injured and, too often, bored. With these fades goes ours. In international competition, we don't muster much interest if we can't envision an American success story and a chance to wave the red, white and blue.

It wasn't always that way. When I was growing up in Boston, we were blessed annually with the national doubles championships, when doubles was pretty near as big as singles. Back then there was no crying need to wear your patriotism on your sleeve. We often rooted for the Australians (Roy Emerson-Fred Stolle, John Newcombe-Tony Roche) against the Americans (Dennis Ralston-Chuck McKinley, Clark Graebner-Marty Riessen) because they were much cooler than the bratty Yanks with their temper tantrums. But Swiss and Belgian champions apparently don't have much panache, while only Russians who look like Sharapova or Kournikova seem capable of stirring American juices. So absent an American standout who can assume the mantle of so many American greats past, we have turned off and tuned out.

As a result, we are missing out on a newborn rivalry that not only looms as possibly one of the best in the history of tennis, but quite likely the best individual rivalry in sports today: Switzerland's Roger Federer vs. Spain's Rafael Nadal . It's only natural that America would prefer the pinnacle of rivalry to have a homier caste. I, too, can wax nostalgic about olden days when Bjorn Borg and Ivan Lendl dueled Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe for court supremacy. Or for Chrissie-Martina. But Federer and Nadal are playing the game at such a transcendent level that issues of nationality should fade away. Genius should always trump parochial attachments.

The ascension of the 20-year-old Nadal couldn't have come at a better time. In recent years Federer had been so dominant that he was turning brilliance into a bore (with all those unappealing Swiss precision metaphors). Last year he went 81-4 while winning both Wimbledon and the U.S. Open. This year Federer has gone 55-0 against all competition except Nadal. But until earlier this month, when he bested Nadal in a stirring four-setter for his fourth consecutive Wimbledon crown, Federer was winless in four matches in 2006 against the Spaniard.

Granted, all but one of those victories, including the Italian and French Opens back to back, were on clay. But with his superb showing on the grass at Wimbledon, Nadal signaled that he's not another one-trick pony. Right now both players are a cut way above anyone else in the game; this was the first time in 54 years that the same pair reached the finals of both the French Open and Wimbledon, the two tourneys that are most antithetical in their demands on a player's game. But Nadal has shown that he has all the S's—speed, stroke, serve, stamina—necessary to compete with Federer on any surface. And further boosting this rivalry, Nadal's fiery style contrasts perfectly with the refined play of the Swiss champion.

Great individual rivalries in sports are increasingly rare. Tiger vs. Phil has great appeal, but the two seldom go head to head. And Tiger's putative rivals (David Duval, Vijay Singh, etc.) seem to come and—soon after being mentioned in the same breath as him—go. America's Justin Gatlin and Jamaica's Asafa Powell share the distinction of being the "world's fastest man." But while both talk the talk, they duck running the run—and haven't raced each other for more than a year. Kobe and Shaq play only a pair of semi-meaningful games a year and don't match up directly. Mariano Rivera might face Big Papi more often than that, but even such illustrious stars are overshadowed by the team rivalry. Boxing barely has famous fighters let alone anything reminiscent of an Ali-Frazier or Leonard-Hearns.

Since there may never be another drama quite the likes of Tonya and Nancy, Federer-Nadal is the best mano a mano sports has to offer right now. And though both are young, the possibility of injury or burnout is always a concern and a threat to any great rivalry's shelf life. So wake up, America, and catch it while you can. It's happening and, for the next couple of months, it's happening here.