A dearth of contenders near the top of the sport. No highly-ranked young players, either. Depending on who you ask, American men's tennis is either in a prolonged slump or a chronic drought—far removed from the glory days of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, and even underwhelming when compared to the Andy Roddick era.
So what gives?
Some blame court surfaces. Others fault playing style. Fingers have been pointed at globalization and talent pool issues, too. A number of top tennis parents believed recently-departed United States Tennis Association (USTA) head of player development Patrick McEnroe was liable.
None of these explanations are completely wrong. But all of them are incomplete. Because the biggest reason for the distressing decline and slow stagnation of top-flight American men's tennis is less a matter of finger-pointing than finger-plucking, a simple technological shift hiding in plain sight.
Blame the racket strings. Really.
Fact: virtually all high-level competitive players, including teenagers, use a relatively new type of string that allows balls to be hit with a previously unfathomable amount of topspin. In turn, this favors players who have honed their games on clay instead of hard courts, still the surface of choice in the United States. The strings also work better for players who are older, more experienced, and fully physically grown.
Call it the "Luxilon Effect." (I would call it my string theory, but David Foster Wallace has a de facto copyright on the phrase).
Luxilon is a Belguim-based manufacturer of tennis strings. And not just any strings. Innovative, disruptive strings, a flagship "Big Banger" that has revolutionized the sport to an extent not seen since the shift from wood rackets to graphite composites in the early 1980s.
How so? Unlike springy natural gut or even synthetic nylon, Luxilon's polyester-based strings are dead. I've tried them. They play like a board and are murder on weak elbows and shoulders. But for touring pros with live arms and the Mach 1.0 racket head speed to match, polyester allows players to take massive cuts at the ball from the baseline and keep the ball in play thanks to hugely increased rotation (a.k.a. topspin).
The grip on the ball is incredible. So much so that a formerly defensive version of tennis—hugging the baseline, never coming to net, extending points. and chasing down every ball—has become offensive, even aggressive. Players like topspin impresario Rafael Nadal can hit a winner from 10 feet behind the baseline. Sliding backwards. Pete Sampras, who retired in 2002 just as the shift to Luxilon was taking hold, described the strings as "Cheatalon," given how they allow baseline players to hit penetrating offensive shots from defensive positions deep in the court. Such shots remind pre-poly tennis players like me of the transformation when ping pong went from sandpaper to super-sticky rubber paddles and the insane spin that followed.
Tennis—for both genders—is a different game now. The net rushing serve-and-volley of Sampras, Patrick Rafter, and so many other great former champions is all but dead. Some players don't even serve and volley in doubles: Chileans Fernando Gonzales and Nicolas Massu won a gold medal at the 2004 Olympics by staying back and hitting fast-dipping groundstrokes at their opponents' ankles, a strategy that would have been blasphemous as late as the mid-1990s.
Andre Agassi vividly detailed his 2002 embrace of polyester string towards the end of his career in Open, his must-read memoir:
People talk about the game changing, about players growing more powerful, and rackets getting bigger, but the most dramatic change in recent years is the strings. The advent of a new elastic polyester string, which creates vicious topspin, has turned average players into greats, and greats into legends. [Coach Darren Cahill] puts the string on one of my rackets… In a practice session I don't miss a ball for two hours. Then I don't miss a ball for the rest of the tournament. I've never won the Italian Open before, but I win it now, because of Darren and his miracle string.
In 2015, a player using a full bed of natural gut in his racket is basically at the heavy-hitting topspin mercy of an opponent with poly. (Also note: some tour players use a "hybrid" of polyester and gut strings in the vertical and horizontal pattern). Likewise, a player whose skills and tactics are better suited for the gut era is now out of luck.
Enter the traditional American quick-strike of tennis, built around huge serves (Sampras), powerful, inside-out forehands (Agassi and Courier), and dominating relatively short points by moving in from the baseline (everyone except Chang). A natural outgrowth of the fast-playing hard courts that most U.S. players grow up on, said style used to be good enough to win Grand Slams. No longer. Thanks to poly strings, tennis on every surface—from slick grass to sludgy clay—now rewards court positioning, point construction, and fitness. The ability to shift from a defensive position to either a neutral or offensive posture is key. European and South American players reared on slower-playing clay courts have prospered, adapting with panache and ease. By contrast, Americans—and hard-court, serve-and-volley-loving Australians, too—have suffered. A failure to evolve could be seen in the "lost generation" of U.S. pros from about 10 years ago. (Scott Oudsema, Nikita Kryonos, and Brendan Evans, anyone?)
Institutional factors are also at work. Fast indoor carpet tournaments have been completely scrubbed from the ATP schedule. Many hard court and indoor events previously staged in the U.S. have vanished as well. The year-end Masters held annually at Madison Square Garden is a distant memory. The long-running San Jose and Los Angeles events have relocated to Brazil and Colombia, respectively. On red clay, of course.
Writing about the demise of the LA tour stop, Bill Dwyre of the Los Angeles Times concluded: "Theirs was a U.S. tournament in what is now a European sport." Kyle Veazey of the Commercial Appeal was similarly grim in the context of the Memphis tournament's recent downgrade to a lower tier, describing a "perfect storm of forces" working against American tennis. The result? The most recent cohort of Roddick, James Blake, Mardy Fish, Robby Ginepri, and Taylor Dent simply had fewer opportunities to play the traditional attacking of American tennis—and correspondingly, fewer chances to succeed.
Of course, poly strings haven't just made things harder for American players. They've been tough on youngsters across the board. To understand why, ask Julio Peralta.
Born in 1981 and a professional tennis player since 1998, Peralta is pushing 34 years of age and routinely matched up against foes 15 years younger. Last year, he was the oldest winner on the USTA Pro Circuit, a minor league tour with prize money ranging from $10,000 to $100,000 per event. Peralta has faced current top 10 players Tomas Berdych and Stan Wawrinka. He lost a third set tiebreaker to Andy Roddick in 1999.
"I switched [to polyester string] in 2002, several years after I started on tour using a synthetic gut" Peralta told VICE Sports. "I wanted more power and control and that is what the string gave me. Everyone was switching around that time."
Peralta is one of the few players still playing professionally who made the switch mid-career. I asked him what the biggest difference was now that the string is ubiquitous. "The contact point [on forehands and backhands] is much higher now," he said. Instead of hitting most groundstrokes at waist level, he said, the ball was now "up around my shoulders."
This matters. A lot. All tennis players struggle hitting high balls. Just ask Roger Federer when hitting a backhand off a Nadal crosscourt forehand. However, the higher contact point is particularly challenging for teenagers. In addition to not being fully grown, teens lack the developed shoulder and back muscles needed to get the racket through the elevated hitting zone with enough force to counteract the upward bouncing ball—especially a Luxilon-spun ball that many players describe as "heavy."
As part of my academic work, I recently attempted to quantify the effect of poly strings, studying string use and tension in the men's professional game over a 15-year span. From the abstract of my work-in-progress article titled "The Luxilon Effect: Testing the Impact of String Technology on Men's Professional Tennis:"
My findings help explain why precocious teenagers, Americans or otherwise, rarely make a substantive dent in the upper echelons of contemporary professional tennis. Case in point? Frances Tiafoe. A 17-year-old from the Washington, DC area, Tiafoe is one of America's top young players. He recently turned pro, and earned a main draw appearance in this year's French Open as a result of his performance in three straight minor league "Challenger" tournaments, where he won nine main draw matches, beat a top 100-ranked player, and saw his own ATP ranking rise from No. 519 to No. 293. He lost his debut French Open match in straight sets to No. 36 Martin Klizan of Slovakia, the match lasted just one hour and 40 minutes.
And while Tiafoe's recent results remain impressive, they aren't remotely close to the precocity of top American teenagers a quarter-century ago. At age 15, Michael Chang won a match at the 1987 U.S. Open and claimed the title at the Las Vegas Challenger. The following year, he won his first ATP title in San Francisco and finished No. 30 in the world. In 1989, he won the French Open at the same age—17 years, 3 months—that Tiafoe is now.
Absorb that for a moment.
Chang wasn't alone. Agassi, born in 1970, reached the final of the Schenectady, New York Challenger in 1986. At 17, he won the ATP tournament in Itaparica, Brazil and reached the semifinals in elite-level tour stops at Stratten Mountain, Vermont and Basel, Switzerland. He finished 1987 ranked No. 25 in the world and 1988 at No. 3. Jim Courier, also born in 1970, won the Vina del Mar, Chile Challenger, and made it to the semifinals of two ATP tournaments in 1988, finishing the year ranked No. 43. Pete Sampras, born a year later, reached the semifinal of one 1988 ATP tournament and finished the year ranked in the top 100.
No one in the Golden Generation of American men's tennis used Luxilon strings as teenagers. More importantly, at the start of their careers, neither Chang, Agassi, Courier nor Sampras had to face 28-year-old men like Chip Hooper and Slobodan Zivojinovic using the spin-inducing string. The absence of such a heavy ball helped open a window of opportunity for their talent and varying playing styles (Sampras played serve-and-volley; Change was a baseline retriever; Agassi and Courier defined the take-the-ball early power baseline game) to reach the upper echelons of the sport at relatively young ages.
Those days are gone. No rail-thin and largely unknown player from Brazil can show up at the French Open and win the title using a nascent string called Luxilon. Everyone has access to the string in 2015. There is no possibility of a first-mover advantage. In the here and now, elite-level pro tennis breakthroughs largely are strung out (pun intended) until later years.
Of course, the Tiafoe generation—which includes 1996-98 birth year contemporaries Jared Donaldson, Stefan Kozlov, Michael Mmoh, Taylor Fritz, and Reilly Opelka—aspires to be different. They've grown up with polyester strings and have never known a different way to play. Their coaches fully recognize how tennis has changed. The USTA is even investing in a massive facility outside of Orlando that features eight red clay courts, the better for them to practice on the slow, slippery surface their European rivals take for granted. Finally.
Who knows? Perhaps that will be enough to ignite a second Golden Generation. Tiafoe and company may break into the top 20 and make deep runs in future Grand Slams, busting the slump and ending the drought. Be patient, though. It probably won't happen for years—2020 is much more likely than 2015. Blame the strings.