It’s remarkable Serena Williams’ back hasn’t given out yet.
You know, that whole “supporting the weight of America’s proud tennis legacy” on your lonesome is arduous, thankless work. After her stunning 6-2, 6-2 loss to Garbine Mugaruza in the second round of the French Open on Wednesday, the talk among America's tennis pundits immediately turned to the next Grand Slam.
Is Williams still a favorite at Wimbledon? Or did this loss, along with a string of early defeats at other tournaments this year (fourth round at the Australian Open, first round at the Family Circle Cup in Charleston, South Carolina) start to clutter the picture? Is it possible that it’s no longer “Williams versus the field,” as it has been the past two years, when she won four of the eight majors contested?
These questions are examples of misplaced focus. Instead of harping on Williams’ lack of dominance this season, the onus should be on how much longer she can continue to be a contender in Grand Slams. Why shy away from that query?
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Because it leads to the question no one affiliated with American tennis wants to contemplate: If not Williams, then who?
There’s no clear answer because it doesn’t exist.
Remove Williams (and her 17 Grand Slam singles titles) from the equation and you’re left with an America mired in tennis mediocrity. Even more worrisome, that’s the case regardless of gender. Any way you slice it, United States' tennis is in a bad place — and it doesn’t appear it will get better any time soon.
To wit: The top-ranked American male on the ATP Tour is Georgia alum John Isner at No. 11. His claim to fame is coming out on top of the longest match in history, with his epic five-setter versus Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010 ending at 70-68 in the deciding set. But marathon matches alone don’t burnish legacies.
For his career, he’s reached the quarterfinals of a Grand Slam just once, at the US Open three years ago.
It only gets worse as one goes further down the rankings.
Isner is the only American in the top 60. Next up are Steve Johnson (No. 64), Sam Querrey (No. 67) and Bradley Klahn (No. 71). The trio of Jack Sock (No. 75), Donald Young (No. 79) and Michael Russell (No. 98) round out America’s representatives in the top 100 of the latest rankings.
And there’s not a Grand Slam quarterfinal appearance among them.
The last time an American male reached a Grand Slam final was nearly five years ago, when Andy Roddick fell to Roger Federer at Wimbledon in five sets. Roddick was also the last man to actually hoist a trophy for the United States at a major; ironically enough, that came at the US Open in 2003.
Since then it’s been a long, painful fall into obscurity.
It’s not as if the women have fared much better, sans Williams. The last American woman to reach a Grand Slam final other than Williams was Serena’s sister, Venus. That match — at Wimbledon in 2009 — saw the Williams sisters pitted each other once more, with Serena emerging victorious, 7-6 (3), 6-2. One has to go back to 2005 to find an American woman in the final of a major that doesn’t carry the Williams surname: Lindsay Davenport played in a pair of them, losing to Serena (at the Australian Open) and Venus (at Wimbledon), respectively.
Unlike the men, however, at least some of the younger American women provided hope, fleeting as it seems in retrospect.
Take Sloane Stephens, who knocked off Serena at the Australian Open last year en route to the semifinals. She followed that up with a quarterfinal showing at Wimbledon. But for all of her potential, the 21-year-old still hasn’t reached the final of WTA event — much less won one. Perhaps even more troubling, she’s regressed in 2014, entering the French Open with a .500 record (11-11) this year.
Yet Stephens remains far from Melanie Oudin territory.
The Georgia native burst onto the scene as a 17-year-old in 2009, entering Wimbledon as a qualifier and beating then-No. 6 Jelena Jankovic in the third round before bowing out one match later. She was even better at US Open. Given a wild-card into the tournament, Oudin made the most of it, upsetting fourth-seeded Elena Dementieva in the second round and outlasting Grand Slam champ and fan favorite Maria Sharapova in three sets in the third round. Oudin’s run was extinguished in the quarterfinals, as Caroline Wozniacki — yes, the girl Rory McIlroy called off his engagement with last week — cruised to a 6-2, 6-2 triumph.
In the 15 Grand Slams she has played in since that magical US Open run, Oudin hasn’t advanced past the second round.
Oudin is merely one cautionary tale: success subsists in a narrow, finite window. Once it closes, it’s nearly impossible to reopen.
So it’s now a race against time. The sooner America identifies the next generation of Grand Slam champions — both boys and girls — who can take the baton from Serena, the better it will be for all involved.
Serena’s back can’t hold out forever.