There once was an American kid with pointy ears and a 150-mile-per-hour serve. A tennis player. He wasn't the most natural athlete – he lacked the elegant strokes of many of his European peers – but no one trained harder. The kid was a grinder. In 2000, U.S. legend Andre Agassi trained with him at the court the kid's father had built behind their Florida home. "The next next savior of American tennis," Agassi later called the kid in his autobiography. "Poor bastard."
Anyway, the kid worked and worked, and eventually made his breakthrough, winning the U.S. Open in 2003 and becoming, briefly, No. 1 in the world. He stayed in the top 10 for most of nine years, reaching four additional Slam finals, including Wimbledon, where in 2009 he lost to Roger Federer of Switzerland, the greatest in the history of the game.
That same year, the kid married a model who would later appear on the cover of the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue.
So everything worked out OK. And today, at 29, he's still playing tennis, although now that his ranking has slipped to No. 27, the people at the United States Tennis Association often get asked a question that perplexes and saddens them: What happened to Andy Roddick, and why didn't he save American tennis?
"In our country, in some ways," says Jay Berger, the director of men's tennis at the USTA, "if you're not No. 1, they don't quite get it."
It's a weekday evening in February, and I'm talking to Berger in the smoking lounge of a Swiss hotel. He's here as a coach with the 2012 U.S. Davis Cup team. Davis Cup is like an annual Olympics of tennis – nations play nations, two at a time, until only one is left – and this year, the U.S. team has drawn Switzerland as a first-round opponent. Matches haven't begun yet, and tonight Berger, a former touring pro, is trying to glean some insight into the enemy. At a small circular table, his cigar smolders on an ashtray next to a propped-up iPad, playing video of Switzerland's Stanislas Wawrinka. "Any inkling helps," Berger says.
Berger knows his team is supposed to lose. This expectation has less to do with specific matchups than the general sense that losing is just what American men's tennis players do. They lose to men from Serbia and Spain and France and Scotland and Slovakia. They lose to players from countries that 20 years ago had no discernible tennis programs but now crank out young champions at a factory clip. As of early February, there's only one U.S. male in the top 10 – Mardy Fish, at No. 8 – and he's 30 years old, approaching retirement. No American man has captured a Slam title since Roddick in 2003. And the situation is hardly better on the women's side, with only two Americans, Serena Williams (No. 12) and Christina McHale (No. 38), ranked in the top 50. Just two weeks before, at the Australian Open, no American man had even reached the fourth round. One British newspaper declared "a new low for U.S. men's tennis."
Between puffs of his cigar, Berger lays out a counter-narrative. He doesn't try to convince me that the situation is great, only that things will soon get better. In the past several years, he argues, the USTA has utterly transformed the way that it trains young players – hiring scores of new coaches, opening new training centers, and changing how the game is taught to four-year-olds. American tennis has essentially been rebooted.
And the same is true for the Davis Cup team that has traveled here to Switzerland. The captain, Jim Courier – an infamous hardass, four-time Grand Slam champion, and former world No. 1 – is only in his second year. I ask Berger if he thinks the Americans can beat the Swiss team, led by Federer. "I think we're gonna win," Berger mumbles softly, then catches himself: "Are we gonna win? I don't know. But we definitely can win." He tells me a story about the 2010 Davis Cup, when the Americans took on Colombia, in a modified Colombian bullring. Mardy Fish played three matches over three days – and won them all. Berger says, "I know that Mardy will be bleeding on the court."