"If you look historically at all the great American champions," Courier explains, "they've all been products of their families' desire to have a tennis player. It's a very personal sport." Between 1993 and 2003, the U.S. won 22 Grand Slams on the men's side (Courier, Agassi, Pete Sampras, Roddick) and 17 Slams on the women's (Venus and Serena Williams, Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati), and Courier notices a pattern. "Some of our best players come from immigrant families," he says, citing Michael Chang, Sampras, and Agassi. "Tennis is a way to better one's quality of life. So there's a real hunger there." (Courier isn't the son of immigrants – his father worked for a fruit-juice-pressing company in Florida – but his work ethic was famous. After matches, Courier used to lace up his running shoes and sprint off to do more cardio.)
The key point here is that the success of Courier and his generation didn't result from some broader American plan to create champions, some collective irrigation of the grassroots – they were more like a random bumper crop, a group of talented, supremely driven athletes who just happened to emerge at the same time and cohere into what seemed like an unstoppable force. The USTA, which runs the U.S. Open and has grown wealthy from ticket sales and sponsorships, didn't see its role as molding players from scratch – it was more interested in supporting round robins at the local country club than in cranking out French Open champions. It offered only what it called "supplementary" assistance to players once they had already bubbled up from academies like Bollettieri's, from universities, or from the homes of taskmaster parents. Players and coaches built their own informal networks. A lot of the time, American players took the initiative to train each other, passing the torch from one generation to the next; in the same way that Agassi reached out to Roddick, Roddick now mentors Ryan Harrison in Austin, Texas. And because this loose, ad-hoc, decentralized system had always produced plenty of American champions, the USTA didn't feel like it needed to build a more rigorous, centralized structure.
But through the 1990s and early 2000s, while America rested on its laurels, other nations like France and Spain were building formidable tennis programs, opening elaborate new player-development facilities where they trained kids full-time. As these investments began to pay off, and more and more foreign players won major events, there was a cascade effect: Tournaments that had long been held in the U.S. began to migrate overseas, further shrinking the sport's visibility here. (The most recent example: In April, the ATP tour announced that the yearly tournament in Memphis would be moving to Brazil in 2014.) Television viewership here has also declined; the John McEnroe–Björn Borg U.S. Open final in 1980 scored an 11.0 Nielsen rating, while last year's Djokovic–Nadal final rated only a 2.6. Like baseball and basketball, tennis quietly evolved into a global game; today, in some European countries, tennis is second in popularity only to soccer, which means that foreign tennis coaches have no problem recruiting the best young athletes. Meanwhile, in America tennis coaches end up fighting for scraps. "In other countries, better athletes play tennis," says John McEnroe, the great American champion. "It's as simple as that."
In 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008, Roger Federer won the U.S. Open. At some point the USTA's Board of Directors started to worry that if Americans weren't more competitive at the Open, the health of the country's flagship tournament might be at stake. So in 2008, the USTA asked one of the McEnroe brothers – Patrick, the younger brother, who was then the captain of the Davis Cup team – to try to reverse the slide.
A common refrain in tennis circles is that American kids simply aren't tough enough compared to their foreign peers; they lack the grit of a Novak Djokovic, the world No. 1, who recently told 60 Minutes that he credits his success to growing up lean and hungry in Serbia during the war. But Patrick McEnroe began his job as the USTA's general manager of player development with the assumption that if it were really true that American kids weren't tough enough, this was not a problem of character but a problem of coaching. And coaching could be fixed, beginning with the way that the game is taught to children.
Baseball has Little League, football has Pop Warner, soccer has AYSO, but the USTA had never designed a scaled-down version of tennis to ease kids into the sport. Europeans have long used soft, spongy balls and shorter courts to make the game less intimidating for little kids and to help them build complex points sooner – former world No. 1 players Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters graduated from such a "mini-tennis" program in Belgium – and in 2008, the USTA followed suit, launching its own mini-tennis program called "10 and Under Tennis." Kids in America now learn and compete with smaller racquets, lower nets, and low-compression, two-toned balls. And for those who stick with the game and show potential, the USTA can now offer them something more than just supplemental support: In the past seven years, it has opened three training centers: one in California, one in New York, and a flagship facility in Boca Raton, Florida, where about 20 kids between the ages of 13 and 18 live and play full-time. Crucially, all three USTA centers feature multiple clay courts; the theory is that European kids are such savvy shotmakers because they train more on clay, a surface that rewards patience and guile instead of sheer power. (The elite Spanish-born coach José Higueras, who now works for the USTA as its director of coaching, has said for years that American kids know how to hit but they don't know how to play, and that the lack of clay in America is one reason why.) Patrick McEnroe has also implemented a set of tough national standards to train new American coaches. In France, he points out, you have to study for a year to become a tennis coach, while in the U.S., "you can get a certificate in a weekend. I can guarantee you there are more, better coaches in other countries than in this country, percentage-wise."
It all adds up to something that America has never had before: a system for growing, harvesting, nurturing, and tracking tennis champions. It's completely new territory, and there are signs that the program is paying off. In January, around the same time that the U.S. men were getting their asses kicked at the Australian Open, a junior tournament called Les Petits As was held in France, and all four semifinalists in the boys' bracket were from the same country: America. The winner, 14-year-old Francis Tiafoe, trains at a USTA-affiliated center in Maryland, and one of the girls' finalists, 13-year-old Alicia "Tornado Ali" Black, trains in Boca Raton. Another Boca standout, Taylor Townsend, 16, recently ascended to No. 1 in the junior rankings – the first U.S. girl to do that since 2004.
Still, the strategy is in its infancy. When I ask Patrick McEnroe how long it will take to know if it's working, he says, "Probably more like 10 years." There's a slight pause. "But the reality is that they'll probably kick me out before then. Because people want immediate results. I'm actually OK with that. I do believe that whether I'm here or not, the program has to stay on course."