19 July, 2011

Get On The Puddlejumper



Quick multiple choice question

Is ATL-LAX-IAD-YUL-CVG-INT-JFK

a.) A long few weeks for a corporate road warrior
b.) The route my lost luggage took to get home from Atlanta
c.) A great opportunity to rack up frequent flyer miles
d.) Mardy Fish's US Open Series summer schedule

If you answered D...well, at least you know what kind of website you're on.




The top American, ranked 8th in the world, is actually scheduled to play every single week of the Olympus US Open Series in a bid to maintain his ranking, bank some cash and get match tough before the US Open at the end of the summer.  This means Fish will lace up his K-Swiss sneaks in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Washington DC, Montreal, Cincinnati and Winston-Salem before making a run at the big prize in the Big Apple.

Eye candy
Let's face facts, global sports always seem to come up short on the American sports radar.  Yes, the World Cup is big and every four years seems to herald soccer's imminent breakthrough into the upper echelon of American sports.  Let's talk once the glow has faded from this year's women's team.  Yes, during the Olympics, the entire country learns (and curses) the names of swimmers and figure skaters who dare face down the Yankee contingent in international competition.  Remember the innocent days before Osama bin Laden, when Oksana Baiul was US enemy No. 1?  Yes, Wimbledon is revered, even by Americans who can't seem to pronounce the damn thing.  There is no "t" in Wimbledon, already!!!  But the fact is, the biggest sports to Americans are almost entirely played on our shores.  Yes, I'm aware of the British Open and the Toronto Raptors, but let's be honest, those are toeholds abroad compared to the kind of day-to-day presence that professional golf, the NBA or American football, baseball, NASCAR, etc. have in this country.

The USTA's US Open Series cannily created a stateside "tennis season" with its run of summer blue hardcourt events.  Tennis Channel and ESPN2 will split the lion's share of the coverage with the finals largely falling into a consistent time slot every Sunday afternoon from here until the US Open.  The Series is tied together with a bonus points system giving the Series champion the opportunity to earn up to an extra million dollars for winning the US Open.  Given its only major competition (until the NFL kicks up) is sleepy mid-season baseball, the only logical reason the US Open Series hasn't gained more traction is that it just came ten years too late.

Andy & Andre
When the US Open Series debuted in 2004, Andre Agassi and Andy Roddick were still atop the tennis world.  Well to be accurate, Andy Roddick was No. 2 in the world, the defending US Open champion, ranked behind only a then-believed-to-be-mortal Roger Federer.  The beloved Agassi was just a year removed from what would be his final major title (2003 Australian Open) and was still ranked in the Top 10 (a full sixteen years after he'd first crashed the top tier of the tour). In other words, the US Open Series debuted at the very end of the greatest generation of US tennis.

But let's be fair, the US men haven't been alone in their inability to boost the Series. Venus and Serena Williams have certainly been the dominant personalities of the US Open Series era, but guess how many titles they've claimed in US Open Series events since it was created in 2004.  Three?  Four?  How about none.  The Sisters Sledgehammer have made a career out of peaking at the majors, but they've made no dent on the US summer hardcourt swing.  In fact, the US Open itself is a Belgian protectorate, what with Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin claiming five of the last eight ladies' titles at Flushing Meadows.

2007 New Haven champion, James Blake
This doesn't mean Americans have had no success in our own backyard.  Former top ten player James Blake bagged three US Open Series crowns including two in his now defunct hometown tournament of New Haven.  Roddick has won four titles, but none since Washington DC in 2007, while most recently Sam Querrey has managed back-to-back wins at the LA stop.  Not that the state of the Yanks should mean so much.  Any visit to a tennis web forum or watercooler conversation on our sport revolves around Rafa, Roger and Nole...OK, and maybe Andy Murray.

That's the other problem the US Open Series faces; not only can it not depend on a stable of homegrown superstars, but the boldfaces from Europe only play as much as they have to.  Being mandatory Masters events means that Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer will make their annual pilgrimages to Cincinnati and Canada, but that's about it.  With the most important swing of the year, points, cash and prestige-wise behind them following the nearly back-to-back majors at Roland Garros and Wimbledon, they tend to stay back in Europe to rest, go on holiday or generally lie in wait until things get serious in August.

What does that mean to you, the fan?  Well, if you live in one of the cities where an event is taking place, it's thrilling to have the carnival of pro tennis making a whistlestop in your town. If you're on the couch, it's a big, fat blah.  Now, there are the hardcore among us who love the history of the Stanford event, or want to see if Argentina can field a fourth consecutive champion in DC, or frankly, could give a rat's ass where the tourney is or who's playing in it as long as they get to see compelling tennis.

Ryan Sweeting in Atlanta

Truth be told though, without Sampras or Agassi, Rafa or Nole or the Williamses in any significant fashion, the US Open Series is just not to going to pop on the radar of the average sports fan.  In a sport where you can't root for the uniform, you're forced to root for the guy or girl inside of it.  Ask Joe Sports Fan off the street about Mardy Fish and he'll likely retort with a crack about Mardi Gras.  The venerable Indianapolis tournament is already gone, New Haven's men's tourney has been shipped to North Carolina and sharks are circling to buy some of these prime summer weeks on the calendar and move events abroad. Think it can't happen? Witness Germany after the Graf/Becker era.

What was once dubbed the greatest road trip in sports is beginning to look more like a sputtering puddlejumper every day.  How do we fix it?  Simple: We need stars, end of story.  That'll make this next bit of advice counter-intuitive, but forget Nadal and Federer.  They've made their schedules and will play out their storied careers catching tan during the non-Mandatory portions of the US Open Series.  With that acknowledged, we've got to make sure the next generation of stars is giving a serious look to the US summer hardcourts.

World No. 1 Caroline Wozniacki has had great success playing the circuit as have Andy Murray and Juan Martín del Potro.  That's a good start, but we've got to make sure that the Bernard Tomics, Grigor Dimitrovs, Milos Raonics, Ryan Harrisons, Sabine Lisickis, Petra Kvitovas and Caroline Garcias are dreaming about spending their summers stateside.  We've got to make sure that the next round of players who will drive the ATP and WTA tours are going to commit to the US Open Series so that the fans (and the attention they bring) can follow.  I mean, let's face it, Mardy Fish can only cover so much ground by himself.

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