A turning point for U.S. tennis

PARIS -- When I was growing up, there was a slough by our house where kids would collect bugs and play tag, war and other games in the dirt and mud and water and weeds.

At some point in the '70s or early '80s -- around when Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert and John McEnroe were engaging American fans -- the slough was filled in and tennis courts were built over it.

The tennis courts are gone now, replaced by a skateboard park.

I thought about that when I traveled to Europe this month to cover first the skateboards and BMX bikers at X Games Barcelona and now the French Open in Paris, where the American tennis players are possibly making a small stand for their old sport.

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Sloane Stephens, 20, is one of five American women to reach the third round of the French Open. She faces Marina Erakovic, of New Zealand, next.

"You're talking about choices," tennis coach, former player and ESPN analyst Darren Cahill said when I mentioned the skateboard park. "Not only are the mainstream sports available, but there are X Games sports available for kids now as well. Growing up 20, 25 years ago, playing tennis was pretty cool. Now, competing in the X Games is more cool than playing tennis.

"Competition means a lot, and getting the best athletes into tennis is much more challenging than it used to be 20 or 30 years ago, so we have to work hard that we get tennis into the schools, that we make sure that we're following up with the good athletes who show interest in the game. All the sports do that. It's all about competition, and tennis has to fight for its space."

With Americans playing well this first week at Roland Garros, the question is whether this is just a good couple of days or a sign tennis is gaining some of that precious space.

"I believe this is the turning point," said Patrick McEnroe, the general manager for USTA player development. "Last year, we had a decent first week, and I said it's great to have a good first week but it's more important to have a good second week. And we're getting much closer to that. On the women's side, we're very close to that. Obviously, we've got the No. 1 player, but there are also the younger players -- Madison Keys, Jamie Hampton, Sloane Stephens -- who are doing very well.

"On the men's side, this was a big first week, to get those guys through the qualifying round and with Sam Querrey doing well. I don't think it's a flash in the pan by any stretch."

Fifteen American women were in the main draw, more than from any other country (including France), and 10 advanced to the second round. Seven Americans total reached the third round of singles (five women and two men), the most to do so on the clay courts at Roland Garros in a decade.

"It's been such a thin time. Other than the Williams sisters, there has been nothing here," Martina Navratilova said, agreeing this could be a turning point. "I think it kind of started at the Open two years ago, with the women anyway. I hope they can build on it. … This should give them confidence."

Serena Williams is the No. 1 woman in the world and is heavily favored to win her third major in the past year. But the other American women, youngsters Keys and Stephens along with veteran Bethanie Mattek-Sands, are making a statement as well.

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Although Madison Keys fell in the second round, at just 18 years old, her future -- and that of U.S. tennis -- is bright.

McEnroe says the American women are ahead of the men, which is partly thanks to the Williams sisters' success and fame inspiring younger players. Another major factor is the way the women have embraced training together in Boca Raton, Fla. Several players cited camaraderie from training together as a reason for their improvement.

"You can see they're working more on fitness, more on footwork," former player and current Tennis Channel analyst Mary Carillo said. "You're hanging around people you can see get fitter, get smarter, get more professional. I think there is a sense of professionalism among them now and camaraderie in large measure as well.

"That's why the Aussies ruled for so long. They left the continent for 10 months at a time. They ate together, they practiced together. They helped coach each other. There's something about that that creates a very positive atmosphere."

McEnroe said he is happy with the numbers on the women's side.

"Our goal was certainly to get the overall numbers up, and we're cautiously optimistic we'll have a couple top-10 or top-5 players," he said. "And we have another wave coming up behind them that we're confident about."

On the male side, tennis faces stiffer competition for the best athletes, who have a much wider variety of professional sports to lure them. And it's not just the X Games. It is also travel teams in other sports and athletes forced to focus on one sport and one sport only -- if they play any sport that isn't a video game.

As Cahill says, kids can play a team sport and have fun with their friends. Very few athletes make it professionally in any sport, but in basketball, football or baseball, Cahill says, "You can make a great living by being part of a team sport and not necessarily being one of the best players. In tennis, you have to be a great athlete, a great tennis player, to be putting money in the bank."

Still, the USTA has made a strong effort to get more kids playing, even encouraging companies to make smaller rackets for them, and Cahill sees an improvement in the American game.

"We're seeing some great teenagers coming through on the women's side, and I think, in three or four years, all things being good, they will consolidate themselves in the top echelon of the women's game," Cahill said. "The men are a little behind the women, but I think there is a group coming through in Ryan Harrison and Jack Sock and another bunch of kids just a little bit younger than that. It's a little bit difficult to say potentially where they'll wind up, but from a worldwide competitive standpoint, they have a chance."

Harrison, who lost a close, tough second-round match to John Isner on Friday, knows one thing that would make a big difference on the men's side.

"The unfortunate truth about the situation is you've got to have a guy who is American and winning a lot," Harrison said. "Because then kids have someone to look up to, a popular athlete in the States who is becoming a dominant figure. That kind of draws attention.

"For the most part over the past seven, eight years, you turn on the TV to watch the Australian Open or the final here or at Wimbledon and you can count on one hand the people you're seeing. That's what tennis in the States needs. You have to have someone who is really an idol to the kids growing up. Making them say, 'I want to be in that position. I want to be like that.' That energizes kids to play the sport."

Americans have that in the Williams sisters. If this week is a sign, they will soon have more players to look toward.

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