Everything was normal and nothing was weird when a spiky-haired Andy Roddick, after beating Juan Carlos Ferrero to win the U.S. Open in 2003, went on the Late Show with David Letterman to talk about how it felt to be a champion. At first, he seemed a little nervous. The tournament had just honored a retiring Pete Sampras, and Roddick was heir apparent. He mentioned his actress girlfriend Mandy Moore. He faced questions about what it felt like to be 21 and the toast of the five boroughs, if not the country, and answered with a candor that would become his hallmark. And really nothing was surprising about any of this: Another handsome young man from California, New York, or Florida (in this case, Nebraska) had won the trophy of our home Grand Slam and showed up on late night television—if anything, it felt predictable, a template that had stood for decades and might go on forever, the biggest tennis trophies hoisted by American men, only now, for the turn of the century, in a feathery fauxhawk and distressed jeans.
“You’ve got the world by the tail for heaven’s sakes!” Letterman exclaimed toward the end of the interview. Roddick answered, “I don’t know about that.” But if you watch the clip a few times, it’s evident that Roddick did know about that, very much, as he fell into line behind other champions, and so did we.
Now we know differently. The 2021 U.S. Open, which kicked off this week in New York, featured 20 Americans in the men’s singles draw. Judging by recent years, it is very unlikely that any of them will reach the final, or even the semis; our top contender, John Isner, currently ranked 22 in the world, just lost in the first round. “The short answer is, it’s possible but doubtful,” four-time U.S. Open champion John McEnroe told me. “I’m hopeful, because Lord knows we need it.” That’s because for practically the sport’s entire history, besides a few Europeans and South Americans, and a couple rounds of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie,” Americans ruled the men’s Grand Slams. Whereas lately: not at all.