Over the past couple of weeks, I've read a few articles decrying Sports Illustrated's choice for 2006 Sportsman of the Year, Dwyane Wade, rather than tennis superstar Roger Federer. While I don't disagree with the premise that Federer is a more deserving candidate based on his 2006 accomplishments, and his graciousness on and off court, I'm completely unsurprised by SI's choice. Tennis is a faint blip on the American sports radar screen and it's a blip that is fading more and more with each passing day since the departure of Andre Agassi at last year's US Open. Without an American male or female at the top of the game, tennis won't garner the attention of the provincial American sports fan, and that attitude is mirrored by magazines like Sports Illustrated. At this moment in time, I think SI's Sportsman of the Year could only come from one of the following sports: Football, Baseball, Basketball and NASCAR. Two notable exceptions to candidates from these sports are Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods. Both of these men are American icons and no other participant from their respective professions would have a chance. So while we all may disagree with Sports Illustrated's choice for 2006 Sportsman of the Year, we can't really be surprised by it, can we???
While it's fun to discuss Sports Illustrated's perhaps controversial choice for Sportsman of the Year, it doesn't address the real problem of why no tennis player will win this particular award, regardless of accomplishment, in the near future. First, there are no American players, male or female, at the top of the game and there don't seem to be any on the horizon. Andy Roddick and James Blake you say - I think not. With Federer around, these two men won't have a chance to reach the pinnacle of the game. However, Roddick and Blake are two American men in the top 10 so you would think that that would garner some media attention. The fact of the matter is that it hasn't and it makes me pessimistic that the rise of an American superstar can rescue tennis from the dustbin of the American sports landscape. One or two players near the top may not be enough - we may need a dozen or so in the top 30! Of course, the likelihood of this happening diminishes each day as community based programs for soccer, football, basketball, baseball and lacrosse organize and attract more American youth. Does the USTA understand this? Does it understand that the next great American champion isn't likely to come from some upper middle-class white community where children don't have to work for what they want? There are millions of great athletes in this country and many of the best ones don't have tennis as a choice. The USTA needs to consider that when trying to grow the game in America.
Nadal loses in Chennai
I found the news today that Rafael Nadal lost to Xavier Malisse in straight sets at the Chennai Open to be a little deflating. I was hoping that Nadal would begin to return to his place as the clear-cut number two player in the world, and this loss is giving me some doubts about his ability to do that. While Malisse is a quality player, under no circumstances should the true number 2 player in the world lose to him in the semi-final of a tournament. This is exactly the kind of match that Nadal should be winning in straight sets if he is to mount a true challenge to Roger Federer at this year's Australian Open. There was a part of me that really wanted to predict a Nadal triumph in Melbourne in 2007, but that part of me has retreated to the background to lick its wounds after today's disappointing result. Perhaps I'll feel differently when the draw for the Open is released, but until then, I can't shake the feeling that Roger Federer will continue his domination over the sport with another title in Australia.