USTA hopes Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, Jim Courier can mentor U.S. players

ByDarren Rovell ESPN logo
Friday, September 4, 2015

The United States Tennis Association has a plan to help end a record 12-year-long drought of an American man winning a Grand Slam title: bring back those who did it.

Martin Blackman, who began his full-time job in June as the USTA's manager of player development, told that his goal is to get the great Americans of a decade past -- Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier -- to mentor the up-and-coming stars.

"We have a crop of boys that are on the pathway to success, and if we can get them time and access to our former champions who can tell them what it takes, that part of the mentoring, the advisory piece, is just invaluable," said Blackman, who as a top junior trained with Agassi and Courier at Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy. "You just can't substitute for the people who have done it."

Sampras won 14 Grand Slams, while Agassi and Courier won eight and four, respectively.

Blackman said that he has met with Agassi twice, including two weeks ago in Las Vegas.

Agassi, during a promotional event with Nike, told last month that being involved in the future of American tennis for the first time is important to him.

"I'd really love the opportunity to bridge those generational champions and connect them to the future," Agassi said.

Courier, who is the U.S. Davis Cup coach, has said he would block off weeks of his time to concentrate on getting the American men back on the right track.

Blackman, who said he has not yet talked to Sampras, said that conversations with Agassi and Courier have not included any talk of being compensated for their time. The goal, Blackman said, was to put a program in place by next spring.

"The ball is in our court to come up with a system and customize our approach to each champion so that they know that whatever time they commit will be used wisely and efficiently," Blackman said.

An American man hasn't won a Grand Slam singles title since Andy Roddick captured the US Open in 2003.

Bollettieri, who has been more hands-on with youth tennis than anyone else, says it comes down to money.

"If you are a top young athlete, you simply can't afford to chose to be a tennis player," Bolletieri said. If you are the 160th-best football player in the world, you're making something like $1.4 million. If you are the 160th-best tennis player in the world, you're losing money. Outside the top 15 or 20, the sponsorships today aren't even what they were in the '70s and '80s."

John Isner, currently ranked 13th in the world and the top American man for nearly four years, agrees that the best American athletes aren't choosing tennis.

After his second-round straight-sets victory over Mikhail Youzhny on Thursday afternoon, a Swiss television reporter asked Isner how it was possible that her country -- roughly 40 times smaller in population than the United States -- had two players in the top five (Roger Federerand Stan Wawrinka), while the U.S. had none in the top 10.

"The greatest athletes in our country probably aren't choosing tennis," Isner replied. "LeBron Jamescould probably be No. 1 in the world in tennis if he started young and stuck with it."

Blackman says if he can bring the three champions on board, he might have a better chance of steering the best athletes to tennis, as Agassi, Sampras and Courier are young enough that a child prodigy's parents might have been fans of them.

Isner said he doesn't feel the pressure of the country on his shoulders because he was never tabbed to be the next American champion.

Those feeling pressure now are the young, highly ranked American juniors, like Taylor Fritz and Reilly Opelka, ranked No. 1 and No. 5 in the world.

"We get it," Opelka said. "We know it has been a better situation in the past, but a lot of guys are playing well now."

Ten years ago, Donald Young was called the next American phenom at the age of 16. At 26, he hasn't yet won his first ATP singles title, and his career-high ranking -- which came more than three years ago -- peaked at No. 38.

Young, who advanced to the third round of the US Open on Thursday, said he believes American women have been so successful because they've pushed one another, something he finally sees happening in the men's game.

Agassi thinks the drought can be explained through domination and change in the game.

"I think the biggest problem over the last decade has been Federer, [Rafael] Nadal and [Novak] Djokovic," Agassi said. "You throw in [Andy] Murray and you have one hell of a generation who have clearly raised the standard."

He said that the new game doesn't naturally suit itself to the American game as it once did.

"Back in the day, me, Pete, [John] McEnroe and [Jimmy] Connors, we hit the ball through the court," Agassi said. "We struggled a bit on clay, but our game still translated throughout the year for the most part. Now with the spin and the athleticism, you need that clay mentality in every part of the game."

For others, it's not that technical.

"We're going through a bit of a transitional phase," said Mardy Fish, who is retiring this year, having made it as high as No. 7 in the world in 2011. "The old guys are going out -- Andy Roddick, James Blake, myself -- and the new guys coming in have a ton of talent. It's like what happened with the Australians. It took time to go from [Pat] Rafter, [Lleyton] Hewitt and [Mark] Philippoussis to the young guys they have today."