LONDON (Reuters) - If an American prodigy harbors any hopes of winning a grand slam, they will need to have the build of Lebron James, the speed of Chris Johnson, the deep pockets of Donald Trump and a coach with the brains of Richard Williams.
Well, according to famed tennis coach Nick Bollettieri, that is.
As a man a month shy of his 81st birthday, Bollettieri has been around long enough to see the good of American tennis (Don Budge winning the Grand Slam in 1938), the bad (a barren spell for the men that is now into its ninth year) and the ugly (the countless Connors-McEnroe on-court spats).
As the mastermind behind one of the most famous tennis academies in the world, Bollettieri was also known as the coach with the Midas touch as he had a hand in shaping 13 grand slam champions, who between them captured 87 major singles titles.
Among his graduates were Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Jim Courier and when the trio were engaged in a constant merry-go-round for the world number one spot throughout the 1990s, little did they know that a decade later American men would go through a barren spell lasting 34 majors and counting.
This winless streak is the worst ever for American men, having surpassed the previous record when they went 30 straight slams without a title between the 1955 U.S. Open and Wimbledon in 1963, and Bollettieri cannot see a quick fix.
“The difference today is we are not attracting the right athletes. We have to attract the athletes that are going to other sports because they are much more affordable,” Bollettieri told Reuters in a telephone interview.
”If we had (NBA players) Lebron James and Kobe Bryant (in tennis), we’d clean the clocks.
”If you look at the game today, I believe the average size for the men is around 6 foot 3 and average age is 25 for men. That’s got to give you some message that the game has become bigger and stronger and we have to have athletes that make a commitment and not go to football and basketball and track and soccer.
”It’s a tough call to get boys and girls that are not big, strong athletes to make it in tennis today.
”You’ll also see that the big athletes move very well and are not lacking in any movement. I believe Americans have got to get these athletes and steer them into tennis.
”If I was in charge today, I’d have my scouts in different parts of the country searching out the big, strong athletes. I’d get those kids at 10 and 11 to start working my team. It’d take me five to six years but you can bet that at the end of five to six years, I’d be back in the saddle again.
“We have to go out...and fund them. Some of these girls and boys are turning into pros as soon as they come out of high school; they better make sure they marry into money or have somebody to fund them as tennis is an expensive sport.”
Bollettieri can see in his own backyard just how far tennis has fallen in the popularity stakes in the United States.
Whereas he could once see a 13-year-old Sampras ready to shed blood, sweat and tears in a practice match against a 14-year-old Courier, all he can now hear at his academy is a cacophony of foreign accents.
”We probably have 60 percent foreigners and 40 percent Americans,“ explained Bollettieri before adding: ”Back in 1987 I had maybe 15-18 in the main draw of the U.S. Open and all of them were on scholarships.
”But they were darn good athletes and Jim Courier said a couple of years ago that ‘What Nick gave to us was Sampras, Brad Gilbert, (Jimmy) Arias, (Aaron) Krickstein. He gave us the balls and rackets and we went in the back courts and we became warriors’.
“So you had good players playing against each other on a daily basis.”
While the likes of Sampras opted to turn professional only after they had sharpened their skills against players who would also turn out to be world beaters, the current crop seem to be in a rush to line their pockets and end up being short-changed in the long run.
Ryan Harrison, 20, turned professional five years ago while 22-year-old Donald Young has been pocketing prize money for eight years. Unfortunately, their earnings would not have boosted the U.S. economy by much as both are still without a singles title.
Harrison and Young are two of seven Americans currently ranked in the ATP’s top 100. There was a time when there were as many in just the top 10 but those glory days are long gone.
Andy Roddick had been hailed as Sampras’s heir apparent when he triumphed at the U.S. Open in 2003 and ended the year as number one.
But he, like current U.S. number one John Isner, fell into the trap of believing that they could blag their way to success with one weapon.
“It’s particularly sad to see Roddick in the state where he is in today. It goes to show you that a big serve alone is not enough today. You have to have more than the serve,” said Bollettieri.
”You have to have at least one, if not two weapons and you cannot have a weakness. Right now if you look at Roddick’s backhand...it’s definitely not his strength.
”It’s tough as hell to win a grand slam when you have (Novak) Djokovic, (Rafa) Nadal and (Roger) Federer (playing in this era)...and I don’t think you can be a champion today having a weakness.
”Look at Venus and Serena (Williams), they made an impact because their daddy was wise enough to work on their techniques in the beginning and develop the big shots.
“He didn’t rush them and he completely funded his two daughters himself. How many parents can do what Richard Williams did?”
Editing by Clare Fallon