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Early exit an omen for U.S.

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 3, 2001

WIMBLEDON, England -- They are talking about Pete Sampras today. Talking about the shock waves he left here at Wimbledon on Monday. Talking about how this is the end of an era, the end of Sampras' long reign at this venerable place.

What I want to know is, who's talking about Merv Heller?

Heller is president of the U.S. Tennis Association. And if Sampras' loss Monday didn't light a fire under him, then we've got big problems.

If I'm Heller, I'm on the next flight to South Florida to personally oversee the development of Andy Roddick. After that, I'm going to do the same thing with every other American with Grand Slam title-winning potential.

That is, if there are any.

If you haven't noticed, we've got a problem, folks, and it's not a new one. American tennis is doing a free fall. After Sampras and Andre Agassi, we don't have squat. Roddick, the 18-year-old from Boca Raton who has won some tournaments, will be there one day, but his third-round exit here tells you that day ain't today.

Meanwhile, every other nation seems to have a budding champion. Russia has Marat Safin, 21, who won last year's U.S. Open. Spain has Juan Carlos Ferrero, 21, arguably the hottest player on tour right now. And Switzerland has Roger Federer, 19, who beat Sampras at his game here Monday.

Truth is, we were in trouble long before Monday. We have been riding the success of Sampras and Andre Agassi for years without anyone of consequence at the ready. And you know what can happen when you walk a tight rope without a safety net.

Do you know when an American last won the ATP Tour's Newcomer of the Year award? Twelve years, when Michael Chang won it.

We've always had plenty of wannabes. Justin Gimelstob. Alex O'Brien. Jonathan Stark. But, except for an occasional flash here or there, none of them ever amounted to much in singles. The jury is still out on others -- namely Jan-Michael Gambill and Paul Goldstein, but neither has done much to warrant our supreme faith.

Now it seems time is starting to run out. Agassi is 31, and still is playing well, but how long do you want to bank on that?

Todd Martin, who reached the 1999 U.S. Open final, turns 31 on Sunday. But that salt is creeping up his temples, and his knees are about as solid as our economy. Jim Courier and Mal Washington have retired, and Chang has faded.

That pretty much leaves us with Sampras.

A year or so ago, that wasn't such a bad thing. He wasn't dominating the sport as he once had, but he still was winning a Grand Slam title here and there and hovering near the top of the rankings.

Those days are over. If you had any doubts, Monday should have confirmed it. Sampras, who turns 30 next month, has yet to win a tournament this year and leaves Wimbledon earlier than he has in 10 years. "I think this may signal the end of what I think is the greatest era in the history of American men's tennis," tennis historian and broadcaster Bud Collins said. "You had Pete, Andre, Courier, Todd, Mal and Chang. They won a lot of majors between them.

"So, what happens next? Who's going to replace them?"

Sampras, bless his heart, will tell you he isn't done. That his 7-6 (9-7), 5-7, 6-4, 6-7 (2-7), 7-5 loss to the big-serving Federer proves only one thing: Federer was better on that day.

He vowed that this wasn't the end. That he still has what it takes to bag big titles. That he may very well return here next year or the year after and reclaim the trophy.

"Let's not get carried away. I mean ... there's no reason to panic and think I can't come back here and win here again," he said. "I feel like I've got the goods out there. Today I didn't, you know, quite get the breaks that I needed."

Maybe Sampras still does have greatness within him, but why wait to find out?

Somebody needs to find Roddick right now and make sure he's practicing. Somebody needs to find Taylor Dent and Mardy Fish and any of our other boys with any kind of talent and get them on the court, too. Like yesterday.

Granted, we don't want to bring them along too soon, but Sampras' loss means the timetable has changed. Finding his successor should take on a greater sense of urgency.

It's either that or change the colors of our flag to red, black and blue.

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