U.S. Open: How the decline of American men's tennis explains global economics.

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Aug. 29 2011 1:52 PM

World Defeats U.S. in Four Sets

How the decline of American men's tennis can explain global economics.

John McEnroe. Click image to expand.
John McEnroe

The U.S. Open —a brash mix of great tennis and frenzied fans—today begins its annual two-week run at Flushing Meadows in New York. Though shaken by the rare combination of an earthquake and a hurricane, the indominatable spirit of the city and its tournament will shine through, culminating with finals on Sept. 11, the 10th anniversary of the event that redefined our nation.

For those of us who came of age watching Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe do battle, followed by years-long domination by Pete Sampras, something is missing at this Open, something, unfortunately, that we have gotten used to over the past several years: a legitimate American men's challenger. The field is dominated so totally by the grace of Roger Federer, the power of Rafael Nadal, and the flawless execution of Novak Djokovic, that it's easy to forget that it has been eight years since an American man—Andy Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open—has won a Grand Slam tournament. Indeed, the only American among the top 10 men's seeds this year is No. 8 Mardy Fish. The next American man—Andy Roddick—is seeded 21st.

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I can't help but see men's tennis as a metaphor for America's long-term struggles. Twenty years ago, the U.S. was the undisputed superpower. The Berlin Wall had fallen. Our economy was the symbol of capitalism ascendant over all other ideologies. President Reagan had restored Morning in America. And the U.S. dominated the men's tennis circuit.

Twenty years ago, four American men graced the top 10: Jim Courier, Ivan Lendl (who got a green card in 1987), Sampras, and Andre Agassi. And McEnroe still survived at No. 17. In the entire '90s, American men won an amazing six U.S. Open championships and an even more amazing seven Wimbledon titles. We were at the top of our game.

So what does this mean? As a tennis player, I hope the lesson is: If we regain our stature in the tennis pantheon, our position in global affairs will return.

That sounds silly, but the logical error in that statement is not dissimilar from the one that is made all the time on serious issues: confusing simultaneity and causation. It is one of the grave flaws in our political dialogue.

Example: Deficits are up, the economy is not growing, therefore we must shrink the deficit to restore growth. Wrong. Deficits are up for multiple reasons, but most economists now would agree—not just the fervent Keynesians—that we have a demand crisis, not a deficit crisis, and that the underutilization of our capacity is the grave issue to address now. The Paul Ryan-Tea Party mania for slashing spending will reduce GDP. Look at the impact of British Prime Minister David Cameron's economic polices as Exhibit A for this. Look at President Herbert Hoover's failed policies during the Great Depression as Exhibit B.

The real import of the decline of American men's tennis is that it vividly demonstrates the most significant change in the world over the past 20 years: globalization. For 50 years after the end of World War II, we were the only nation that had the rule of law, liberal democracy, market-based competition, intellectual capital, traditional capital, skilled labor, and a middle-class consumer base. As these critical inputs to prosperity have spread around the world, amounting to an enormous victory for the ideology we have espoused, the playing field—or rather, the tennis court—has gotten a bit more crowded.  It is not just in the realms of cars, airplanes, computers, fashion, and political leadership, that globalization has led to Tom Friedman's flat world or Fareed Zakaria's "rise of the rest." It is in women's soccer, swimming, basketball, and tennis.

But this is no reason for despair and resignation. Great competition allows great competitors to rise to the occasion. Who knows? Mardy Fish may pull the upset, Andy Roddick may serve his way to glory one more time, and emerging from the junior ranks may be the next McEnroe, Connors, or Arthur Ashe, ready to lift our spirits.

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