On his birthday, we take a look at the time Andre Agassi, along with fellow US stars Pete Sampras, Venus Williams, and Serena Williams, was immortalised by The Simpsons, and what it says about the decline of American tennis since.
While The Simpsons may have lost its sparkle in the last 10 years, there is no question that it stands as an absolute colossus of both television and culture.
Since debuting nearly 31 years ago, it has amassed nearly 700 episodes to make it the longest running sitcom and prime-time animated series in United States history.
With guest stars flocking to the show (Michael Jackson even had a small unaccredited cameo back in the day) from the small screen, the big screen, sports, stage, music, politics, science… probably every nook and cranny society and popular culture has to offer, its gravitas despite its recent decline cannot and should not be understated.
And yet, only once have tennis and its stars taken centre stage. That episode aired on 11 February 2001, and it was glorious.
In it, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Venus Williams and Serena Williams turned up to watch a tennis tournament in the Simpsons’ backyard and ended up being accosted to help settle a family sporting feud – before ousting all four Simpsons from the game entirely.
Sampras jokingly mocked his endorsement contracts at the time, Homer mistook Agassi for Andre The Giant, and the Williams’ moralised over the offer to ‘crush’ family members in sporting contests before just deciding it was totally their thing after all.
But whilst it’s tempting to blast The Simpsons’ creators for shunning tennis, especially in relation to other sports it’s featured over the years, we may need to consider an alternative view.
The Simpsons, after all, reflects American society. That’s perhaps why only one footballer (the ‘soccer’ kind) has ever voice-starred – Brazilian legend Ronaldo.
Back in 2001, the tennis world was very different. Five of the top 10 in the end-of-year WTA rankings (Lindsay Davenport, Jennifer Capriati, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, and Monica Seles) were American. More to the point, they were all big characters with big stories.
Only two of the top 10 ATP rankings were American, but they were Sampras and Agassi, players with huge legacies and popular appeal. There was also Andy Roddick, a future world No 1, who was the winner of the coveted newcomer of the year award. Jim Courier must also not be forgotten in the era either.
Jump forward to 2020, and world number 21 John Isner is the top-ranked American man. The women are in a better position, with Sofia Kenin (4) and Serena Williams (9) going strong, Neither are remotely dominant, though.
So where are the up-and-coming US tennis stars? Why have they stopped producing the best? Kenin reached a Grand Slam final just this year, admittedly, but the jury is very much out on whether she can back it up and consistently reproduce the same level going forward.
Sloane Stevens, of course, won the US Open, but it was in quite remarkable circumstances. She was ranked 83rd in the world at the time, the lowest ranked player to ever win it, but even then she was the first non-Williams American to win a Grand Slam in 15 years. She has slipped back again in recent years though, and now sits 37th,
The US developmental system can lay plenty of claim to Naomi Osaka too, in fairness, and that shouldn’t be forgotten just because she opted to represent Japan – the land of her birth.Coco Gauff, the world number 52 at just 16-years-old, is the big hope of course.
The decline in the men’s game as far as the US is concerned, though, is as worrying as ever.
From 1990 to 1999, American men reached the semi-finals or better 62 times at Grand Slams, though only 26 managed it between 2000 and 2009. At Wimbledon in 2017, Sam Querrey became the first American man in eight years, 2,933 days to be exact, to reach a Grand Slam semi-final.
A Tennis Industry Association (TIA) study this month revealed that 17.9million people in America currently play tennis, with a further 14million interested in taking it up. Those figures are on the rise and shows the pool is as big as ever.
There is, of course, another way of looking at it. Perhaps it’s not a decline in American tennis, but a rise in European tennis? We are in a special generation, of course and spoilt rotten by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic, and before injury, Andy Murray.
Federer aside, though, those players took the game to a completely new level in terms of physicality, which is perhaps what caught the US unawares. Maybe it could be argued, then, that American tennis, too comfortable in its success at the back-end of their golden era, failed to anticipate the sport’s change of direction and got caught cold, losing an entire generation of players through the cracks of complacency.
Regardless, until we see a non-Williams American truly and consistently take on the tennis world, the United States’ absence at the top of the game will continue to be felt and continue to fuel the nostalgia. In short, there simply hasn’t been a US player able to capture the attention of the American public since, which is remarkable given the era that preceded it.
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