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Lack of young stars haunts men's tennis

American tennis fans have been waiting for years for the next young superstar to emerge on the men's tour.

A seemingly endless stream of American women has grown into high-ranked pros on the WTA Tour, including Lindsay Davenport, Venus and Serena Williams and Jennifer Capriati, while the men continue to be carried by veterans Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi and Todd Martin, who are around age 30 and nearing the end of their careers.

At the end of last season, the United States had no one younger than 29 ranked among the top 30 men in the world, and only one younger than 28 (24-year-old Jan-Michael Gambill, No. 33) ranked among the top 75.

Meanwhile, Spain, Russia and Australia have young pros rocketing up the rankings and contending for Grand Slam crowns.

Russia's Marat Safin won last year's U.S. Open at age 20 and led the tour with seven titles. Spain's Juan Carlos Ferrero, 21, is third in the latest ATP Tour Champions Race. Switzerland's Roger Federer, 19, reached this year's Wimbledon quarterfinals and is seventh in the Champions Race. And Australia's Lleyton Hewitt, 20, is fourth in the Champions Race.

"It's a worldwide game now," said former U.S. Davis Cup captain Tom Gullikson, a key figure in the USTA's player development program. "Years ago there were just four countries that played tennis _ France, England, America and Australia. Now you've got 130-something countries playing Davis Cup. We're in a worldwide battle. It's not just the big, bad USA being able to just do things the way we've done them for 50 years and the status quo is going to remain the same. It's not going to happen."

USTA officials have tried to address the situation in recent years. They have beefed up their player development program and scoured inner cities for prospects.

A handful of promising youngsters have emerged _ Gambill, Justin Gimelstob, Paul Goldstein, Taylor Dent, Mardy Fish and Andy Roddick. Gambill, Gimelstob and Goldstein have had mixed success, while Roddick, Dent and Taylor are just beginning to blossom.

Roddick, 18, of Boca Raton, is clearly the most promising. He has won two tournaments this season and has wins over notables such as Sampras, Marcelo Rios and Martin. And he is 24th in the Champions Race after ending last year at 160th.

The feeling around the tour is Roddick is on the verge of challenging for Grand Slam titles, although USTA officials caution fans not to expect too much too soon.

"He responded well on the big stage, both (at the French Open and Wimbledon). He stepped up and won matches on Centre Court and that tells me he's not afraid of the big time," said former top-ranked pro Jim Courier. "Who knows how things shake out from here?

"But I think a lot of us are hopeful about those three guys (Roddick, Fish and Dent) coming up as teenagers. And who knows what's going to happen with someone like James Blake or Jan-Michael, who is still young in his career? Todd Martin was a late bloomer. Perhaps Jan-Michael is going to be the late bloomer."

Still, is the American way of developing talent the best way?

Some U.S. tennis officials aren't so sure. Neither, apparently, is the USTA, which is expected to announce some significant changes regarding player development as early as this week.

American junior players now have access to world-class tennis academies _ for instance, Saddlebrook Resort in Pasco County and the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy in Bradenton, where players can get year-round training. But many junior players sharpen their games in their home areas through private coaches. The brightest typically have their training supplemented by USTA instructors, who bring them in for extensive workouts.

Other nations are successful at producing champions because they employ a centralized system of development. The best prospects are identified at an early age and developed virtually year-round at a central facility.

Gullikson favors such a system for the United States. However, others, including the USTA's head honchos, aren't sold on it, saying it's important for American juniors to have a more normal lifestyle. Plus, the United States is much larger than other countries, which they say means U.S. juniors could be farther removed from their families than foreign juniors.

"The commitment to being a professional tennis player happens at an earlier age in South America and Europe and different parts of the world than in the U.S.," Gullikson said. "And I, for one, think we, the USTA, needs to step up and do our own academy and train the players ourselves.

"Every major federation in the world trains their own players at their own academy except the USTA. It would be a chance for the very top Americans to train together and try to raise the bar of American tennis, so to speak. That way we could take the kids and train those who can't afford to be at an academy but who are very talented players."

Critics say not all top prospects would want to attend a USTA academy, which isn't the best environment for every kid's development.

"I think it's pretty difficult to ask your best players to leave home if they don't want to do it," Courier said.

Courier said it would be helpful if U.S. tennis officials could bring top American pros and promising juniors together for training and mentoring sessions, mirroring the way things are done with the Australian and Spanish tennis federations.

Still, most experts are cautiously optimistic about the future of American men's tennis.

"It's not all doom and gloom anymore," said Cliff Drysdale, a tennis commentator for ESPN. "Two years ago, we were looking around and we had Sampras and Agassi and then we didn't have anybody. But now we have some young guys like Roddick and some others. So, my concern about the future of American men's tennis is somewhat alleviated."

"It's headed in the right direction," former pro John McEnroe said. "It's not as if these guys are winning majors yet. Roddick is definitely the top prospect. Hopefully he'll pull all these other guys up."

Added Gullikson: "We've got some young guys who can play a little bit. It's not like a magic wand. It's not like you say, "Okay, I'm going to step up our efforts in the player development program.' You're not going to see the results in one year. It's just not going to happen."

Age vs. youth

Americans ranked in the latest ATP Tour Champions Race, which rates a player's performance to date this season. Here are rankings, players and ages.

1. Andre Agassi 31

15. Jan-Michael Gambill 24

20. Pete Sampras 29

24. Andy Roddick 18

44. Todd Martin 31

112. Taylor Dent 20

122. Paul Goldstein 25

129. Mardy Fish 19