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Roddick tries to keep U.S. in game

Times Staff Writer

In the Countrywide Classic tennis tournament that starts today at UCLA, the top player is No. 6-ranked Andy Roddick, one of the few Americans who can challenge powers Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

Behind Roddick in the Assn. of Tennis Professionals rankings at No. 8 is fellow American James Blake, who is bypassing the Countrywide tournament. After that, the next highest-ranked American player is Mardy Fish, at No. 40, who will play at Countrywide.

America hasn’t had players dominating men’s tennis since Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras battled back and forth in the 1990s and in the early part of this decade. Since Sampras retired after winning the U.S. Open in 2002, only two Americans have won Grand Slam event titles -- Agassi at the 2003 Australian Open and Roddick at the 2003 U.S. Open, his only Grand Slam event victory.

Federer, from Switzerland, has won 12 Grand Slam events -- beating Roddick in three of those finals. And Nadal, from Spain, has won five Grand Slam events.

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Why are Americans faring so poorly in men’s tennis?

“It’s a global sport now, it’s very competitive. It’s not easy out there,” Agassi said recently. “We rightfully should have somebody atop the game and I think we still have some opportunities for that with the generation that we’re in, plus the younger ones coming up.

“We have to get to the grass roots, though. We have to get out here on the courts with these young ones and you have to get them interested in the game.”

Over the last few years, the U.S. Tennis Assn. has devoted more resources to doing just that. Former USTA president and current board member Franklin Johnson said it has been hard for Americans to crack the top of the tennis rankings because Federer and Nadal are so tough to beat, and in response the USTA began an elite player development program in 2007 based in Carson and Boca Raton, Fla.

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“As the national governing body of tennis it’s our responsibility to do this and in the past we pretty much deferred to the coaching community,” Johnson said. “Now the USTA is saying, ‘We need to take more accountability and responsibility ourselves and we need to increase the resources that we’re putting toward that.’ ”

The program, headed by Patrick McEnroe, differs from the USTA’s regular player development programs because it focuses on a select group of up-and-coming players. Johnson said it also assists players who can’t permanently move to Carson or Boca Raton.

“By offering this I think it’ll give kids a much better chance,” Johnson said.

Even with programs like this in place, retired Australian tennis great Rod Laver said players the caliber of Federer and Nadal can be tough to beat, no matter how many resources a country puts into its tennis programs.

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“I think with this new breed of player around, I think it’s about the stroke production,” Laver said. “How do you teach a player to hit a forehand like Federer? I don’t know. Do we have any coaches that can do that? I think it’s just one of those things.

“Nadal, he has an unorthodox game and he’s able to pull it off.”

But for now, Blake, 28, and Roddick, who turns 26 this month, represent America’s best chances to reach the summit of the tennis world.

Roddick pulled out of the French Open this year because of a shoulder injury and he lost in the second round of Wimbledon, but he beat Federer and Nadal this year.

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“There are a lot of Slams that Roddick would’ve won had Federer not been there,” said Agassi, who will participate in the Bryan Brothers Foundation charity tournament on Sept. 27 at Sherwood Country Club.

“Sometimes, it’s just unfortunate. [Roddick] is a talent, he deserves to be out there at the top of the game. It’s been a tough year for him.”

At the Countrywide Classic, Roddick is one of nine top-50 ATP players in the 28-player field. Also playing are No. 12 Fernando Verdasco and former U.S. Open and Australian Open champion Marat Safin.

The final is Sunday.

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chris.hine@latimes.com

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COUNTRYWIDE CLASSIC

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Where: L.A. Tennis Center at UCLA, Straus Stadium.

When: Today-Aug. 10.

Television: ESPN2: Friday, 8-10 p.m., Saturday, 7:30-9:30 p.m., Sunday, 2-4 p.m.

Tickets: 1-877-LA-TENNIS.

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