"Is this the darkest day in the history of American tennis?"
The speaker, an American newspaper reporter, was standing in line with an Australian sports broadcaster late this past week.
An hour earlier, the last American player had been eliminated in the women's semifinals here at the U.S. National Tennis Center.
In the space of less than 24 hours, four American hopefuls — two men and two women — had been excused from further competition. The finals of America's tennis championships were in the hands of two Russian women and four men from Britain, Sweden, Australia and Switzerland.
The last time this happened, 16 years ago, Stefi Graf of Germany faced Gabriela Sabatini of Argentina and Ivan Lendl of Czechoslovakia played Mats Wilander of Sweden.
So was this the darkest day since 1988?
"Could be," answered the Aussie. "Look at what could have been."
What could have been — two all-American finals — turned into two non-American finals. Instead of Jennifer Capriati facing Lindsay Davenport in the U.S. Open women's final and Andre Agassi facing Andy Roddick in the U.S. Open men's final, the Americans were all sitting on the sidelines.
But wait, it's happened before.
Among women, foreigners have barged their way into non-American finals nine times in 124 years, and men have done it 21 times in the same span.
As recently as 1997 and 1998, the men's final involved no Americans. Patrick Rafter of Australia won the title both years, defeating Greg Rusedski of Great Britain and Mark Philippoussis of Australia. Four times in the 1990s, foreign women swept aside Americans to reach the finals. The last time, in 1994, Arantxa Sanchez-Vicario of Spain defeated Steffi Graf of Germany.
What's evident from a survey of USTA records is the dominant role Americans have played in winning their own championships. In the 124 years, 85 of the men's champions have been Americans and 92 of the women's champions have been Americans.
What made this year's results hard to swallow for American sports fans is the notion that America's position at the pinnacle of tennis is fading. But that's an illusion. The title comes and goes, even though Americans have won it more often over the years.
Foreign players dominated the game for long stretches since before World War II. Beginning in 1915, Molla Bjurstedt of Norway won the U.S. women's title four years in a row. Beginning in 1988, foreigners won the women's title for 10 consecutive years.
The reason for this year's turn of events? Tennis has become extraordinarily globalized. With the exception of Africa, virtually every continent on the globe has produced competitive tennis players who compete for tens of millions of dollars in prize monies in virtually every major country on earth.
Consider just one quadrant of the 2004 U.S. Open's men's draw. In the first round, a player from Switzerland (Roger Federer) faced a player from Spain (Albert Costa). Directly below them in the lineup were players from Cyprus, France, Russia, Argentina, Croatia, the United States, Korea, Finland and Romania.
Gone are the days when Americans, Australians, Britons and the French could dominate the world's tennis competitions year in and year out.
The same holds true for America's best-kept tennis secret — U.S. college competition. All three NCAA divisions comprise hundreds of teams stocked with the best young tennis talent in the world — and as much as half the men and a third of the women are from foreign lands.
Is America in decline? Unlikely. The cycle of tennis feast and famine moves around the globe. Americans will be back.