The U.S. Open started Monday, just two weeks after a historic low in U.S. tennis, when no American men were ranked in the world's top 10. It's the great fall of U.S. tennis. And word now isn't just that no one is on top, but that no one is coming, either. The U.S. doesn't know how to develop players at all.
The best place to learn the art and nuance of the modern game is on clay, but Americans can't play on the stuff. It's not easy to find red clay courts in America, where hard courts suit the U.S. style of power and dominance.
But working through the minors now is an 18-year-old American left-hander, a clay court specialist who has been called "the chosen one.''
That's right, Andrea Collarini (pictured) reached the final of the junior French Open in May on the slow, red clay. He's playing juniors at the U.S. Open.
So how do you explain him?
"I have to use the expression,'' a spokesperson for the Argentine tennis federation, AAT, told me, "they are stealing a player.''
No, the U.S. didn't steal Collarini. It bought him, bought his loyalty, paid for his nationalism.
Did I forget to mention that Collarini grew up in Argentina? He was born in New York and left for Argentina when he was 3. That's where he learned the game.
That's the country that was calling him the chosen one. But early this year, thanks to a fantastic financial offer from the United States Tennis Association, Collarini left Argentina, moved to the national training center in Florida and became an American.
He is apple pie now.
"As far as stealing a player, that's the farthest thing from what we're trying to do,'' said U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe, who's also in charge of the USTA's player development program. "We are America, right? This is what our country is built on.''
This is the story of the building of an American tennis star. And it gets to the heart of the American Way in sports.
Do we applaud going after every avenue to make us the best, or look down on the USTA for trying to buy something it can't develop on its own?
Which is it?
The law of capitalism is winning out here. The U.S. is simply big enough to squash the Argentine federation, to gobble up its best player and make him ours.
To me, this is bullying, and I'm not sure what it will prove to have Collarini winning majors in a few years for the U.S.
Argentina developed Collarini, or at least that's where he grew up on red clay. And when it was clear he had potential, the U.S. made him an offer, outbid for him like every big market baseball team does to small market teams.
Only difference is, this involves a flag. And what about Collarini? Does he owe loyalty to his country? Or just to his career?
Just like that, Collarini is American, with heavy topspin, good foot speed and a lifetime of playing on clay.
How tall are you? I asked him at the French Open.
"One hundred eighty two centimeters,'' the American said.
Kid, in the U.S., that's 5-foot-11.
"You think we go around the world trying to find a kid who could play for the U.S.?" McEnroe asked. "We don't do that. We don't go after kids.''
The truth has been a moving target in the Collarini story. I've tried to move with it, talking with Collarini at the French, and then clarifying more details at a small pro tournament in Peoria, Ill., in July. The Argentine Davis Cup captain made allegations at Wimbledon. McEnroe has responded several times from several places, though his story seems to change a little each time.
This is a messy story, as accusations fly between the Argentines and the U.S. To hear McEnroe, it was an American-born kid who knocked on the USTA's door to see if he could play for his country. "What would you say if we turned him down?'' McEnroe asked.
To hear Argentina, Collarini was a great hope that the U.S. muscled away. "We were shocked,'' said Modesto Vazquez, Argentina's Davis Cup captain and head of that country's junior development program. "It's unfair.
"You are a big country. We have invested in him since he was 14. He was one of the chosen ones.''
The U.S. did not break rules, and Collarini did what was best for his pro career. Argentina? Well, this is their problem. That's what happens to the weak in sports.
Maybe this is what we expect in U.S. sports, to do everything you can within the rules to win.
For me, one word keeps coming to mind:
Pathetic. That's how this makes U.S. tennis look. To go out and buy a kid so we can say we have a tennis prospect?
McEnroe has been in charge of the USTA's player development program since 2008. He's not responsible for the mess of U.S. tennis, but has been charged with cleaning it up. Maybe the biggest hole in American tennis, though McEnroe won't say it, is the amazing lack of good U.S. coaches.
So McEnroe hired Jose Higueras, a top coach from Spain, to be the USTA's head of elite player development. Higueras suggested that the USTA hire Diego Moyano, a coach in Argentina, as a clay court coaching specialist. He has since been hired.
And this is where Collarini gets into the picture.
"Diego Moyano said he had been working with a player in Argentina who has a U.S. passport and wants to play for the U.S.'' McEnroe said. "Why wouldn't we have him in our program?''
The USTA offered Collarini coaching, residence, use of a training facility, wild-card entries into tournaments, but no cash, McEnroe said.
"Last year, when I was here at this tournament,'' Collarini said at the French Open, "they offered me to go to the USTA, and they'd pay me everything: wild cards, tournaments every week with my same coach. So it was far better. It was best for me.''
They came to you or you came to them?
"No, no, no,'' he said. "They offered me.''
Were you surprised they called?
He said that the USTA did not go after kids, remember?
So it was back to McEnroe to ask if maybe the USTA had initiated things.
"Not true at all,'' McEnroe said. "He came to us and said he'd like to play for us.''
But Collarini said the U.S. came to him.
"All I can tell you is what Jose (Higueras) and my coaches told me. And they are beyond reproach.''
No one is beyond reproach in sports today.
McEnroe originally suggested that the Argentine federation wasn't even unhappy about losing Collarini: "They had to sign off to make it happen. It's a procedure that goes on with the ITF.''
Asked what the International Tennis Federation, the sport's governing body, rule is on this, Nick Imison, spokesperson for the ITF said this in an e-mail:
"There is no requirement for any National Association to release the player before they can represent another country.''
No ITF rule?
"The ITF is correct that no rules say they have to sign off on anything,'' McEnroe said. "We, the USTA, have put that in place just for ourselves ... We don't want it to look like we're going after players.
"Before we will agree to help anyone that comes to this country -- with coaching, etc. -- we ask that country to write a letter that says 'With our good graces' etc., etc. This is exactly what the Argentine federation did. Basically, they said 'We release Andrea. Good luck. We wish him all the best.' ''
McEnroe read some of the letter aloud. That's exactly what it sounded like.
Still, Diego Gomez, spokesperson for the federation, said they couldn't stop Collarini from leaving, and that the USTA wanted a note saying he was in good stead. What was their choice but to write it? The letter, he said, was not meant to show that the Argentines were OK with this.
They are outraged.
"Our budget is $1 million annually,'' Gomez said. "And we can never compete with a good offer of players that we produce, we protect, we invest in, and then someone has the money to buy the player.''
Gomez said his federation made a "huge economic effort'' with Collarini. He then sent me a copy of another letter the Argentine federation wrote to the USTA asking for compensation. Gomez said the federation knew it wouldn't get any money, that this was sent only in protest.
"This is why we are calling upon your good judgment for the USTA to consider, on the basis of these facts, a goodwill economic compensation that allows us, within our budget limitations, to continue the development of young players in a country with a situation that is on the opposite side regarding the facilities on which relies your federation.''
McEnroe said the USTA had no intention of sending money to Argentina.
"It's not like a World Cup soccer player,'' he said, "like there's a transfer fee.''
McEnroe suggested that the Argentines came up with the idea of getting money from the U.S. as an afterthought.
At Wimbledon in July, Vazquez, the Argentine Davis Cup captain, told me that the Argentine federation gets its money from Davis Cup matches, and the investment in Collarini, meant to develop him as a Davis Cup player, could have been used on other kids.
"It is not only the fault of whoever makes the offer,'' he said, "but whoever accepts it, too. He was getting help from us and he chose the easy way out.''
McEnroe continued to insist that that offer came only after Collarini approached the USTA.
So this time, it was on to Peoria, where Collarini was playing a low-level pro tour, mostly where kids try to get careers going. Collarini wore a Nike headband, Nike shirt, Nike wristbands, Nike shorts, Nike socks and Nike shoes.
"Davis Cup isn't that big of a deal,'' he said after his second-round victory. "I mean, it is, but I have to do what's best for my career.''
Moyano, Collarini's coach, was in Peoria, too. He spoke passionately, and unapologetically, about what the USTA had done.
Meanwhile, he questioned whether Argentina was exaggerating its investment in Collarini, saying he doubted it had totaled more than $25,000. Collarini was not provided a private coach, did not have all travel expenses covered.
By contrast, McEnroe wrote in his book that the USTA has spent $500,000 on prospect Donald Young.
The Argentine federation spokesperson said it didn't have good records, but "maybe it is not that much money for the USTA or any rich federation, but to us, it is.''
Moyano would know better than anyone how the USTA hooked up with Collarini in the first place. What did you tell the USTA about him? Was it that he wanted to play in the U.S.?
"No, no,'' Moyano said. "I said I thought we could take him.''
"Who first brought up the idea?'' McEnroe said. "Was it Diego, Andrea? I can't answer that question. I can't say I was on the phone.''
The USTA bought itself hope the American Way. A possible U.S. tennis champ is in the making.
E-mail me at email@example.com. Follow me on Twitter @gregcouch