Commentary

U.S. needs to broaden appeal of tennis

Sport should draw young athletes from football, baseball, basketball

Updated: January 6, 2012, 5:38 PM ET
By LZ Granderson | ESPN.com

One of the best pure athletes in any sport is Nate Robinson.

Fast. Strong. Jumps out of the freaking gym -- as is evident by his three dunk contest trophies.

[+] EnlargeAthletic Little League
AP Photo/Tom E. PuskarA young second baseman, such as Nick McKinney from Kentucky, might also have the skills to become an elite tennis player.

Yet because of his height, his NBA career has a glass ceiling, and he is confined to being a bit of a sideshow performer, showcased only during that one event All-Star Weekend. On the one hand, he should be commended for getting as far as he has. On the other, he is a prime example of wasted talent. Someone with his physical gifts, tenacity and heart deserves better.

If Robinson were a tennis player, he would probably have better. Each time I see the similarly sculpted Rafael Nadal hoisting a trophy, I think that could have been Nate Rob. Sometimes I wonder whether Nadal would have been Nadal if a tennis coach stateside had gotten to Robinson -- or the thousands of other young Americans in this country whose physical gifts routinely draws "oohs" and "aaahs" -- before basketball, football or baseball did.

God knows we could use him.

With the Australian Open nearly upon us, once again the U.S. enters with essentially no chance of a men's singles championship. If any American makes it to the semifinals, we should throw a parade. The standard drops to quarterfinals for the French.

What happened to us? Twenty years ago this month, the U.S. had 20 of the top 100 players in the world, including four in the Top 10. Today it's nine of the top 100, with Mardy Fish being the sole rep in the top tier.

We used to own this sport. But since Andre Agassi retired, instead of asking "who's your daddy?" we're wondering "who isn't our daddy?"

Andy Roddick has done an admirable job carrying the weight of the country on his shoulders and certainly has a Hall of Fame career. Sadly he will probably put down his racket with only one Slam because he's been dominated by Roger Federer, overtaken by Nadal and, after 2011, cemented in the rear-view of Novak Djokovic.

[+] EnlargeMaya Moore
AP Photo/Tom OlmscheidIs there a young guard, following in Maya Moore's footsteps, who could also follow Serena Williams' lead?

Whether the world has caught up, we've fallen behind or both, one thing that is clear: What we're doing and what the USTA is doing ain't working. You can't grow tennis without champions to serve as its ambassadors. You won't have tennis champions if you keep losing the best young athletes to the other sports.

So how do we change that?

We can start by scouting talent in unconventional places, such as Pop Warner football, Little League baseball and basketball courts. The best sports recruiters don't wait for a kid to show up; they go looking for them. Some of the NFL's best tight ends, including Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham, also were basketball players. Hakeem Olajuwon and Steve Nash, two of the best NBA players in history, were soccer players. Tennis in this country needs to be creative like that.

We also need tennis to appear less country club and more down on the farm or from the hood. There's nothing wrong with being rich, but the U.S. youth talent pool is made up of more than rich, or even middle class, people. There are sporadic programs, but the USTA needs a movement. The costs of playing expensive sports such as football and baseball, especially for elite travel teams, are subsidized by apparel companies.

Spending more money on youth development and coaching couldn't hurt. Spreading that wealth to neighborhoods without club coaches and courts could do even more good. We can't afford to draw from a group limited to those with economic means and/or early exposure as we did in the past.

Now some athletes, such as Dwight Howard and Calvin Johnson, are in sports that clearly maximize their potential. But a guy like Robinson? He's just sort of decaying, showing flashes here and there instead of being the king of the hill because he's been woefully miscast.

Right now there's a fast, skinny 10-year-old tossing a football around in his backyard with dreams of being in the NFL. We all know he probably won't make it. He might -- might -- get a college scholarship, but that's about as far as it goes. That's not hate; that's stats.

[+] EnlargeJohn Isner
Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty ImagesJohn Isner has played entertaining tennis and is ranked No. 18, but nobody expects a major win from him this season.

More than 1 million kids participated in high school football last year and only 1.4 percent got scholarships. Only 156,000 boys played tennis. And though the .6 percent earning scholarships isn't great compared to football, they're only competing against one-tenth of the number of guys. And if they're really good, they won't care about scholarships anyway because they will turning pro as soon as they graduate from high school -- if not sooner.

None of this is designed to frame tennis as an easier sport of course because it's not.

In fact, I believe it's the toughest sport mentally because there is no clock, no teammates or salary. At the professional level, it's just two people separated by a net whose ability to pay the bills is contingent on winning. The hand-eye coordination required at the highest level makes batting in the major leagues look like kickball. Imagine trying to return a 120 mph serve, coming from a multitude of angles with various spins for three, four maybe even five hours straight in the blazing sun. And that just describes how each point starts. That says nothing about how much running around and shot-making is needed to win that point or how many points a player will need to win that game.

Or set.

Or match.

No, tennis ain't easy, and it's foolish to think otherwise. However, even with the difficulty of the sport, one can't overlook the benefits of taking the road less traveled.

I love Fish, John Isner and the guys. While they're obviously athletic and the best tennis players currently representing the U.S., they're simply not of the country's best athletes.

We see the NFL cut bigger, faster and stronger men with more dexterity every year. Why? Those tied to football do a better job of making the sport accessible to young kids, regardless of their socioeconomic status or location. Football also does a better job of positioning itself as a way out of poverty, of getting girls, of becoming a star. Same for basketball and baseball.

American tennis remains somewhat aloof and because of that it's losing the audience, the talent, the trophies. I guess if we don't really care, we can stay with the status quo. But it would be nice to see an American actually win the U.S. Open for a change.

LZ Granderson is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at lzgranderson@yahoo.com.

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LZ Granderson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine