Wednesday, May 1, 2002
U.S. tennis at a crossroads
Scripps Howard News Service
On Wednesday, the United States Tennis Association celebrated the
start of USA Tennis Month with a star-studded extravaganza at New York
City's Rockefeller Center showcasing dashing young pros Andy Roddick,
James Blake and Ashley Harkleroad, TV personality Daisy Fuentes and
the rock band Sister Hazel.
But is this really a time to celebrate?
In March, a survey by the Sporting Goods Manufacturing
Association revealed that the number of Americans who played tennis at
least once last year plummeted by 31 percent between 1990 and 2001.
And television ratings at the U.S. Open and Wimbledon have plunged by
nearly half from 20 years ago.
Stinging stats like those are precisely why promotional events like
Wednesday's USA Tennis Rock and Rally are critical, say tennis
"Twenty years ago there weren't nearly the amount of activities,
the skateboarding, the boogie boarding and all this stuff," said
Patrick McEnroe, U.S. Davis Cup captain. "It's more of a challenge
for every sport. But we're accepting that challenge and we're trying
to do something to make it better."
The USTA has invested tens of millions of dollars to promote tennis
at the grassroots level in recent years. But it is fighting against
two intertwined cultural trends that are sapping tennis's popularity.
With entertainment options increasing, more and more people are opting
to spend their free time pursuing less vigorous pursuits than tennis,
like surfing the Internet or golf.
"With the popularity of computers, a lot of kids are coming home
after school and instead of going out and playing, they hit that
keyboard for two or three hours," said Tom Fetzer, chief executive of
community tennis for the USTA.
"That's a great concern to us. There's all sort of studies that
show that America is more sedentary, less physically active as a
culture than we were 10 or 20 years ago. That's going to have a pretty
Added Todd Martin: "If people have the time to enjoy
themselves and they don't view physical fitness as a priority, they
might enjoy going out with their friends and playing four hours of
golf because it could tend to be more social. I still don't think
that many sports offer exactly what tennis does."
Most observers agree that the allure of the game at the grass roots
level is tied to the popularity at the professional level -- and in
particular how American pros are faring. On the women's side, the
emergence of Lindsay Davenport and the Williams sisters, Serena and
Venus, plus the resurgence of Jennifer Capriati has propelled
American's women's tennis to unequaled heights. American women have
captured 10 of the past 11 Grand Slam tournaments.
"To me, there's absolutely no doubt that if there are stars and
charismatic players, and let's face it, they have to be Americans, to
really get people in this country interested, then more people play," McEnroe said. "I've seen lots more African Americans playing and they
all love the Williamses. Now we have to continue to find more
minorities. It's hugely important. We have to continue to make that
effort to reach out to places where normally you don't think tennis
players are going to come from."
Added Fetzer: "We're increasingly trying to take tennis to
demographic audiences that previously have not been exposed to tennis.
Tennis is now, according to surveys, the fourth-most popular sport
among African-American youngsters. We're trying to take advantage of
The men's side is more iffy. Since 1990 Pete Sampras has won 13
Grand Slam singles titles, Andre Agassi seven and the now-retired Jim
Courier four. However, no other American man has won a Grand Slam
singles championship since Michael Chang won the French Open in 1989.
And Sampras and Agassi are both nearing the end of their careers.
"I think the participation will follow the interest," Fetzer said. "Much like the mid- to late '70s with Jimmy Connors and Bjorn
Borg and John McEnroe and Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova, when
interest in tennis peaked and shortly thereafter participation
followed. I think we're seeing another interest peak. If we do our job
and try to leverage that interest in the game into participation,
sooner and later the participation numbers will come around, as well."
Tennis insiders recognize how critical it is for some of the
younger American men to emerge as Grand Slam contenders. Martin
said it's natural for American fans to be more interested watching
Sampras or Agassi, then a talented, but largely unknown foreign
player. He feels the same way when he's watching.
"I'm a golf fan, and I like to watch it on TV," Martin said.
"And I'm not nearly as interested in watching it if it's not guys who
I'm more apt to root for."
Added McEnroe: "It's time to start passing the baton. Obviously
Roddick and Blake and (Jan-Michael) Gambill and Taylor Dent and Mardy
Fish (are close). Certainly Roddick (currently the world's No.-9
ranked player) has distanced them so far.
"We'd love to see them all get up there -- realizing that tennis is
very popular in the rest of the world, more so than in our country.
You're getting a lot of great athletes from other countries being more
drawn to tennis. That's why we have to do more of a job of finding
great athletes to play tennis.
"Tennis is the second or third biggest sport in most of those
countries. It's not in this country. But that's OK. We know that the
team sports are always going to get on TV more. But tennis has got to
do a better job of using what it has. And the powers that be are
starting to understand that."