American tennis appears to be losing its appeal to sports fans who no longer have outstanding tennis players like Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe and Pete Sampras to root for and follow. With the exception of Andy Roddick, American players rarely appear in the finals of the U.S. Open anymore.
To regain fan support, the U.S. Tennis Association launched a $3 million promotion campaign a few years ago to reenergize enthusiasm for the sport. It included painting tennis courts blue, instead of green, providing TV viewers a clearer picture of the ball; giving tennis players nicknames that will catch the attention of the viewing public; and dividing tournament activity into a regular season and a post-season finale. In addition, a new bonus system for players was introduced.
It is, if you believe that gimmickry and new marketing techniques are sufficient to extricate American tennis from its current doldrums. But such a strategy misses the mark. It doesn't address the fundamental problem with tennis today: how do you develop better, smarter and more consistent American tennis players.
One major advantage of many European players is that they have learned the game on slower clay courts, enabling them to develop sound ground strokes, solid returns of service and the endurance to compete in very long matches. During the 1950's, most American players, with the exception of Californians, grew up on clay courts, thereby getting the opportunity to solidify their ground game, even though the major summer tournaments were played on grass. This is no longer the case; today our young players are learning the game only on hardcourts, a surface that not only stresses a slam-bang game but also exacts a brutal toll on players' knees and feet.
Hard courts and stronger rackets have fueled the American power game: big and even bigger serves, balls hit as hard as possible and quick points. But it has made men's tennis boring. Men's slam-bang approach to the game has also revealed an extraordinary lack of intelligence and strategy. Brawn has replaced brains. Every player seems to have a coach; it's hard to know what the latter do to earn their living. What is ironical about the slam-bang approach is that few players come to the net anymore, even after their rocketing serves.
Is it surprising that many fans prefer to watch women's tennis with its longer rallies, greater emphasis on strategy and variety of shots? Yet even in this arena, a growing number of women seem to be just clobbering the ball, preferring to go down to defeat rather than change their pace or vary their strokes.
Part of the problem with American tennis is the way we develop our players. Driven by ambitious parents, the lure of big money and greedy sports firms and agents, children are placed in tennis camps at a very early age - 5 or 6 sometimes - where they practice many hours a day. They talk, play and live tennis; they become consumed by the game. They know nothing else.
Family life is often sacrificed. Youngsters are sent to tennis boot camps for months and years at a time, away from home, their families and friends. A few parents like the father of Venus and Serena Williams, do things right. He urged them to have interests outside of tennis and become well rounded. Many parents do not. Even today, tennis officials are planning to develop yet another boot camp in Florida, where youngsters would live year round, to develop stronger young players. They never seem to learn. John McEnroe has criticized these boot camps; he is planning to establish a tennis center with a more reasoned approach to tennis development.
Today players start competing in tournaments too early. Their legs begin to be battered by the hard courts which, not infrequently cause major injuries early in their careers. Many are physically washed up in their late teens or early twenties. Too few go to college, lured instead by parents and agents to full-time professional tennis with its promise of big jackpots and endorsements.
In the 1950's and 60's a large majority of young players went to college and some to graduate schools before turning to full-time tennis, gaining maturity and a broader view of the world in the process. They had a chance to develop their own personas, and they continued to play competitive tennis until their mid to late thirties and even forties.
So many tennis careers today are over by the age of 25. Players are required to play too many tournaments. Their agents and sports firms surround them with teams of trainers, coaches, publicists and hangers-on. They quickly become corporate representatives, not independent competitors. One of the reasons Roger Federer is so outstanding and admired is that he is not a captive of sports agents, large entourages and corporate sponsors. He is his own person. He thinks for himself.
Players don't seem to have much of a life outside of tennis. Too much of the game is about money. Money says " let's develop these talented youngsters quickly, get them maximum exposure, drive them hard to success, and then discard them when they falter for fresh new faces." There isn't much concern for the long-term development of our players, performers who can produce outstanding results well into their thirties.
So what do we need to do to rejuvenate the game?
First, the U.S. Tennis Association and parents need to change their assumptions about developing players. They should view the development process as much lengthier than it is now, not starting at the age of 5 or ending in the early twenties. Youngsters can develop their game if they start at 11 or 12. Parents should encourage youngsters to have a well-rounded life, including college, and to strengthen their mental as well as physical skills. Young players should not be permitted to become professionals until the age 18, thereby taking some of the pressure off them to peak too early.
Universities and colleges could play an important role in player development. The U.S. Tennis Association, as well as parents, should encourage young players to go to college and get a broader education. It could provide scholarships for promising youngsters, as well as subsidies for competent coaches. If universities and colleges can serve as the training ground for professional athletes in basketball, baseball and football, why shouldn't they be doing the same thing for tennis... which is a role they played in the 1950's and 1960's.
American players, at least the men, will have to improve their ground strokes, if there are to become complete players on par with their European counterparts. Bringing back clay courts and clay court tournaments would be an important step toward this goal. So would an effort to develop coaches who can teach the players a "thinking game", not only the technique of hitting 145 miles-an- hour serves.
Reaching out to a more diverse talent base is another measure for developing outstanding American players. Tennis is still a white man's and woman's game. Few players of color can be found on the tennis circuit. This means that we are neglecting to tap the resources of a large portion of our population. In this day and age, this is inexcusable. The Association and its supporters must do a much better job of outreach.
I'm certain there are numerous other strategies for developing stronger players. But promotions, ad campaigns and slogans won't do it. Tennis deserves a more thoughtful, long-term and substantial approach to the problem.
Pablo Eisenberg is a Senior Fellow at the Georgetown Public Policy Institute and a columnist for The Chronicle of Philanthropy, was a nationally ranked tennis player and captain of the Princeton and Oxford University tennis teams.