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Monday, February 25, 2008
U.S. missing the boat

I just returned from a family vacation to the Central American nation of Costa Rica, a nation whose highest-ranking player on the ATP computer is Juan Antonio Marin (hi, Juan!), at No. 1135.

At noon one day, I walked into the bar of our hotel at Playa Carillo beach. The obligatory soccer game was on the television, and the obligatory three bar flies were enjoying their nooners, listlessly watching one of those weird international events in soccer -- The Champions Runner-Up Champions Cup or something …

I sat nearby with half an eye on the tube and I was surprised to see that over next forty minutes or so, the network (ESPN, natch) ran two full-blown, lengthy promotional spots: one for the NFL and the other for -- tennis. If you had just landed on planet earth, you'd be forgiven for thinking that they were sports of equal status and appeal.

And guess what? They just might be -- at least outside the States, where the long-awaited paradigm shift elevating tennis to a major sport has already occurred. Isn't it funny that here in the States, nothing -- not the populist histrionics of Jimmy Connors, the dramatic prowess of John McEnroe, the fiery socio-political agenda of Billie Jean King, not even the flat-out talent and accomplishments of Pete Sampras -- has managed to catapult tennis out of the niche-sport ghetto?

When you look at the growth and popularity of tennis outside the U.S., it's pretty easy to conclude that we've missed the boat -- kind of like those stock analysts who advised their clients to stay away from the Asian markets.

China? Pfffttt … Never happen.

Something similar is happening in tennis. While the game in the U.S. is struggling (in terms of producing talent, if not in staging tournaments and luring people like Maria Sharapova to come live and train here), the game everywhere else is flourishing. Just look at the tournaments played last week: The ATP had big events in San Jose, Calif., Buenos Aires and Rotterdam, with the top talent pretty evenly spread between them (Andy Roddick played San Jose, Rafael Nadal was in Rotterdam and David Nalbandian labored in BA). The WTA ladies had two tournaments, with the one in Santander, Colombia, overshadowed by the big event in Doha, Qatar.

So of the five main events last week, just one was played in the U.S. and the most meaningful and prestigious of the events took place in the Middle East (Qatar). This would hardly be worth a raised eyebrow were if not for the fact that in tennis, the U.S. was not only there first with a tournament and player infrastructure, it also all but single-handedly created the entire Open-era infrastructure for the game. It all seems to have slipped away.

It's hard for me to get too worked up about the failure of soccer to take hold here in the States because it never really was "our" game in any meaningful sense. But tennis was our game -- no less than football or basketball. In fact, right into the 1980s, it was almost exclusively our game. We not only had the top players, we also had the most important events and the expertise to export. But things changed, seemingly in the blink of an eye. Globally, tennis has won the credibility it has yet to attain here in the states.

Tennis is the great athletic success story of the late 20th Century, but we'll be the last to know.