Tennis riding renewed enthusiasm

Updated: January 29, 2005, 2:58 PM ET
Associated Press

Insomniacs and tennis junkies aren't the only ones staying up in the middle of the night to watch the Australian Open.

All across the country, the doings Down Under are gaining new fans. They're raving about it on sports talk radio stations, dashing off e-mails to ESPN2.

The cable network planned to show 71½ hours of this once-sleepy Grand Slam tournament. With all the buzz about the big matches and stars -- Serena Williams vs. Maria Sharapova, Roger Federer vs. Marat Safin, Andy Roddick vs. Lleyton Hewitt -- the network added more and more coverage. By the time the tournament ends this weekend, ESPN2 will have shown some 110 hours of tennis.

Popularity goes in cycles. What's hot suddenly is not. What's out of fashion can come back in.

Tennis has a chance to become hotter than ever, now that it has a deep base of international stars and stellar rivalries in both the men's and women's games.

Not since its peak years in the 1970s, when the Billie Jean King-Bobby Riggs match stirred the world and the rivalries among Jimmy Connors, Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe drew millions of fans has tennis been in a better position to grow.

There's a broader balance of power in the men's game with charismatic stars from all corners of the globe -- Federer from Switzerland, Safin from Russia, the Australian Hewitt and the American Roddick.

Close in age -- Safin is the oldest having just turned 25 -- they could be firing shots at each other for the next eight years, while still younger players look for their places in the pecking order.

Andre Agassi, meanwhile, is still around and still dangerous enough to beat any of them.

"This is, to me, the real start of the new era in men's tennis," said Patrick McEnroe, the U.S. Davis Cup captain and an ESPN2 commentator at the Australian. "You've got these four great players, all of whom have won a Grand Slam. They are all young personalities and enjoyable to watch in different ways.

"Whenever tennis has been at its best, you have great players on the great stages. People want to see players they are familiar with in the semis and finals. This bodes well for what is coming in men's tennis. The fact that Federer is such an extraordinary talent has raised the bar."

That has translated into packed crowds at events almost everywhere. Worldwide ATP attendance, not including Grand Slams, rose to 4 million in 2004, up from 3.8 million the year before and 3.6 million in 2002.

The women's game, boosted in recent years by the rise of Venus and Serena Williams as champions and Anna Kournikova as cover girl, has blossomed into a deep mix of players with talent and personality.

The three Russian women who won majors last year brought a new dimension to the game. Sharapova, the 17-year-old Wimbledon champion, showed she's far more than just a pretty face, even if that face is all over magazines and on late-night talk shows.

Serena Williams had to survive three match points to beat Sharapova in a semifinal that was every bit as thrilling as the Federer-Safin match. Sports fans, even if they never were particularly tennis fans, were drawn into the quality and tension of those matches -- so much so that ESPN2 is showing them again this weekend as "instant classics."

Lindsay Davenport, who reached the finals with Williams, is a compelling story in her own right. She planned to retire at the end of 2004, but after regaining the No. 1 ranking, albeit without winning a Grand Slam, she plugged on and has no reason to regret it so far. One of the genuinely nice people in sports, Davenport is as good a role model as exists in the game.

At a time when other pro sports have been beset by problems with steroids, the arrests of stars and confrontations with fans, tennis stands to gain as a civil alternative -- like golf, but with far more sweat and athleticism. No pro sport has a tougher anti-doping program than tennis.

"Let's face it, we don't have the same problems that baseball, football, basketball have with people breaking the law. You're not reading negative headlines like that," said Kurt Kamperman, the U.S. Tennis Association's chief executive for community tennis.

A recent study by the USTA and the Tennis Industry Association showed that the sport has been growing in popularity on courts throughout the country. With 24 million players -- 4.75 million of them frequent -- the sport is not quite where it was at its height in the 1970s, when it had as many as 32 million players. But it's close to golf and growing despite many more athletic and recreational options for people these days.

"We're trying to piggyback on the general awareness of the game created by this new generation of stars," Kamperman said. "Tennis has been an international sport for many years and it's at a maturity level with the American fan base that they can just as easily root for a non-American."

As much as ESPN2 might have hoped for a men's final with Roddick, the duel between the fiery Safin and Hewitt promises to be filled with plenty of excitement to keep new tennis fans, along with insomniacs, happy.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press