Commentary

What is tennis' place in America today?

Originally Published: August 18, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

The epitaph was written 15 years ago, on the May 9, 1994, cover of Sports Illustrated.

Against a backdrop of red clay, the bold headline asked: "Is Tennis Dying?" A yellow tennis ball punctuated the damning rhetorical question.

"Tennis is spoiled rotten," Sally Jenkins' piece began. "If you are wondering exactly when a wonderful game became such a lousy sport, the answer is, the first time a corporate executive gave a 14-year-old a stretch limo to play with."

In retrospect, the 5,000-word story reads far more benignly than the furor it stoked within the game. It lodged a strident complaint that tennis was out of touch with its public, more than lying in a state of repose.

"I don't think any story could have hurt the sport more," said tennis analyst Pam Shriver, her voice heavy with emotion. "In those days, the SI cover was everything, and that was a huge disservice to a sport that's been around for so long and served so many parts of the population so well."

Mary Carillo, like Shriver a player-turned-broadcaster, believes the story ultimately had a positive effect.

"The whole sport gulped," said Carillo, who counts Jenkins as a good friend and lives in an apartment one block away from her in New York. "The original reaction of the tennis world was, 'How dare they?' Then it was 'Wait a minute, there's some validity to this -- maybe the sport has lost some traction.'

"In the end, I think it did the sport a lot of good."

Jenkins, a prodigious author and a columnist for The Washington Post, sighed when the subject of the Sports Illustrated cover was broached.

"Gosh," she said, "it's been a long time now. It wasn't purely my opinion. It was based on the opinions of people like Billie Jean King and Chris Evert. There was an element of self-consciousness and embarrassment. Brad Gilbert said it was too bad an a------ like Sally Jenkins had to write it. He knew it was all true.

"One of gratifying things was that people said, 'Let's try to shore up a fading sport. It shouldn't be fading this way.'"

Anne Worcester, the Pilot Pen Tennis tournament director, became the WTA's CEO three months after the Sports Illustrated story.

"Tennis was at a crossroads, and that cover was a wake-up call," Worcester said. "The world was watching. The feeling was, 'We better get this fixed.'"

Fifteen years after that cruel, sobering stroke, with the U.S. Open approaching fast, it's an appropriate time to answer the question: Did tennis get it fixed? What is the sport's place today in America? Tennis is alive, certainly, but is it relevant?

After crunching all kinds of numbers -- from rising participation totals to television ratings to equipment sales -- and conducting dozens of interviews with people in the game, the answer is: relatively speaking, yes.

Bud Collins, the sage tennis observer, summed it up succinctly: "I think we were in a slump with the game, but I see it improving."

Clearly, the world has shrunk drastically in the past decade and a half. Tennis matters more today in places like Serbia (where it is the No. 1 sport), Europe in general, and South America. In America, where there are so many more options for our consumption, tennis isn't all that high on the list. In fact, tennis is the No. 10-most trafficked sports on ESPN.com, behind major league baseball, the NFL, the NBA, soccer, college football and basketball, the NHL, golf, and NASCAR -- but second among individual sports.

"Of course tennis matters to all of us who love it," Carillo said. "But does your average American jamoke on the street care? I don't know. The casual fan only hears about tennis a couple of times a year. I'm not sure it was ever much more than that."

At the top, mixed results

Those one, two or three times a year that tennis touches every fan are the Grand Slam events, where lately the results have been mixed for Americans. When the Sports Illustrated story ran, America was in the midst of its worst Open Era decade with respect to Grand Slams. Between 1988 and 1997, U.S.-born players won only 18 major titles -- 10 of them belonging to Pete Sampras. But the following decade, from 1998 to 2007, eight different athletes, most notably, the Williams sisters, helped America take 30 majors -- surprisingly equaling the 1968-77 period, when King and Evert were the leading lights.

[+] EnlargeAndy Roddick
Alex Livesey/Getty ImagesAndy Roddick, who won the 2003 U.S. Open, is the last U.S.-born men's Grand Slam champion.

The last man to win a major singles title was Andy Roddick, in 2003. Since then, the Williams sisters have won a total of eight Grand Slam titles (Serena five and Venus three). With Venus already 29, Serena turning 28 next month and Roddick reaching 27 later this month, there are growing concerns about where the next generation of U.S. champions is going to come from.

Serena and Venus are ranked No. 2 and 3 in the world, respectively, but the next American woman is 17-year-old Melanie Oudin, at No. 70. Eight American men are in the top 100, but Roddick is the only one in the top 20.

Lower down the tennis ladder, the news is better.

The United States Tennis Association and the Tennis Industry Association, always conscious of tennis' public image, work aggressively from a two-page document of key messaging points. Keeping in mind that statistics can be subjective; relative; and, depending on how they are parsed, misleading, here are some highlights:

• Tennis is the fastest-growing traditional sport in the U.S.; according to a Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association May 2009 report, tennis participation increased 43 percent since 2000 and 9.6 percent in the last year. However, nontraditional sports -- such as Pilates and lacrosse -- have experienced greater growth.

• The SGMA study says in 2008 there were 18.6 million tennis players in the U.S. (age 6 and above), higher than, for example, totals in 1998 (16.9 million) and 1987 (17.3 million).

• Ball and racket sales increased significantly between 2003 and 2008 -- balls were up 16.2 percent and rackets increased 44.3 percent. Junior racket shipments increased by 87.7 percent in that five-year period.

"Everybody is working to move forward with positive momentum," said Jolyn de Boer, the TIA's executive director. "And we're going to keep pushing."

It seems to be working. The Associated Press recently produced a positive story on the growth of tennis and de Boer reports that Jon Wertheim -- a writer for Sports Illustrated, of all venues -- didn't promise a cover story, but said he'd consider noting some of these rising bullet points.

The recent television numbers are up, too. In 2008, tennis was broadcast for a record 3,150 hours in the U.S. The number in 2009 will be higher.

[+] EnlargeRafael Nadal
ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty ImagesThe dominance and rivalry of Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer has been a significant factor in the growth of tennis.

Although television ratings have been in a steady decline over the years, NBC's ratings for the Wimbledon men's final the past two years featuring wins by Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer -- 3.5 (2008) and 3.8 (2009) -- were the best since 1999 and 2000, when Pete Sampras triumphed over Andre Agassi and Patrick Rafter.

Those epic matches, when they come in Grand Slam finals and feature all-time players, can capture even the indifferent observer, Carillo's "jamoke on the street."

"In the history of tennis, those matches bring in the casual fan," said U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. "Federer and Nadal on men's side -- they're almost bigger than the game, among the greatest of all time -- that draws attention and increases the numbers all the way around.

"That takes tennis into the talk at the watercooler, which is where all of those who love the sport want it to be."

Jim Courier, the four-time Grand Slam champion, knows the numbers intimately -- for the co-founder of the Outback Champions Series, it's a business necessity. He has anecdotal evidence, too.

"From what I'm seeing, people are playing tennis again," Courier said from the Manhattan office of InsideOut Sports & Entertainment, which runs the senior circuit. "You see more people in the streets carrying rackets and riding bikes, too. There was a time when there was a moratorium on tennis rackets in airports. I've seen more and more of that."

A premium niche

Serena Williams' straight-sets victory over Jelena Jankovic in the 2008 U.S. Open final posted a 3.3 rating, the highest in six years. ESPN's programming folks say that tennis generally does 1.5 times better than the usual programming on ESPN2. In the five years that the Australian Open men's final has been televised by ESPN2 at 3:30 a.m. ET, the ratings were, in order, 0.3, 0.4, 0.5, 0.6 and 0.9 this year.

"We're in this huge ascending mode," said Ken Solomon, the excitable CEO of the Tennis Channel, which was born in 2003. "The tennis fan is most abused fan in sports for two decades. That's all changed.

"You put it out there, they're going to soak it up. That's the magic of what we're doing."

According to Solomon, from a business standpoint, these are the unique advantages of tennis:

• Half of Tennis Channel's viewers and participants are women. No other major sport can say that.

• Three-quarters of the audience play the game -- another unique number.

• Its season runs virtually year-round and there are professional matches being played almost every day of the year. And the best players play the most matches.

• Tennis Channel has the most affluent audience of all cable networks, with its viewers' salaries averaging more than $82,000 per household.

"The closest analogy," Solomon said, "is the Sweet 16 -- we do that every week. That's why tennis draws a growing audience."

Despite the sharp downturn in the economy, attendance at the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour and ATP World Tour's U.S. events has increased in recent years. The WTA reported a total of 1.75 million spectators for its 11 U.S. events in 2008, 400,000 more than the 1998 figure. The 12 ATP World Tour events in 2008 drew 1.5 millions fans, up more than 200,000 from the 2000 total. These increases are due largely to significant gains by the U.S. Open (720,000 in 2008) and the events in Indian Wells (approximately 330,000) and Miami (300,000).

"Despite these difficult economic times," said Stacey Allaster, Sony Ericsson WTA Tour CEO, "the tour is in the strongest financial position in its history. Of our 51 tournaments, only one [Los Angeles] has lost its title sponsor. Attendance is holding its own, and when you metric that against how other sports leagues are doing, we think we're doing well.

"Tennis is a premium, niche product. It's very attractive to consumer and luxury brands. They have the resources to invest in these top-quality events and top-quality athletes."

Tennis, with its noble origins and high-end demographics, has always been a tough sell to the masses. It is a highly individual sport; there are no teams in major cities to excite widespread loyalty and support. As Allaster says, it has always been a niche sport and, with the proper care and feeding, probably will continue on that trajectory.

Paul Annacone is better known as a former player and Pete Sampras' coach through his dominant years, but for one year after that terrific run with Sampras, Annacone was the USTA's managing director of the high performance division -- roughly the title occupied today by Patrick McEnroe.

How do you elevate tennis in America?

"If there was an easy answer," said Annacone, now the head coach of men's tennis for Britain's Lawn Tennis Association, "everybody would have it."

How, Annacone was asked, do you get more rackets in the hands of our kids? What's the catalyst?

"Kids usually get involved in sports because they want to emulate someone," he said. "One of the most exciting times -- and maybe the saddest times in retrospect -- is the great group we had in the '90s. We had Michael Chang, Pete Sampras, Mal Washington, Jim Courier, Todd Martin. If you can't capture kids with all those personalities and diversity, well, I think we missed a big opportunity.

"I don't blame the USTA, the agents, the players, me included. I don't blame anybody -- I blame everybody. We should have been more creative in finding a way to get players to carry the flag. I feel like it sort of slipped away, and that's too bad because that was an era we may never see again."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Greg Garber

Writer, Reporter
Greg Garber joined ESPN in 1991 and provides reports for NFL Countdown and SportsCenter. He is also a regular contributor to Outside the Lines and a senior writer for ESPN.com.