Commentary

Luring U.S. kids gaining traction?

Originally Published: August 19, 2009
By Greg Garber | ESPN.com

Long before he was Pete Sampras' coach, before he reached No. 12 in the world, or the quarterfinals at Wimbledon in 1984, Paul Annacone was a Bollettieri kid.

He logged thousands of hours at Nick Bollettieri's tennis academy in Bradenton, Fla. There, banging with the best and the brightest young players in the game, he learned -- he earned -- the craft of tennis.

When Annacone's son, Nicholas, who had been raised in the culture of tennis, asked at the age of 10 to go to Bollettieri's, his father had his back-in-my-day speech ready. To be as good as you can possibly be, he said, it's going to take a lot of hard work and sacrifice. It's time in the gym and the classroom; it's five, six hours a day on the sun-baked courts. It might even mean missing parties and other social events.

Nicholas' eyes widened.

"His answer, it was very honest," Annacone said. "He said, 'I don't know if I'm interested. No, Dad, I don't think I want to do that.'"

Annacone wants you to know that his son is not "a lazy slacker." He's 22 now and attends his father's alma mater, the University of Tennessee. Nicholas was just a typical, path-of-least-resistance American kid.

"These days, kids are thinking their life is pretty good," Annacone said, sounding like any parent over 40. "They've got their Game Boy, PlayStation, Sony, Wii. They're getting decent grades in school, hanging out with their girlfriend."

Mastering the sport of tennis is an exceedingly difficult proposition. It requires athleticism, strength and endurance -- and mental toughness. Relentlessly running down that small bouncing ball, adjusting to its changing geometry, well, it's not as fun as texting.

"We're in the dreaded middle ground of real exercise and bona fide skill development, which puts us in the category of ultra-challenging, skill-developing sport," longtime player Todd Martin observed. "That's one of our greatest limitations.

"When you pick up a basketball, all you have to do is put it through the hoop. A kid does it once, he wants to do it again because it reminds him of LeBron or Kobe. Nothing a kid does on a tennis court can remind him of what he sees in Federer or Nadal."

College tennis, once the preserve of U.S. country club kids, is now far more diverse. In this year's NCAA championships, 21 of the 40 singles players were from outside the United States.

Back in the late 1970s and early '80s, when American tennis was in full flower, typically more than half of the top 100 ranked players on the men's and women's sides were Americans. Today, there are eight U.S. men in the ATP's top 100 and five U.S. women in the WTA's top 100 -- one of them Varvara Lepchenko, a U.S. citizen who was born in Uzbekistan.

By contrast, there are five Russian women among the top 10. When you factor in the former territories of the Soviet Union that are now countries in their own right, the total is 24 -- nearly one-fourth of the top 100.

Fewer choices means hunger

The professional game has gone global, and not surprisingly, much of the young talent is coming from Eastern European nations that don't enjoy the relative wealth we have in America.

Serbia, where tennis has become the No. 1 participation sport, is the leading example.

Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic, who were both briefly No. 1, learned to play tennis in a suburb of Belgrade. Amid sirens during NATO raids, they hit balls on a carpeted, downsized court that was once an Olympic-size swimming pool. The walls were only 18 inches from the lines, so they couldn't hit crosscourt shots or serve out wide. Out of necessity, they went for the lines -- a metaphor for the hunger of today's emerging international players. Fellow Serbian Novak Djokovic, who finished No. 3 in the world the last two years, left Belgrade at age 12 to train in Munich, Germany, with Niki Pilic.

The most popular participation sport in France is soccer, with more than 2 million registered players. Tennis is No. 2, with more than 1 million. Is it merely a coincidence that France -- a nation of 65 million, compared to 300 million for the United States -- has 11 men and eight women ranked among the top 100?

"We're at a disadvantage because we have so many choices, so many sports for men and women," said Bud Collins, who has been in the tennis game for a half-century, going back to the late 1950s, when he was the tennis coach at Brandeis University. "The Spanish are so good because they only have soccer, basketball -- and tennis.

"We have to somehow convince our good young athletes to play tennis."

Todd Martin was born in 1970, in Hinsdale, Ill.

"One of the greatest things in my childhood was boredom," said Martin, who became part of that great generation of American men that included Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jim Courier and Michael Chang.

[+] EnlargeAna Ivanovic
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesSerbia, which has fostered players like Ana Ivanovic, is one of many smaller countries that have become relevant in recent years.

When he was 4 years old, growing up in Hudson, Ohio, Martin got his mother to help him tip over the redwood picnic table on the brick patio his father had laid in the backyard. For hours, he'd hit tennis balls against it.

"That doesn't happen nowadays," said Martin, the father of two boys, Jack, 6, and Cash, 3. "In this culture, you can never be bored. Our society is so averse to the kids' being creative on their own."

The next day, after a one-hour phone conversation, Martin sent along an e-mail that clarified his thoughts.

"Something I did not mention," he wrote, "was the need for young tennis players to go out and play with one another without constant instruction. Too much input can be stifling for the child and the learning process, not to mention detrimental to the development of the independence needed to play tennis."

There is a prevailing view in tennis that professional stars help the game in a trickle-down kind of way; kids see the Williams sisters and are motivated to pick up a racket.

"When kids see tennis on television," U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said, "it gives us a better chance to have a bigger pool of tennis players."

A recent Harris Interactive poll -- 2,177 U.S. adults were surveyed online in June -- found that Serena and Venus Williams were the two favorite female sports stars. Three other tennis players -- Maria Sharapova, Chris Evert and Anna Kournikova -- made the list, although Evert and Kournikova are retired. No male tennis players made the list, which was topped by Tiger Woods.

As the success of Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal suggests, having American stars at the top of the game isn't absolutely essential to the success of global tennis, but it doesn't hurt. The American market is important to both pro tours.

"Five tennis players, three Americans -- that's pretty significant," said Stacey Allaster, CEO of the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour. "That's a great dynamic to promote the sport to our younger fans."

According to Allaster, 42 percent of the WTA's "premier" events -- eight of 19 -- are played in the United States. Two of the top 5 events, featuring $4.5 million in prize money, are Indian Wells and Miami.

Tapping another large pool

Tennis is a vastly tougher sell in America than it used to be. At the dawn of the Open era in 1968, there was no cable television -- no ESPN, no HBO, Food Network or QVC to absorb audiences. Lacrosse was an elite sport in scattered pockets around the Northeast. Skateboarding, BMX bikes and the entire family of X Games sports had not yet seized the imaginations of our youth. Today, the Internet's dizzying social networks and cellular phones have certainly cut into the pie of leisure time.

For Anne Worcester, Pilot Pen Tennis tournament director, technology has advantages and disadvantages.

"My kids need no more than an iPod Touch to keep themselves occupied on an eight-hour flight to Europe," Worcester said. "But the challenge for tennis got harder with the advent of Facebook, Twitter and all those things that take up a consumer's time and dollar. We can't sit back and be just tennis tournaments; we have to be sports entertainment events.

"We're selling the competition of tennis, but we're also selling the wine tasting, the fashion show and the rock-climbing walls."

Although legitimate participation numbers going back to the 1970s are unavailable, there is a general feeling that tennis in America enjoyed its finest moments in the mid-1970s and into the '80s. Hollywood embraced the sport, and it was fashionable to wear tennis gear. With the wave of Baby Boomers, there were simply more Americans in their teens and 20s at that time -- a time in life when sports loyalties are forged. There were more than 4 million births per year in America between 1954 and 1964, with the record, 4.3 million, coming in 1957.

CBS' best U.S. Open rating ever, 11.0, came in the 1980 final, when John McEnroe defeated Bjorn Borg in five sets. Those two men delivered NBC's best-ever Wimbledon rating, 7.9, the following year with another riveting final.

"The economy was fantastic at the time," legendary coach Nick Bollettieri said. "Everyone, it seemed, was playing tennis. Mom and Dad would bring the kids to the courts, and they'd all hit.

"Today, they don't see Mommy and Daddy playing. Mommy's got a job -- or two -- and the economy is a big factor in the sport."

Those baby boomers had their own children, of course, and between 1989 and 1993, annual U.S. birth rates climbed back over 4 million. This is probably a factor in today's rising participation numbers and television ratings.

"My parents' generation fell in love with tennis," said Jim Courier, co-founder of the Outback Champions Series. "They passed the sport on to us. Now people of my age are having kids, and they're passing their love of tennis to their kids. There maybe a natural cycle in that direction that comes in another 20 or 25 years."

[+] EnlargeJohn McEnroe
Steve Powell/Getty ImagesTennis has become far more niche since the vintage days of John McEnroe.

"When was the last time we won a Grand Slam -- six weeks ago at Wimbledon, right?" said Peter Bodo of Tennis Magazine and frequent contributor to ESPN.com. "It's not like we fell off the map. Where's the next batch coming from? Listen, it's like summer lightning -- it happens quickly.

"I remember writing these post-John McEnroe stories, and wham, we had Sampras, Courier and Agassi. When one of these kids wins the Open -- maybe Sam Querrey or Devin Britton -- we'll be writing that American tennis is coming back."

Pam Shriver, who won 20 Grand Slam doubles titles with Martina Navratilova, was exposed to tennis through her family -- grandparents, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles. The other day, on the west side of Los Angeles, a tennis lesson broke out outside her home.

"My three kids grabbed me and said, 'Come on, Mom; let's hit some balls,'" Shriver said.

Kate and Sam, who are 3, played with their junior rackets, and 5-year-old George hit with his new (and very much prized) full-sized Wilson Roger Federer model.

"It was fun," Shriver said. "It's a great family sport because it brings people together. Tennis should always be in the conversation of keeping and staying healthy. We need to keep getting that message out in today's America."

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.