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Tuesday, July 02, 2013

Why Do So Few Care About Professional Tennis?

Going back 30 years, there weren't as many choices on TV.  Almost no one had cable TV, and we weren't as crazed with kids' sports as we are now.  Wimbledon and the U.S. Open riveted us -- McEnroe, Connors, Borg, Gerulaitis, Orantes, Vilas, Nastase -- they played roles, some had outsized personalities.  They wore white, used wooden rackets, and the balls had just changed over from white to optic yellow or green.  People liked watching the women, too -- first, Billie Jean King, the pioneer (few remember that her brother, Randy Moffitt, was a very good closer for the San Francisco Giants), then Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova.  Billie Jean was talented and determined, Chrissie was everyone's cutie, and Martina was a force of nature. 

Around the same time, some of the golfing greats were aging just a bit -- Jack Nicklause, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Lee Trevino.  Ben Crenshaw didn't quite emerge as the next great one; neither did Tom Kite.  The Big Four, as it were, enjoyed great popularity, but at the time one might have predicted that tennis would have taken off and golf might have waned.  Why?  The simplest reason of them all -- the lack of a superstar that people would have wanted to follow.  Tom Watson was good, but he didn't have the people pushing him that the Big Four did.  Johnny Miller was great for a while, but he was somewhat irascible to Watson's bland style.

But what happened was entirely different.  Sure, in both sports the training methods became more sophisticated and the equipment "better".  "Metal" woods have taken over in golf; graphite racquets in tennis.  Courses got longer in golf so as not to be rendered a joke through long drives and short irons into greens.  Tennis courts didn't get bigger, but serve and volley players who could rocket 140 m.p.h. serves became a norm, too.  Sampras, Federer and Nadal are all great players, but it seems now that tennis only has room for a single great one, and if he doesn't have a temper like McEnroe or fire like Connors or hair like Borg, well, he doesn't pack 'em in (unless the 'em are already part of the initiated who were raised on tennis and will love it no matter what).  For a U.S. fan, there are a lot of foreign women, and, truth be told, many Russians and Eastern Europeans for whom English cannot be their first language and whose names are hard to announce and even harder to remember.  Fans remember Anna Kournikova, but for her looks and bald-faced attempts at sex appeal, not for her game. 

It's probably the case that the USGA did a better job attracting juniors than the USTA.  It's also probably the case that golf is more of an event to play and perhaps has some allure, whereas tennis might involve playing on local courts that need to be swept, dried out or resurfaced to take away the ability of weeds to grow in cracks.  On a more serious note, kids get scheduled for team sports quite a bit, so perhaps after academy soccer, rec league basketball and club lacrosse, there isn't a whole lot of time for anything more.  Many parents seek out teams so that their kids know what teamwork is and eschew the solitude that tennis guarantees, especially if you are any good.  It's just hard to become buddies with the kid whose brains you have to crush in order to climb the ladder and get a better ranking.  Finally, the advent of video games hurts, too, as many kids would rather play Madden and talk about it over a wireless mike to their friends than actually get out there and rally on a tennis court.

But the biggest reason is that it seems that the USGA has done a much better job of  branding golf than the USTA has done with tennis.  First, golf courses can be beautiful and set at destination locations.  Almost all tennis courts look the same.  Second, the USGA seemingly does a better job of branding its stars.  Third, the USGA seemingly does a better job of branding, period.  But, to me, the stars are the thing. 

A McEnroe-Connors match was a thing to behold.  A Sampras-Agassi had some of that because of Agassi, but the latter had so much difficulty beating Sampras that you really couldn't have called the rivalry a great one (and, sadly, sometimes the greatest get anointed so because of the quality of their competition -- Muhammad Ali beat many great fighters; his former sparring partner and a successor as world champ, Larry Holmes, fought very few if any, so it's hard to tell how good he really was).  After Federer and Nadal, it's hard to get interested in anyone, and it's doubly hard to get interested in any tournament that's not a major.  Sure, those tournaments fill ESPN's air time at curious hours, but that's about it. 

I still do not know why so few care about professional tennis.  I suppose that in addition to the video games' craze and the ability to watch just about anything on Netflix, Americans are more prone to play golf than tennis because, well, they are heavier than they used to be.  So, if you're 15 pounds overweight, you're still much more likely to play golf than to look silly in tennis whites and risk an injury because you are very much out of shape.  If that's the case, then you're more likely to watch golf in the pretty setting than tennis in some stadium baking in the sun somewhere, unless it's Wimbledon or the U.S. Open (I would contend that the diehards will watch the French and Australian, but that's about it).

So, why do so few care about professional tennis?

1.  Watching rallies is less compelling than watching stock cars circle the tracks.
2.  Fewer people play it because they are out of shape.
3.  People are heavier and can play golf while overweight much more easily than play tennis.
4.  The technology of the rackets makes the players more programmed and robotic.
5.  There hasn't been a great American hope on the men's side for a while.
6.  It's not marketed as well.

Take your pick.  What do you think?


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