Tennis At A Crossroads

Tennis has more problems than momentum right now, leaving the sport at risk of disappearing into oblivion on the US landscape along side such nice sports as Arena Football and Major League Soccer. Steeped in tradition, tennis has typically garnered strong interest in the US thanks to a lineage of notable stars on both the mens and womens side, now its in need of a new direction.

The mens tour is riddled with leadership problems. Management has allowed a betting scandal, much worse than Spygate can ever be, manifest itself and threaten the integrity of the sport. Then they decided to stir up controversy by shifting the schedule, creating lawsuits from tournaments dropped in status, and a revolt by players that led to the world’s Top 3 players positioning for spots on the board of governors to represent the players and prevent renewing the commissioner’s contract.

Meanwhile, Andy Roddick and James Blake, the two most prominent US players, have failed to live up to expectations. Both making a habit of early exits in Grand Slam tournaments. It all adds up to chaos.

The tour needs to find a strong leader with a plan immediately. A la Roger Goodell, the betting scandal must be addressed swiftly and sternly. It appears gambling outposts can provide solid evidence of match fixing. Penalty for a first offense is a one year ban and a million dollar fine, second offense is lifetime banishment. That will help clean the sport up quickly.

Next, address this scheduling issue with the players and tournaments. FInally, the sport needs a new image and a new marketing plan. Casual sports fans in the US hardly know Rafael Nadal, yet he is one of the cornerstones to this era of tennis. Perhaps the greatest clay court player ever, and currently second to only Roger Federer on all other surfaces, on the brink of surpassing him. Nadal speaks multiple languages, including English, is young and extremely marketable. Federer is already an all-time great. He appears in a few advertisements, notably the Gillette series with Tiger Woods (and now Derek Jeter) and has a lucrative deal with Nike. Yet, I don’t feel the American public knows Roger Federer. Not like they knew Sampras and Agassi, or McEnroe and Connors. Yes, neither Federer nor Nadal are American, but its turning into one of the better rivals in modern tennis, the sports must take advantage.

I can’t remember one time either man has been interviewed on radio or TV in the US. Networks and tour officials need to make this a year round effort, not just a one month push leading into the US Open. Tennis is a year round sport. ESPN should have these players on during the French and Wimbledon. Show us more McEnroe as well to stir the pot and draw attention to tennis.

Tennis is a great way to appeal to the upper class. Nadal and Federer should appear in commercials for luxury items and travel companies. Digital media fits tennis to a tee, given the simultaneous, densely packed action at tennis tournaments, and the international appeal. ESPN and NBC streamed Wimbledon matches – albeit at a cost. More than the matches, use viral marketing to get their names out, reach out to tennis players.

On the women’s side, I watched the Williams’ sisters Wimbledon final this morning, then wondered why they did not follow the path of Tiger Woods. Individual sport, father that pushed them from an early age, one of the first notable African-Americans to make a dent in a predominantly white sport, great human interest story, polarizing character, unbelieveable talent. Unfortunately, off the court issues cost the sisters a few years of dominance on the court in the middle of the decade. Still, why have they not transformed women’s tennis the way Tiger has golf?

As much as I’d like to believe it’s not the case in 2008, it could partially relate to gender. I’m not convinced. Tennis has not received the media coverage it deserves, nor has it pushed for it. The Williams’ sisters matches should have received tremendous hype this week, considering the are the only US link to the tournament right now, and they were both playing dominant tennis. Nothing, slicence.

Part of the problem, the game has changed signifcantly and many fans left. The days of tremendous volleys succumbed to the 145-mph serve thanks to technology advances, all but exttinguishing prolonged rallies. Tennis became unwatchable. And more fans have left without the appeal of a US rivalry, and none have come back. Eventually the standards board has to push back, though the sports has become less serve oriented in the past year or two.

Tennis needs to re-create its image and re-connect with its fan base. A weekend at Wimbledon featuring an all Williams women’s final and Nadal-Federer on the men’s side should generate the same buzz as Tiger in the final round of a major. While it will register on the sports landscape, it will not be nearly where it should.

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2 Responses

  1. The work ethic for tennis players in the US is not there compared to other foreign countries. If the quality of life in the US was a bit more challenging I think you’d see more kids putting in the extra effort needed to become a great player.

    As for great leaders – today at Wimbeldon – the Williams sisters did not disappoint.

  2. The Europeans have by far a much better general standard of living then americans do and there is a much broder middle class that can afford tennis lessons, training and later on support tournament play.

    But the crux of all of this is about talent, at the moment Swizerland is blessed and so are a few other countries and the USA is waiting for its turn and sooner or later someone will appear.

    Another aspect is that USA tennis has been based on the agressive play with little care about defensive skills, in the last few years balls have become bigger and slower, making it very challenging to finish points. So unforced error quotas raise and the ones paying are the agressive players!

    Volley skills which often made the difference between USA, Australian players and the rest of the world, have been practically forgoten and negleted, because a new era of baseliners was created by certain academies in Florida, which has hurt USA tennis more than anything else because 99% of the players coming out of those academies can not hit a volley to save their lives!

    There you have it!

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