• Jonathan Brannan

ARE AMERICANS BORED WITH TENNIS?

Updated: Jun 1, 2020

This article was originally published on April 17th, 2019.


American tennis is dying a slow death, despite seeing reports of increased participation among youths.


However, in the rest of the world, the sport is thriving. The prize money for premier events continues to increase, and top tennis players enjoy remarkable wealth. Roger Federer (@rogerfederer) is second only to Tiger Woods (@TigerWoods) among the highest-paid athletes.


Eight of the ten richest female athletes are tennis players, including the entire top five.


So why is a sport that is growing worldwide struggling to survive in the U.S.? 

Serena Williams is the tops the list for highest paid female athletes. Credit: npr.org

Growth


Tennis as a sport can trace its origins al the way back to the 12th century. However, the sport would boom in the 1970s and early 1980s.


Much of this boom was assisted by the "Open Era", which allowed professional players to compete in major tournaments, such as Grand Slams and the Davis Cup.

As the best players where now eligible to compete against one another, the sport gained the attention of broadcasting companies. The 1968 US Open would become the first tennis tournament to be broadcasted on U.S. televisions, followed by Wimbledon in 1969.

Broadcasting became a significant reason tennis gained popularity and exposing more people to the sport and its players. Tennis players widely recognizable figures and they would use their fame to take the sport to new heights.


By 1989, Americans were dominating the sport, with seven players in the top ten of the men's game. Ivan Lendl (1), John McEnroe (4), Michael Chang (5), Brad Gilbert (6), Andre Agassi (@AndreAgassi) (7), Aaron Krickstein (8) and Jay Berger (10).

Decline


Recently, however, tennis has observed a slow and gradual decline and is only popular in certain pockets around the U.S.

The sport in the U.S. began to see a lack of top talent, while the rest of the world began to take over.

By 1999, there where only two players in the men's top ten, Andre Agassi (1) and Pete Sampras (3). In 2009 this had been reduced to only Andy Roddick (7) (@andyroddick). Currently, John Isner (9) (@JohnIsner), is the only American in the top 30.


The U.S. men's game had fallen behind the relatively small countries such as Switzerland, Scotland, and Serbia, who would produce tennis heavyweights such as Roger Federer, Andy Murray (@andy_murray) and Novak Djokovic (@DjokerNole) respectively.

The lack of American faces within the sport, and no Grand Slam win since 2003, has caused many to lose interest.

The women's game is fairing better with Sloane Stephens (5) (@SloaneStephens) and Serena Williams (10) (@serenawilliams), both in the top 10. Women's tennis has also been more successful since 2003, although this can almost entirely be thanks to the Williams sisters. Serena has won 17 majors since then and Venus (@Venuseswilliams) has won three. Stephens won the lone other major by an American, the 2017 U.S. Open.

College


U.S. tennis players have seen as losing ground on their international counterparts, due to many players being one dimensional.


As the sport relies on multiple variations of the playing surface, many U.S. players were able to finish respectfully in tournaments that were played on indoor courts but often failed to perform on red clay or grass courts. While many European and Latin American players where able perform on a variety of court surfaces.


This has not gone unnoticed by collegiate level coaches. Today nearly half of all NCAA tennis players are non-U.S. natives. This has lead to collegiate tennis having more international players than any other college sport.


Joey Scrivano (@BUScrivano) Head Coach for Women's tennis at Baylor University, stated: "I believe I should be able to win and so I will find the best players who are going to be competitive."

Part of the problem stems from American players themselves, who prefer to play for some of the traditional tennis powerhouses like Harvard, Stanford, and USC. While the growing amount of money and prestige in collegiate sports, is putting pressure is on coaches of smaller colleges to remain competitive.

Prior to players reaching collegiate level, the U.S. has a major struggle in convincing the best middle-school and high-school athletes to take up tennis. The cost of the sport is putting many talented youngsters off, while also causing issues around diversity and elitism in the sport.

College tennis now has more international players than any other college sport. Credit: wearecollegetennis.com

Tournaments


Furthermore, the reduction of major tournaments in the U.S. is reducing awareness of the sport.

American tennis fans have been used to a plethora of options. In 1990, 24 of 55 WTA events were in the U.S.


When Anne Worcester, the tournament director of the Connecticut Open, realized the tournament was no longer economically viable, she attempted to find a new title sponsor for the event in New Haven.


She considered offers from various American cities but ultimately sold the tournament to the highest bidder, APG, a sports and entertainment company with a strong footprint in Asia. This year, the tournament, which used to be held the week before the U.S. Open, will be in Zhengzhou, China, the week after the Open.


The sale of the Connecticut Open means only seven of the 55 WTA events will be held in the U.S. Five of which are joint events with men, including the U.S. Open, Indian Wells, and Miami.


On the men’s side, 16 of 77 worldwide ATP events in 1990 took place in the United States. This year, only 11 of 63 will be.

At one time, both the men’s and women’s year-end tour finals were played at Madison Square Garden, but now the men’s event takes place in London and the women’s event is in Shenzhen, China.


Smaller tournaments in the US have also had trouble selling enough tickets and sponsorships to stay financially viable. Meaning even the Miami Open could even be lured out of the country as it finds a more financially viable home.

“I don’t think that we will ever become a US-centric tour again,” said Steve Simon, the chief executive of the WTA. “I think there’s certainly room for growth for a couple more events, but I think the growth will be in that the events that are here in the States will continue to get bigger. But I do think that we have moved to having a global footprint versus being focused primarily in one country.”


Simon said that the WTA planned to introduce two new events in the United States, one beginning this year and another in 2020, both of which will take place the week before the U.S. Open. The location of the 2019 tournament, which would bring the total of WTA events in the country to eight, is expected to be announced in May.


Patrick McEnroe (Patrick McEnroe), an ESPN analyst, said that the major American events like the U.S. Open, Indian Wells, Miami, and Cincinnati are stronger and more popular than ever but that the lower-level events like the New York Open might continue to face difficulties.

“To me, the only way that those can get back to being consistently viable year after year is if at the top we have more American tennis players close to the top that have personality that can sell some tickets,” he said.


“In this global sport of tennis, it’s not easy to promote non-Americans,” Worcester said, after the sale of the Connecticut Open. “Americans want to see Americans.”

The Future


"It's difficult to point a finger at the problem and say you have to throw money at it," says Mark McEnroe, Managing Director of Corporate Development at Sportime and President of the JMTP.  "What we need to do is get our best athletes playing tennis. That's why I think you see in the women's game, largely Serena Williams, doing a lot better than the men because they are among our best athletes."


The key is in trying to identify kids who run fast, jump high, and have innate hand-eye coordination, and then teach them to play tennis. There is a need to find the next great American champions and bring tennis to the community.


It is the only way for U.S. tennis to rebound from a deep decline that has allowed the rest of the world to churn out players that frequent the finals of major competitions.


That type of initiative may breathe new life into a sport that is ailing in the U.S. As things stand, tennis, a once vibrant sport in the U.S. is not dead yet, but it is lingering on life support.