Sunday, June 3, 2012

American Tennis: Bringing Back The Love

French Open
The French Open at Roland Garros in Paris has always been an enigma of sorts to American players. For decades, this was mostly due to its being played on very slow red clay, the only major tournament not played on grass. American players (and fans) preferred faster surfaces, which rewarded serve and volley play.

Corporate sponsors, players, tennis academies and the international tennis federations have now conspired to homogenize all surfaces so that even Wimbledon's "grass" and Roland Garros's "clay" are high-bounce shadows of their formal softer selves. As for for the painted parking lots used at Flushing and Melbourne, the best that can be said for them is that they are relatively cheap to maintain. So, Americans will need to find another reason for the French Open continuing to be an enigma. the only thing that has changed is that every major seems to have become enigmatic for them, especially for the men.

Not a single American male player made it into the Third Round in Paris. How bad is that? A Canadian player made it. Repeat: a Canadian. He probably learned to play on skates! And, only two American men were seeded out of thirty-two seeds. Neither of them ( Roddick/Isner) had any serious chance of winning the tournament.

In contrast, three American women made the Third Round, and, amazingly, none of them were named Williams: Sloane Stephens, Christina McHale, and Vavara Lepchenko ( became a US citizen in 2011). The unseeded Stephens* and Lepchenko are now in the Fourth Round, a major achievement for these women and American tennis.

Yesterday, I watched some of Caroline Wozniacki's (9) match against Kaia Kanepi, which Kanepi won. The players looked like mirror images of themselves, using the same exact backhand and forehand strokes from the baseline, from which they seldom strayed.

In fact, with very few exceptions, all the players in both singles draws play exactly the same on all surfaces, as if they all had attended the same tennis academies or been groomed by a single national tennis association. There is very little creativity on the court these days, beyond the top three men and the Williamses, who are beyond their primes. Instead,  there is more pure athleticism than ever before. But, have you ever head a true tennis fan exclaim, "Hey, let's buy some tickets and go see some athleticism!" Not exactly. Save that for the NBA.

Eastern Europeans have made great strides in professional tennis, particularly the women, while American tennis seems to have become a distant fiddle to any number of other more popular sports. And, as with other sports, Americans tend to play collegiate tennis, unlike many of their global counterparts. By the time they graduate, it's far too late to play at the top international level.

Even at private clubs, tennis' popularity has fallen far. Courts which used to be filled at every hour on weekends, now go begging, and boys and girls are too busy playing organized team sports or golf and squash, anything to get a leg up at the best colleges.

The USTA's efforts to revive the sport have, to put it mildly, failed. What's more, by making a well-intentioned effort to bring the game to "inner city" boys and girls, they have entirely forsaken club tennis.

The seats and boxes at the US Open are mostly filled by corporate sponsors, whose guests want to see and be seen at an "event." America's best tournament has become a kind of corporate outing and the quality of players and play has become a sideshow. Everyone wants to see Federer, Nadal, Djokovic, Sharapova and Anna Wintour.

Standardized Stuff
What a sad turn of events from the glory days of American professional tennis. John McEnroe is in the TV booth. Agassi? Sampras? Connors? Ashe? Pancho Gonzales! Evert? BJK? All gone. Poof.

One thing is for sure, expecting the USTA to revive tennis is like asking Verizon and AT&T to invent  the iPhone. It's going to take some renegade thinking, some radical approach, and the suits at USTA are clearly not up to it.

We've democratized, homogenized and monetized the game so much, we forgot to Americanize it. How will we convince people to play tennis again at all levels?

We may not know the answer, but, unlike the suits at the USTA, at least we know it's the question.

* Ed Note: Stephens was defeated in her fourth round match. The NY Times covered the French Open on page seven of Monday Sports, choosing to cover golf/Tiger Woods, the Egyptian soccer team, and a jockey's agent on page one. This is a monumental waste of their excellent tennis writer's, Christopher Clarey, talent. It is, however, a good indication of tennis' place in the American sports editors'/fans' minds, such as they may be.

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