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Tournament Tennis Is Dying in America

The May 9, 1994 cover of Sports Illustrated read “Is Tennis Dying”. The accompanying, immediately infamous article by Sally Jenkins created a firestorm within the tennis community here in the United States. The piece initiated an intense and volatile self-analysis session from those who were fearful for the sport’s future, of its creeping irrelevance that was becoming apparent to many.

The article wasn’t nearly as damning or controversial as many perceived, and the resulting open conversation undoubtedly helped the sport. And what was interesting about the timing of the article was that it came at a time when American men were ascendant; Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi were already established stars and still had 17 of their combined 22 Grand Slam titles ahead of them.

Of course the popularity or, more importantly, health of a sport is measured across a spectrum of metrics and not solely on the state of the game on a professional level. And it seems every few years there’s an article bemoaning the lack of passionate interest in tennis – or any sport for that matter - here in the states (I wrote an article about baseball participation amongst American youth just last week). 

Most fears related to the future of tennis in America are centered on the paucity of champions that our country has produced of late. As has been written about constantly, Andy Roddick’s 2003 U.S. Open triumph was the last time an American man claimed a Slam title, the longest such stretch in history. And with the once dominant Williams sisters approaching tennis’ old age, things aren’t looking that promising among the women either.

It is believed many that it’s critical to have players that kids can quickly identify and mimic while walking down the street or playing in their room. This holds true for all sports; for many children, the most unique and individualistic motion by pro athletes has to be that of the pitcher in baseball. So on this front, the near outlook for tennis in the United States seems ominous as there are so few Americans out there to emulate.

Yet tennis is, and always has been, an international sport. And around the world tennis is incredibly popular, especially in Europe. And this is of little surprise considering that this golden era we are currently inhabiting is represented by Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic. In Djokovic’s native country of Serbia, tennis is even more popular than soccer.

So should there be renewed concern about tennis in the U.S., that is may in fact be dying “again.” Yes and no. In the latest participation numbers the sport hasn’t seen any significant dropoff in its presence as a recreational activity.

But in terms of fan access to the sport, of seeing the players in action, things aren’t looking so great. Going to a pro tennis match as a spectator is becoming a lot harder to do in this country. Just this past week it was announced that one of the oldest tournaments in the country, the SAP Championships in San Jose, Calif., formerly played in Berkeley and San Francisco (originally named the Pacific Coast International Tennis Championships) will be “moving” to Memphis – and the current Memphis event is being shifted to Rio de Janeiro (tennis is also extremely popular in Brazil, Argentina and other South American nations).

Remarkably, the tournament had been in existence – uninterrupted – since 1889. But now the Bay Area will be without a professional level men’s event for the first time in the sport’s history. It’s a painful reminder of how little influence tennis has when competing with other sports in the United States. And It is an especially acute and symbolic wound for California as so many of the best American players learned the game in California, including Don Budge, Pete Sampras, Billie Jean King, Michael Chang, the Williams sisters and many others. The Indian Wells Masters level tournament in March is now the only event of any real significance in the Golden State.

Until just a few years ago, there were once upward of 20 professional tennis tournaments in the United States between the Australian Open in January and the start of the French Open. Now there are four. Which means that far fewer fans or, more importantly, potential fans are able to appreciate the sport at an up-close distance.

Many will state that attending sporting events is becoming a less essential component for the fan as high-def TV and the immediate access to nearly every game, tournament or event renders going to the actual arena irrelevant; that one can get the same level of excitement and quality of viewing sitting on their couch.

While this may be true to some extent, the fan loses out by not being able to see tennis in person. Like any sport it’s impossible to appreciate the strength and artistry of the player without having some experience in seeing them in live action. By relying solely on TV, while incredibly convenient, it in some way cheapens the occasion, removing a part of the thrill and wonder that sports provide when seen in person. 

It’s not too dissimilar to the practice of watching movies at home versus seeing a movie in a theater. While large screen TVs make home viewing of movies enjoyable, it still pales in comparison to being in a cinema where the screen and sound overwhelm the audience, allowing one to be transported, without the distractions of home.

Not everyone lives near New York or Los Angeles, even if the media can make it seem that way sometimes. So attending the U.S. Open in September is not an option for most fans of the sport. And now the options to see professional tennis in America are becoming even fewer.

Award-winning columnist Tim Joyce provides regular commentary for RealClearSports on Sundays and Tuesdays. Email: joyce.timothy@gmail.com

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