by Kent Sterling
Tennis used to be big in America. Kids took lessons and played for fun. Athletes from the United States won tournaments – major tournaments.
Now, other than the Williams sisters, who are quickly closing in on retirement, there are no Americans posing a threat to win any of the majors, and a generation of kids have no interest in the sport. How did a very popular game unravel so quickly in a country that loves sports so much?
When I was young, tennis lessons were how kids spent their summer vacation mornings. Afternoons were spent on the court, or playing baseball. I was on the travel baseball team, not because I was great at baseball, but because the best three players on my Little League team committed to travel tennis rather than baseball.
Jimmy Connors’ intensity, John McEnroe’s skill and ill temper, and the rocket serve of Roscoe Tanner drove interest on the men’s side. Bille Jean King, Martina Navratilova, and Chris Evert dominated the women’s side.
Wimbledon and the US Open were must-see TV.
There were outstanding international players, but the finals of the two big majors almost always featured an American.
The last American man to win at Wimbledon was the now 43 year-old Pete Sampras in 2000. From 1971-1985, there were only two men’s finals without an American. Four men won seven titles.
The last non-Williams woman to play in the finals at Wimbledon was Lindsay Davenport in 2000. Granted, the Williams are Americans, but they are outliers whose excellence has existed within their family – not because of an American cultural drive for excellence. In the last 15 Wimbledons, a Williams has won 10, and five were runners-up – four times to the other Williams.
From 1972-1987, three American women (King, Evert, and Martina Navratilova) won 14 of 16 titles, and an American women appeared in all but two finals from 1966-1990.
And from 1971-1987, an American man or woman won the US Open singles title in all but two years.
On the men’s side there are currently nine Spaniards and six French players ranked in the top 45, while John Isner is the lone American. A generation ago, that was unthinkable.
Tennis is fun, it’s accessible, and it’s cheap. Racquets cost a little cash, but balls are $3/can, and attire is nothing more than a tee-shirt, pair of shorts, and sneakers. There is no hinderance keeping any sect of kids from enjoying the game. It’s a matter of choice that keeps people from playing a game that used to drive participation in similar numbers to the four major league sports.
Lack of size isn’t a hinderance to excellence as it can be in football and basketball, so that’s out as a reason too.
What remains as reasonable explanations are the burgeoning popularity of soccer among the young, the emergence of video games as termites of a child’s time, and the increasing problem of obesity – which could be easily cured by daily visits to a tennis court. There is also an odd aversion to heat that has driven people indoors. Back in the day, sweating was a part of summer life. Now, people get tachycardia when exposed to 80-degree air for more than 10 minutes.
Playing tennis while fat is tough sledding. Sadly for the hefty, movement – quick movement – is required to reach the ball after only one bounce (an inconvenient rule), unless you are playing against a very cooperative opponent willing to hit the ball directly to you.
There used to be waits for courts. Yes, people would sit on benches as others played until a court opened. That is totally unheard of today. I haven’t seen full courts anywhere in 30 years.
In the town where I grew up, the park district employed tennis court monitors to charge players a dollar each to play, and nobody blinked. I made a buck an hour as a 13 year-old and thought I had the best job in the world.
Today, there is no waiting, no charge, and limited interest. It’s sad.
Sadder still is the fact that no one will ever read this post because columns about indifference are always met with equal or greater indifference.