I have not watched professional tennis on a regular basis for twenty years. It’s not coincidental that this time frame coincides with Jimmy Connors run to the semi-finals at the U.S. Open in 1991. The retirement of Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras also contributed to my lack of interest. I have watched the William’s sisters over the years, but that’s been about the extent of my involvement. No doubt about, if there’s not an American involved in the run to a major championship, I do not pay much attention to tennis.
That is my loss according to L. Jon Wertheim in a recent Sports Illustrated article where he made the case that the game, at least on the men’s side, has never been stronger at the top. The three top ranked players Novak Djokovic of Serbia, the eventual winner of this year’s Open, Rafael Nadal of Spain and Roger Federer of Switzerland have played great matches against one another throughout 2011. And it’s just not 2011 that these men have taken turns dominating. They have won 25 of the last 26 major championships, the rest of the men’s field fighting for the scraps.
On the women’s side, with Serena and Venus Williams limiting their play to the four majors and the prep tournaments preceding them, the opportunity for others to win is more likely. That creates its own issues, however, as U.S. sport fans tend to like dominant players, the ongoing drama of whether that individual will be able to fight off worthy challengers creating interest, a king of the hill storyline. Golf ratings, for example, were never higher than when Tiger Woods was at his peak or when Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player dominated in the 1960’s. Similarly, the Dale Earnhardt versus Jeff Gordon rivalry in the 1990’s helped fuel the rise of NASCAR.
Wortheim argues that whether on the men’s or women’s side of the draw, the game of tennis has never been played at a higher level. The speed, shot making, and athleticism better than ever. Yet, interest in tennis in America, particularly on the men’s side, has been low.
Lack of an American star.
The Williams sisters have stanched the defections on the women’s side to a certain degree, but since they rarely play, they are no longer ranked in the top 10 and thus not on the radar for weeks at a time, the queen of the hill story line unsustainable. With the retirements of Sampras and Agassi, there has not been an American male tennis player to rise to the top.
In fact, the last U.S. Open final to garner more than a 3.0 share of the television audience occurred in 2002 when, you guessed it, Sampras and Venus Williams won. Viewership has dropped since. This year’s finals averaged a 2.6 share up 18% from 2010, but that is a far cry from 1980 to 1982, when finals involving Chris Evert, Tracy Austin, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe garnered shares averaging 5.5. Of course, much has changed in the world since 1982. There are many more entertainment choices competing for a diverse public’s attention. Add to the mix a dearth of top ten U.S. players and you have a recipe for sliding ratings.
Critics suggest that U.S. tennis is not producing champions at the rate of prior eras because the United States Tennis Association spends too much money on administrative salaries and not enough on player development. It’s a charge of cronyism that seems endemic in U.S. institutions across the board these days, whether we are talking private or public sector. The original intent and focus of organizations getting lost for the sake of power grabs and money. Make no mistake, the USTA made a boatload of money at the Open this fall, an estimated gross of $25o million dollars. Yet despite all the big bucks, the U.S. has one player on either side of the draw ranked in the top ten, Mardy Fish at number seven.
About sixty years ago, Gloria Connors, pregnant with Jimmy, personally cut and cleared the land behind her East St. Louis home to build a tennis court. They were not members of the country club set, but along with her mother, Bertha Thompson, Gloria worked with Jimmy until he became the number one tennis player in the world. The “Brash Basher from Belleville” won 109 tournaments world-wide and 8 majors, including 5 U.S. Opens. Two middle-class women, one hardworking boy. Similarly, Richard Williams, born poor in segregated Louisiana and later working menial jobs in Compton, California, along with this wife, Oracene, helped Venus and Serena become champions.
Gloria Connors and Richard Williams are in many people’s minds classic stage parents, pushy and arrogant, focused only on their children’s success and living their dreams through their kids. Maybe true, maybe not. What is true, however, is they and their children proved you do not have to have access to gobs of money or a ton of external support to succeed.
Perhaps like so many institutions these days, the USTA has lost its way and is squandering millions while not focusing enough on player development. Even if true, there is more support today for promising players than when Gloria Connors chopped those weeds or when a poor African-American family began its ascent to the top of a predominantly wealthy, Anglo sport.
It’s easy to blame faceless institutions and nameless “others” for our failures. Certainly, institutions bear responsibility for many of the challenges our country faces. Many are a mess. But let’s not forget it’s individuals who make up these institutions, who choose not to change course and to “go along to get along.” If it’s a given that Americans will not watch tennis in great numbers until we have U.S. players in the mix (and I believe that to be true, see World Cup soccer, Olympic figure skating, and the Tour de France as examples of our fickleness) the question is, why are we not producing those players? Are we going to argue that countries like Serbia, Spain and Switzerland do not suffer from dysfunctional institutions?
The reasons this country is not producing top flight tennis players, among other things, are surely numerous. It could be the last decade is an aberration. But unless individual Americans continue to be willing to chop weeds and dare to dream big dreams like envisioning two poor, black sisters becoming world champions, I suspect tennis, and many other things, will be absent Americans.