Can tennis get a second serving of popularity?
By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer
Published June 19, 2005
"Tennis was enormous in the 1970s and early '80s," said Courier, a Dade City native and tennis standout in the 1990s. "That was the heyday."
Who among us didn't witness a McEnroe tirade, a Borg celebration from his knees, a Connors fist pump or a battle between Chris Evert and Martina Navratilova?
The stars of that era were as recognizable in the United States as J.R. Ewing and Archie Bunker, and as likely to be seen at the famed Studio 54 as Mick Jagger and Andy Warhol. They were personalities, not just players, and helped launch the sport's boom by driving people to the tube and to the courts.
Now ask yourself this: What do you really know about Roger Federer, Andy Roddick, Justine Henin-Hardenne or Kim Clijsters, today's standouts?
Would you recognize them on the street?
"It's kind of a second-tier sport here," said Tampa's Mardy Fish, a silver medalist at the 2004 Olympics. "When we leave the country, everywhere else (tennis) is so big and popular and every match is on TV. (In the United States) they have Wimbledon right now on ESPN2 and ESPN Classic. Wimbledon can't even get on normal ESPN. To me, that's kind of a joke because I know a lot of people who don't have those stations. Or a lot of hotels.
"During the Davis Cup in March, I went to Indian Wells (Calif.) and I couldn't even watch the last match. It was on ESPN Classic and we didn't get that one."
What happened to tennis, where does it stand today and will it ever recapture the American attention? None of these questions is easily answered, though many within the sport have theories.
The boom, by most accounts, began not long after the creation of the Open era in 1968, which allowed professionals to play in the majors (Wimbledon, the Australian, French and U.S. championships, as they were previously known). For years top players such as Jack Kramer and Pancho Gonzalez were paid handsomely to play in events around the world, but they were barred from the majors, which greatly weakened the fields.
The Open era changed that.
"It really got tennis going," said Tony Trabert, a star in the 1950s and later a CBS analyst.
Television, which had just a handful of channels at that time, introduced much of the American public to tennis, and the game's distinct personalities kept people glued. The men's game produced popular players Rod Laver and Arthur Ashe, along with a few players who fans loved to hate, namely Connors and Ilie Nastase. The hard-nosed Billie Jean King and everybody's girl next door, Evert, were among the featured players on the women's side.
"The sport was flourishing, getting good publicity and a lot of TV," Trabert said.
According to Nielsen, which monitors TV ratings, more than 6-million Americans watched the finals at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open in the late 1970s. In 1981, when McEnroe and Tracy Austin won Open titles, CBS had an average rating for six telecasts of 5.8. A year ago the event drew a 1.8 average over nine telecasts.
"The only individual sports at that time on TV were golf, bowling and tennis," Kurt Kamperman, United States Tennis Association chief executive for community tennis, said. "Tennis appealed to those who were active. The TV coverage helped drive them to (the sport)."
At the height of tennis' popularity, ESPN launched the first all-sports cable network in 1979. Within a week the station had broadcast its first tennis match. The next year Wimbledon drew a 6.4 average rating on NBC, an all-time best.
The sport was hot, but it wouldn't last.
New participants made one quick discovery.
"You'd go out to the courts and you hadn't played, so you were paying to hit it into the hedges," Trabert said. " ... The game is hard to get to the point where you can rally back and forth and have fun with it. A lot of people got discouraged."
The wait time for a court didn't help, Trabert said. And neither did the fact there were few systems in place to keep newcomers there.
"After the Bobby Riggs-Billie Jean King match, people were like, "Let's go play,' " Kamperman said. "But a lot of tennis facilities didn't have teaching pros and programs."
Cable TV gave viewers more options, and they began watching other things. In 1983 Wimbledon and French Open ratings began to slide, though that year the U.S. Open drew a 5.0 average for CBS. Four years later, though, it dipped to 3.6.
On the pro circuits there also was change. Borg, Connors, McEnroe, Evert and Navratilova were replaced first by Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg and Steffi Graf,
and later by Andre Agassi, Courier and Pete Sampras. Despite their enormous skills, most of the top players - Agassi being the notable exception - had less pizazz than their predecessors.
The sport's depth increased, but that made for fewer rivalries, something fans had enjoyed during the boom. Tennis blossomed globally, and when other countries placed more emphasis on tennis after its reintroduction as an Olympic sport (in 1988), the American stranglehold began to weaken.
Pop went the boom.
"The whole industry felt it," said Linda Glassel, vice president of marketing and communications for equipmentmaker Prince Sports. "From ball sales to racket sales, everybody's piece of the pie shrank, because there were less people playing."
As ratings dropped and public courts became less crowded, many speculated as to what went wrong. Some pointed the finger at players such as Sampras, who, for lack of a better word, came across as dull. How, many wondered, could the game become popular here again? There seemed to be no clear answer.
When Americans play, more Americans watch.
Problem is, Americans no longer dominate the sport. Roddick is the only U.S. man seeded in the top 16 at Wimbledon, marking the first time in the Open era there aren't at least two Americans seeded that high. And though the women's game has strong representation from Serena and Venus Williams, Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati, they are old by tennis standards.
"It is worrisome to me," U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe said. "I think it reflects two things: How tennis has grown around the rest of the world, and how the rest of the world has caught up to us. It's something we need for the success of tennis, particularly in this country."
The USTA thinks it can help. It has introduced welcome centers, which offer free or inexpensive lessons, created a $10-million fund for new programs to increase participation and committed $1.5-million to support enhancements at public parks. It also initiated the U.S. Open Series, a group of pro tournaments before the Open aimed at building up the USTA's signature event.
"The USTA is doing what it can," Trabert said. "A lot of people are doing their best, but in America there are just so many other things for kids to do."
The USTA alone can't make tennis grow. Kamperman said TV exposure is crucial because it drives people to the courts, and the USTA now has programs to keep them involved.
The Tennis Channel, launched in 2003, will surpass 2,500 hours of tournament coverage this year. ESPN, which cut coverage when tennis' popularity fell, is making a greater commitment and will air more than 600 hours in 2005. ESPN is satisfied with its numbers and sees potential.
"One thing you have to realize about ratings is that everything is down," Dave Nagle, ESPN manager of media relations, said. "Seinfeld didn't get the numbers the Beverly Hillbillies used to get. So much of the TV pie has been sliced into many smaller pieces. We bottomed out about three or four years ago, but we've seen some growth since then."
ESPN has produced more in-depth player features in hopes of drawing in the casual fan, and the network thinks this has worked. Ratings for the Australian Open and French Open rose by 12 and 14 percent, respectively, from 2004. At Wimbledon, ESPN will be the largest broadcaster after the BBC.
A study by the USTA and Tennis Industry Association produced encouraging results: Equipment sales and the number of new participants have increased in recent years. "We're spending millions on an annual basis (on research and development)," Prince's Glassel said. "We're seeing significant growth in people purchasing rackets, and we're very excited about the outlook of the game."
Still, one question remains.
Will tennis ever boom again?