For U.S. tennis, it's game, set and match
10 reasons the sport is flatlining on this side of net
BY FILIP BONDY
DAILY NEWS SPORTS WRITER
Sunday, June 24th 2007, 8:43 AM
Tennis will come alive these next two weeks, like a mayfly in full, ethereal flight. Serena Williams will march to the final at the All-England Club or her sister Venus will knock off a top seed or Andy Roddick will throw a funny tantrum or Roger Federer will finally lose to somebody on grass. Maybe Maria Sharapova's father will tell her exactly when to eat a banana from the player's box, and there will be a big fuss about that.
People will be watching, talking, because this is Wimbledon after all, and the pomp and the brackets are something special. Then in late August, there will be another surge of interest around here. Tourists and Long Islanders will flock to Flushing Meadows to smash attendance records at the U.S. Open and spend too much money on ice cream. Tennis will make some headlines again, briefly nudging its way into the sports dialogue.
But there are only these blips now, a few spikes of interest in a sport that is flatlining here in America. Everything that might have gone wrong, has gone wrong. Tennis is swamped by a swirling, perfect storm of events and personalities that have demoted the sport to minor niche status, forever on the prowl for the next nook or cranny. Like horse racing or boxing, tennis lives mostly on past glories and graying celebrities.
Going into Wimbledon this week, a reporter will be hard-pressed to find a tabloid audience for anyone but the six players who are the last, remaining poster tennis athletes: Serena, Venus, Sharapova, Federer, Roddick and Rafael Nadal.
Others don't make the final cut. James Blake has the personality, but not the portfolio. He can't win the big one, especially if it goes five sets. Justine Henin has the opposite problem. She's won six majors. She's tough as nails. She has gorgeous, sweeping strokes. But she has a pinched, unpleasant intensity about her, like an obsessed, sneering Lance Armstrong pedaling up the steepest Alp. Plus, she's Belgian.
The crisis can't be denied. For the Americans, it came to a head last month at the French Open, where the U.S. men went 0-9 in the first round, a collapse of unprecedented and historic proportion, even on the dreaded red clay of Roland Garros. "Hopefully, we'll get it back on grass," Blake said after the disaster. "I promise we won't have all (American) guys losing in the first round at Wimbledon."
He's surely right about that, but that is no guarantee of ultimate success. The only current U.S. singles players with major titles are the Williams sisters and Roddick. Among this trio, realistically, Serena may be the only one who will ever win another.
You want a short list of what went wrong with this sport, in this country? That list grows long in a hurry:
1. Federer and Nadal
These two dominant Europeans play splendid tennis, and are perfect foils. Federer is elegant and intuitive. Nadal is all about brute force and dogged patience. But they have effectively destroyed the Grand Slam dreams of all other players and fans. Roddick comes into Wimbledon seeded third, yet is an 8-to-1 underdog, according to posted odds. That is a sucker's bet, even after his most recent grass tournament title in Queens.
Roddick hasn't captured a major in nearly three years. Federer and Nadal have won the last nine majors between them. Even more demoralizing, there is a predictability to their mutually respectful rivalry. Until proven otherwise, Nadal wins on clay and Federer wins everywhere else. "I mean, he's been in the final of one Grand Slam this year and he won the other one without dropping a set," Roddick said of Federer in Queens. "I'd like to know where to sign up for that."
2. Title IX
Oh, the irony. This essential piece of gender-equity legislation has robbed tennis of its talent pool among top American women athletes, who now prefer to compete in team sports that lead to college scholarships.
Once, tennis was their only option, not particularly attractive. It was always a lonely life on tour, lacking teammates and a real future, filled with obsessive parents and cutthroat opponents. These days, universities offer women's soccer, lacrosse, softball, basketball and tennis at a less consuming level. They also provide an education that can lead to a lifelong career. That, however, leaves the pro reservoir bone dry.
3. Tiger Woods
Yes, Tiger is buddies with Federer. But Woods' emergence during the past decade catapulted golf way above tennis with the upscale ad markets and in the Nielsens. Just take a look at the coverage and ratings these days of Davis Cup and Ryder Cup events. It was quite the opposite not long ago.
4. Bad backs
The Baby Boomers long ago gave up tennis as their recreational activity of choice, in favor of golf. Tennis is just too hard on the vertebrae. The courts that were packed in the '70s and '80s are mostly empty now. And when fans stop playing the sport, that is just another reason to stop being fans.
5. John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors
We were all spoiled rotten by Junior's outsized personality, and his fierce, prickly rivalry with Jimbo. Surely, that will forever be the golden age of tennis in New York. Even Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Jim Courier couldn't compete with the nostalgic glow of that era. The players on tour today can't compete with the volatile egos of the past, and the new, automated Hawkeye system means the end of those beloved, videogenic meltdowns.
6. The future: USA vs. Serbia
Sad to say, little Serbia looks considerably stronger. Start with 20-year-old Novak Djokovic, who is ranked fifth in the world and considered a potential No. 1 player. Jelena Jankovic, 22, is ranked third among the women and Ana Ivanovic, 19, is No. 6 and was a French Open finalist. All three should be title contenders for the next five years.
By comparison, Roddick, 24, is No. 3, and Blake, 27, is No. 9. Both, arguably, have plateaued. Other U.S. men, such as Mardy Fish (No. 36) and Robby Ginepri (No. 45) have never taken that step up to the top level. After the Williams sisters, there are no promising young American women at all - unless you want to count the American-ish Russian, Sharapova. The best of the lot is a relatively tiny, 5-5 Californian named Vania King, 18, ranked No. 72.
Substantial outreach programs by the U.S. Tennis Association into inner cities have produced surprisingly few prospects. In recent interviews, former star Pam Shriver has called the women's tennis situation in America "frightening," "dark" and "grim," before finally declaring, "There's nobody there."
7. Agassi's retirement
This is only the second Wimbledon without Andre in the past decade, and the Vegas showman is missed terribly. Flighty and distracted, then focused and generous, Agassi was always a compelling figure capable of carrying an entire tournament. Near the end of his career, he became the story of the tournament every second day. That booster shot is gone.
8. The technology
More powerful rackets and reformulated strings have turned the men's game into something of an artless smack-a-thon, unless Federer is on the court. "A lot of it comes with the strings now," Roddick said. "I mean, guys can hit as hard as they can, they're still getting 10 feet of net clearance. It's just jumping."
9. We're tired of watching theWilliams sisters' biological clock
They never seem to be aware of the tick-tocking, but we are. Serena, 25, and Venus, 27, are running out of time. They have survived the death of their sister, a myriad of injuries and too many dalliances in the world of fashion. They've come away with a total of 13 major championships, nothing to sneeze at. But fans grew impatient with them, believing they should have fared even better with that talent. In 2006, they didn't win a single tournament, and it is frightening to think what will happen if Serena can no longer pull off these amazing reinventions every so often.
10. We just don't have the time to watch
Like baseball, tennis is hurt by the sheer length of its matches. In an age of instant gratification, U.S. spectators and viewers simply don't have the concentration span any longer for three- or four-hour matches. Then, too, the biggest matches at the biggest tournament, Wimbledon, happen early in the morning, Eastern time. "Breakfast at Wimbledon" sounds nice in theory, but never in the ratings.
All in all, it is a bleak picture for the sport in America, which awaits a fresh-faced savior of either gender. Only those need apply who are spoiled rotten, crazy competitive and endearingly vulnerable.
A 150-mph serve wouldn't hurt, either.