Opening Volley

Tennis courts new players to reverse its losing streak.

The biggest news in men's professional tennis recently occurred over a two-week span and involved a single player. Andre Agassi, whose bald head, startled expression and thick brows make him the world's most recognizable American men's player, lost in the first round of the Grand Prix Hassan II, a minor tournament held in Casablanca, to a player with a world ranking only slightly higher than the Scrabble points his name would earn. Nenad Zimonjic of Serbia, 339th in the world, has never won a pro tournament. Then, this past Monday, in the opening round of the French Open, Agassi lost again, in straight sets, to an unknown Frenchman playing his first match on the pro tour.

Agassi will win again. But the loss is one more sign that the 34-year-old native of Las Vegas, who has been playing professional tennis for more than half his life, will be looking for new work on the master's and exhibition circuits sooner rather than later. And that's another piece of bad news for the game of tennis. With his celebrity marriage to Steffi Graf, his high-profile endorsements, engaging personality and multiple career resurrections, Agassi is the last of a dying breed in tennis: the interesting men's player.

Evidence? A couple of weeks ago, Sports Illustrated calculated which athletes earned the most money every year. It is telling that, of the top fifty, only Agassi, at No. 8, hails from men's tennis. Two other American tennis players made the list, but no other men. The Williams sisters -- Serena at No. 23 and Venus at No. 41 -- were more marketable than any other U.S. man.

This is hardly news to the alphabet soup of organizations responsible for the sport's welfare, and earlier this month, the United States Tennis Association, the largest of the groups, announced that it wasn't going to wait for any more bad news. The USTA declared that it will spend $10 million on a new marketing blitz designed to attract people to tennis. More than 3,000 tennis facilities nationally -- and about forty in the Denver metro area -- have been designated "Tennis Welcome Centers," places (even private clubs) that will allow anyone to walk in and play, usually at cut rates.

The campaign faces an uphill battle, however. The truth is that tennis has been on a losing streak for a generation, and the game has suffered plenty of glitches since the glory days of Jimmy Carter and disco.

With the development of ever larger and more powerful racquets, the men's game, especially, has become excruciatingly boring to watch, an entire football game of off-tackle runs. Gone are the days when long rallies and skillful shot combinations earned points. Today you're more likely to see a blazing service ace (140 mph!?), a quick winner blasting past a slower opponent, or an early error than you are a series of well-played strokes. The result: At its top level, men's tennis is unrecognizable to the weekend player. Never has the gap between the game played by the pros and that played by the club player been greater.

The top players, too, are bland machines, their rough edges honed into hospital corners by PR professionals fearful of damaging lucrative endorsement opportunities. Interchangeable boys barely beyond their teens, they try to stand out by substituting style for personality. Making distinctions even more difficult is the fact that no single player since Pete Sampras retired has been able to dominate the game. The No. 1 designation switches monthly (and, on occasion, even weekly). Compelling and ongoing rivalries such as those forged two decades by McEnroe, Borg, Connors, Nastase and Lendl are non-existent.

The lethargy at the top has had a trickle-down effect, and in recent years the game has withered. In the past decade, says the National Sporting Goods Association, tennis has been a loser. The number of players has plunged 42 percent, according to the NSGA, and apparel sales have dropped off 31 percent over the same time period. Ball sales are dead.

The USTA has worked overtime refuting manufacturers' claims, reporting optimistically that 24 million people played tennis last year, up from 20 million in 1995. But the numbers don't hold up under inspection. For instance, of those 24 million, only four and a half million describe themselves as frequent players -- nearly a million less than in 1995. More people may be trying tennis -- but they're giving it up quickly, too.

In many ways, tennis is a game stuck in a time warp. It is still overwhelmingly white (85 percent of new players) and, increasingly, old. In 1995, 8 percent of all players were over the age of fifty. Today, one in five frequent players is over that hill, a doddering gang of lobbers and dinkers. The hottest new court surface is one similar to those used on tracks -- spongy and forgiving, to inspire slower rallies and to coddle aging limbs.

Locally, the problem is similar. In 1993, the Colorado Tennis Association reported 19,500 members. By 1998 that number had dropped to 17,800. Although it has rebounded since then to about the same levels as a decade ago, and league participation is strong, the demographics remain more Highlands Ranch than Park Hill.

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